City, partners push forward with renter support despite setbacks

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Indianapolis has long struggled to rein in dilapidated housing complexes owned by absentee, typically out-of-state, landlords. It’s slogging through lengthy lawsuits with the owners of multiple troubled properties, and officials say there’s another filing ready to go unless a new owner takes over an infamously rundown complex.

A pair of state-level moves in landlord-friendly Indiana — a 2020 law and a 2018 legal opinion — also are hampering attempts to protect renters, city officials say. Instead, they’re turning to a “test case” nuisance lawsuit and funding a range of programs to tackle persistent challenges with habitability, affordability and legal aid for tenants.

In 2020, lawmakers at the Republican-dominated Statehouse passed Senate Enrolled Act 148, which bans municipalities from regulating most aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship, over Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto. The law invalidated much of a city ordinance passed less than a year earlier by the Democrat-controlled City-County Council.

“Unceremoniously, right after we passed it, the General Assembly took that authority away from us,” said Community Development Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett.

Now, city officials, not-for-profits and some state legislators are taking other tacks — with mixed results thus far. But, advocates say, the multipronged approach is crucial.

“You can’t decouple evictions and eviction prevention from habitability and the issue of housing overall,” Bennett said. “We are dealing with a shortage of affordable housing overall, and within that shortage of affordable housing, not every unit that’s affordable is habitable.”

Whatever works could endure as caselaw, state law or a standing local initiative.

Indy in court

Indianapolis has pressed pause on its latest crackdown.

Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration threatened in late January to file a nuisance lawsuit against Fox Lake AFH, the not-for-profit owner of the dilapidated Lakeside Pointe at Nora, after an attempt by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita failed.

City officials and the Health & Hospital Corporation of Marion County plan to file a lawsuit under Indiana’s nuisance statute, in what leaders have called a “test case” for a 2018 interpretation of state law.

Senate Enrolled Act 558, passed in 2017, doesn’t let municipalities punish property owners or tenants for calling 911 in a range of circumstances. A 2018 Court of Appeals of Indiana interpretation of the law went further by limiting local governments’ ability to use emergency calls as proof that a landlord is negligent.

Lakeside Pointe residents, who include refugee placements, have reported a dozen fires within the last year, raw sewage leaks and going weeks without hot water, air conditioning and heating, among other complaints. Fox Lake owes more than $225,000 for the 600-plus housing code violations the complex at 9000 N. College Ave. has racked up since 2017, according to the city.

By early February, the lawsuit was on hold, with officials citing an interested, nonlocal not-for-profit buyer. But Bennett and Deputy Corporation Counsel Matt Giffin emphasized that the delay was a courtesy and said the lawsuit was “almost entirely ready.”

The effort comes as Indianapolis remains entangled in yearslong legal battles with the groups behind the former Oaktree Apartments and condominium complex Towne & Terrace, both near East 42nd Street and Post Road.

But other initiatives to help renters are underway.

Funding solutions

Indianapolis officials and a network of community organizations began planning a citywide rental assistance program within months of the pandemic. IndyRent launched in July 2020 and has since disbursed more than $97 million in rent payments, Bennett said, generally directly to applicants’ landlords.

IndyRent has been praised for the sheer amount of money it’s pumped out — it’s now averaging $10 million a month, according to Bennett — but has also been dogged by complaints that the funds have been slow to hit landlords’ pockets or that some landlords refused to accept the payments altogether.

And tenants in eviction court can encounter vastly different outcomes based on their judge’s approach to IndyRent.

City officials say they’ve tried to curb information gaps that could lead to confusion or skepticism about the program among judges. That includes weekly phone conferences, Giffin said, plus some technology help.

IndyRent gave the courts access to its system, so court employees can look up a tenant’s application status, according to Bennett. He said the team is also connecting the courts’ database with an IndyRent database to “make it easier for courts to understand who’s applied, who hasn’t applied, who’s been approved and who’s been denied.”

Lawrence and Warren townships are even processing IndyRent applications in the same buildings as the courtrooms and have been since December. Through late January, on-site applicants had landed about $250,000 in assistance, Bennett said. Washington Township is next.

And less than six months ago, Indianapolis launched its pilot Tenant Advocate Program, tripling its efforts to get renters — who typically go to eviction court without legal representation — more support.

Attorneys from Indiana Legal Services, the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society and the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic offer tenants at eviction courts on-the-spot legal advice. They’re in eight of the nine township courts, with only Decatur remaining.

The initiative, officials said at the July launch, is being funded with an estimated $800,000 to $900,000 from the city’s $419 million federal American Rescue Plan allotment.

“When the city is this blocked from providing renters some basic legal protections through an ordinance or other policy, then doing it through funding is very important,” said Andy Beck, with whom the city has a contract to run the program. “That’s the way to get it done.”

The program had served about 850 people by early February, according to the Office of Public Health and Safety. But it’s too sparsely staffed to cover every eviction case, Beck said.

To spread the workload, the program is bringing tenant “navigators” on board to perform administrative, intake-style tasks for tenants and free up the attorneys, he said.

Still, it’s unclear how much the last-minute legal advice changes outcomes for tenants, because the program only records detailed data for cases that lawyers take on for limited or longer-term representation. That data wasn’t immediately available.

An older program, called the Tenant Legal Assistance Project, similarly seeks to connect tenants who say their units aren’t safe and livable with pro bono legal representation for civil claims against landlords. The associated hotline has gotten more than 2,250 calls since it opened in July 2020, according to the Office of Public Health and Safety, or about four a day.

And Indianapolis also financially supports Indiana Legal Services’ Eviction Avoidance Program, which has offered legal help to renters facing eviction since 2018.

Legislative prospects

Results at the Statehouse, especially those driven by Democratic legislators from Marion County, have been even more mixed.

Indianapolis’ bid to seek legal clarification on Indiana’s nuisance law was a two-track attempt.

Senate Bill 230 was authored by Democratic Sen. Fady Qaddoura, whose district includes the troublesome Lakeside Pointe property. That bill initially would have let municipalities bring nuisance actions against the responsible party and allowed tenants to withhold rent to pay for repairs landlords didn’t make. But it was gutted and amended in January to send the concept to a summer study committee to examine which entities have jurisdiction.

“The discussion between [Local Government Committee Chair and Republican Sen.] Jim Buck and myself over many, many months has been: Whose jurisdiction applies? Who has the power to act as quickly as possible?” Qaddoura said. “… When the chair discovered that there are nuances and differences of legal opinions within the legal community about whose jurisdiction applies” and given the extra-short legislative session, Buck felt it required further study.

Not every summer study committee bill ends up being approved, but those that are picked for study typically give rise to recommendations for legislation. Qaddoura said he was hopeful, noting Buck was “moved and frustrated” when shown pictures of Lakeside Pointe. Buck declined to give an interview to the Indianapolis Business Journal or comment about the bill.

Other legislative efforts failed after not getting committee hearings. Among them were House Bills 1277 and 1400, which would have repealed the 2017 law and let local governments take nuisance actions, respectively. Democratic Rep. Justin Moed, the bills’ author, said they were initially inspired by a similar Fox Lake property on the city’s south side called Fox Club; it’s within his District 97 boundaries.

House Bill 1397 — authored by Democratic Rep. Renee Pack, who represents much of Indianapolis’ west side, including Speedway — would’ve banned landlords from discriminating based on a tenant’s source of income, including housing assistance payments — like those from IndyRent. It also died when it failed to get a committee hearing.

“It’s disappointing the lack of housing bills, given the pandemic that we are coming out of, but [the] Indiana General Assembly has clearly chosen some other topics to spend their time on, and that’s what they’re doing,” said Amy Nelson, leader of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, an anti-housing-discrimination not-for-profit.

One tenant-related bill has survived the session so far.

Republican Rep. Ethan Manning’s House Bill 1214 makes it easier for tenants to get eviction filings sealed and harder for entities to collect such data.

Eviction filings can have long-ranging consequences for tenants, even when tenants win their cases or the filing doesn’t otherwise result in actual evictions, because the filings still show up on records when landlords run background checks.

Still, housing advocates say it’s a mixed bag. Tucked in among the eviction language is a measure that would ban mandatory eviction “diversion” or mediation programs.

Indianapolis officials, meanwhile, are hoping to turn American Rescue Plan-funded initiatives, like IndyRent and the Tenant Advocate Program, into permanent fixtures in the city’s renter support system.

“We all kind of knew that, as soon as [the state and federal eviction moratoriums] sun-setted, there was going to be a lot of delayed pain that we were going to have to deal with as a legal system and as a local government,” Giffin said. “… I hope that at the state level and locally … we can kind of seize that moment and make some changes that are long overdue.”•

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