In the rising tide of eviction filings in Indiana, the Wayne Township Small Claims Court in Indianapolis is waterfront property.
Every Thursday morning, renters, property owners and lawyers flow into the windowless courtroom for the steady wave of possession and damages hearings that fill the docket. Tenants tell their sides of the story, but if they are behind on their rent payments, they are usually given a date to vacate and a date to return to court to assess if they owe any additional money to their landlords.
Indianapolis Legal Aid Society attorneys Deetta Steinmetz and Emily Browning have been going to Wayne Township weekly since early August to provide advice and a sympathetic ear to the individuals who are being evicted. The attorneys said many of the tenants are confused by the process and are unaware of the rights they have.
“I just think housing is such a fundamental right and we remove it pretty speedily,” Browning said. “There’s so many situations where I feel like the law should give the judges a little bit more discretion to allow a little bit more time.”
Despite how quickly a vacate order can be handed down, the court opened one recent Thursday on a sleepy note.
Plaintiffs and defendants filled the plastic chairs socially distanced around the courtroom. A video explaining how the small claims court works played on an endless loop, but many people were paying more attention to their phones.
Steinmetz walked to the front, introduced herself and told the group she and Browning were available if any tenants wanted to discuss their evictions. The attorneys had set up their operations in a cubical and a conference room outside the courtroom.
The pair have heard many stories from tenants struggling to stay under a roof. They recalled one tenant living in a shed while another talked about getting a rodent tangled in her hair in an infested rental property.
A woman who was at the bus stop at 4:45 each morning so she could be at work by 7:30 had still fallen behind in rent and “just wanted a little mercy.” Steinmetz and Browning were able to help the woman convince the court to give her seven days to move out.
“The ones that get to me are the ones that … have had thing after thing and have done everything humanly possible. … They‘re just such lovely people that it just kills you,” Steinmetz said. “There have been days where it’s like, I am broken from this.”
Property owner and member of the Indiana Property Rights Alliance Laura Guy disputed the common notion that landlords are determined to evict their tenants. In fact, Guy, who was not at the Wayne Township court, attributed the increase in eviction petitions to the backlog that was created when the state and federal moratoriums stopped the process.
She maintained landlords do not want to push their renters on to the street. The property owners do not want to pay the filing fee and then end up with a vacant unit for which they have to find a tenant, she said.
“The fear that there’s just going to be this wave of evictions, I think, is just unrealistic and not true,” Guy said. “A tenant that’s going to destroy your property is the number one thing (a landlord) doesn’t want. And the second worst thing no landlord wants is a vacant property.”
Billy Dyer’s landlord wants him and his wife to leave.
The Indianapolis resident appeared in the small claims court and told the judge he had gotten emergency rental assistance money and would be able to cover his arrears. However, the property owner just shrugged and the judge ordered Dyer and his wife to vacate their mobile home by Oct. 11.
Since the hearing, Dyer has been preparing for the knock on his front door by the local sheriff seeking to take possession of the property. He said he and his wife may have to spend a couple nights in his truck until his disability check arrives so they can settle into a hotel room that can be rented by the week.
“I’ve just got to figure this out,” he said.•