Hogsett unveils tenant protection initiative, aims to cut down evictions

Indianapolis is making a move to crack down on bad landlords.

Mayor Joe Hogsett on Wednesday announced a new city tenant protection and legal assistance initiative that is expected to increase resources for Indianapolis residents dealing with housing challenges that include substandard living conditions, eviction and retaliatory actions by “bad-actor” landlords.

Indianapolis has the second-highest number of evictions in the country, behind only New York, according to Princeton University database evictionlabs.org, and the state is one of only a few that doesn’t have an anti-retaliation law that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants after they complain about poor living conditions and other problems.

Under Hogsett’s proposed initiative, $250,000 of new funding would be allocated toward increasing resources for tenants. The city will work in partnership with Indiana Legal Services, a not-for-profit legal organization that provides free civil legal assistance to eligible low-income residents throughout Indiana.

The initiative, which is multifaceted, proposes the following:

  • Require all landlords to provide tenants a “Notice of Tenant Rights and Responsibilities.” Landlords who fail to provide tenants with the notice would face a $500 city fine. Ideally, landlords would provide the notice to tenants upon executing a lease, a city spokesperson told IBJ;
  • Launch a Tenant Information Hotline, which will serve as a streamlined point of contact for tenants seeking information or advice;
  • Create the Tenant Legal Assistance Project to connect tenants with pro bono legal representation for civil claims against landlords who have violated tenants’ rights to safe, livable housing. The assistance project would be managed by Indiana Legal Services, and the Indianapolis and Marion County Bar Associations would work to recruit attorneys to serve as legal representation;
  • Provide additional financial support for Indiana Legal Services’ Eviction Avoidance Project, which provides tenants with consultations, and when appropriate, free legal representation in eviction cases, and;
  • Implement a new tenant protection ordinance that would penalize landlords if they take an adverse action against a tenant in retaliation for the tenant exercising their rights, such as seeking a health department inspection, calling the Tenant Information Hotline or seeking legal assistance. The ordinance, which would need to be approved by the City-County Council, would penalize landlords $2,500 for a violation and $7,500 for repeat violations.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Hogsett said the city has seen too many stories of fraud or abuse or negligence on the part of property owners and landlords in Indianapolis.

“To be clear, the villains here are not the many responsible landowners and property owners throughout our city,” Hogsett said. “Rather, those few who have failed to hold up their end of the bargain.”

Those failures have left some tenants without electricity, heat or running water, he said.

Hogsett said he doesn’t want Indianapolis to be distinguished for its high number of evictions, which can be devastating to families. Evictions can prevent people from being able to rent in the future and can lead to job losses.

In 2016, there were 11,570 evictions in Indianapolis, according to evictionlabs.org. That’s far more than in Chicago, which saw fewer than 7,000 evictions that year despite its much larger population.

“For someone who is already on the edge of poverty, an eviction can be the final shove,” Hogsett said. “It is costly for landlords, and it is devastating for too many families.”

The funding for the project comes from excess revenue, said Hogsett’s deputy chief of staff Taylor Schaffer.

The plan will be presented to the City-County Council later this month. If approved, the Tenant Information Hotline and the Tenant Legal Assistance Project would launch this spring.

Hogsett called the initiative a “first step” in providing the resources necessary to protect and assist Indianapolis tenants.

The proposal drew praise from the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, which called it a “drastically needed housing effort.”

“I am incredibly proud of our city for taking this bold step forward by publicly showing its support,” Amy Nelson, executive director of the FHCCI, said in written comments. “I also appreciate Mayor Hogsett’s comments that this is the start of a broader conversation about housing needs. Thank you to the city for being a state leader in this arena.”

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