Housing advocates say legislation puts tenants at risk

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Although the legislative session has ended, a Statehouse battle is continuing as opponents of a last-minute amendment that they assert will further disadvantage tenants and renters are lobbying the governor to issue a veto.

Housing rights groups, religious organizations, a wealth of nonprofits who serve people in need and legal aid providers, along with municipalities across Indiana, are all part of an effort to stop Senate Bill 148, which now contains the controversial amendment. The opposition organized quickly and held a rally at the Statehouse in the closing days of the session to bring attention to their concerns.

Mark Russell, director of advocacy and family services at the Indianapolis Urban League, likened the amendment to apartheid. He said the provisions now attached to the bill were creating second-class citizens with renters not enjoying the same level of relief as landlords.

“There’s an inherent inequity in the bill which is very disturbing,” Russell said.

Despite a bipartisan coalition voting no, SB 148, with the controversial amendment, passed and is now before Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Following the passage of SB 148, the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana sent an email to other housing advocates, urging them to contact Holcomb and demand a veto. The email highlighted not only the concerns over the provisions in the amendment but also questioned the legislative process that prevented stakeholders from giving input.

Opponents contend Indiana housing laws already favor landlords, and the language in SB 148 will only enhance property owners’ ability to offer uninhabitable housing and evict tenants who complain.

In addition, the scope of the bill is uncertain, with housing advocates and some legislators raising concerns the bill could limit city ordinances already in place that relate to landlord registries or health and safety inspections. The bill may even apply to ordinances that provide housing discrimination protections that go beyond federal and state law.

“Tenants can’t hire a lobby,” Russell said, noting renters do not have the same power to advocate as property owners. “It is fundamentally unfair for people who are paying rent, many who are poor, struggling, working two jobs, not to have equity before the courts.”

The amendment was originally inserted into Senate Bill 340 hours before the city of Indianapolis passed an ordinance designed to protect tenants’ rights. Brian Spaulding, vice president of government affairs at the Indiana Apartment Association, proposed the provision, saying having a law would prevent a patchwork of tenant regulations that vary from community to community across the state.

Having different regulations increases costs and creates confusion for both landlords and tenants, Spaulding told lawmakers.

Ryan Mann, city of Indianapolis chief policy officer for the departments of Business and Neighborhood Services and of Metropolitan Development, urged lawmakers to hit pause. He described the amendment as an “eleventh-hour shot from the hip” to stop the Indianapolis ordinance that provides some balance to state law that currently favors landlords.

To put something so expansive into state law at the last minute, Mann said, would set a dangerous tone.

Once SB 340 was passed out of the House, legislative maneuvering transferred the amendment to Senate Bill 148, which focuses on manufactured homes.

Sen. Blake Doriot, one of the authors of SB 148, chaired the Senate Conference Committee that heard the amendment March 5. After taking testimony from only two people, the Syracuse Republican immediately gaveled the committee into recess.

After SB 148 was passed by both chambers March 11, the Indiana Apartment Association issued a statement reiterating its support of the measure.

“The legislation as passed provides a new statewide protection for tenants that has not been previously available,” the association said. “This statewide protection will give actual relief to a tenant who has been wrongfully evicted unlike the Indianapolis ordinance that directed the money back to the city. Cities across the state are still able to expand legal services and resources to residents in need much like Indianapolis is doing.”

Mike Chapuran, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis, emphasized the amendment could potentially heighten the retaliation many tenants already face.

Chapuran recounted stories of families his nonprofit has helped who lost their housing after they complained. One single mother finally turned to the health department for help after her child got burned because the landlord did not put covers on the baseboard heaters. Another family moved out of their rental home when the utilities got turned off because the landlord refused to pay the bill. Then the landlord changed the locks and filed an eviction.

Senate Bill 148 does not appear likely to alleviate the problems housing advocates are seeing, but Chapuran noted a silver lining in the situation. Through the fight against the amendment, almost 300 agencies started building relationships with each other around tenants’ rights.

“I’m optimistic about the future,” he said. “It’s not a short journey but a hopeful one.”•

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