Housing amendment that would bar local ordinances protested at Legislature

Pushing what legislators have so far not been able to stop, housing advocates arrived at the Statehouse Monday hoping to derail an amendment that opponents say would not only further disadvantage Indiana renters but also possibly preempt cities from regulating rental properties.

The Protect Hoosier Renters press conference brought representatives from the medical, legal, housing, civil-rights and religious sectors of Indiana to protest language that is now attached to Senate Bill 148.   Community leaders spoke against the amendment while a small crowd held signs that read “Give Tenants an Equal Voice” and “Vote no to SB 148.”

“We’re speaking out against legislation that favors landlords’ rights overwhelming over tenants’ rights at a time when Indiana is already seeing an eviction crisis fueled by affordability and habitability concerns,” said Jessica Love, executive director for Prosperity Indiana.

In addition to protesting the language contained in what Love described as the “surprise, last-minute amendment,” the group was also objecting to the way the amendment was introduced and approved. The advocates assert the process has not allowed for public input and legislative debate that typically occurs when “such sweeping changes” are introduced.

Hours before the city of Indianapolis passed an ordinance protecting tenants’ rights, the controversial amendment was presented to the House Committee on the Judiciary. At that time, it was being attached to Senate Bill 340, a measure authored by Sens. Victoria Spartz and Eric Koch that focused on condemnation and eminent domain.

The language was proposed by Brian Spaulding, vice president of government affairs at the Indiana Apartment Association. Also supported by the Indiana Affordable Housing Coalition and the Indiana Builders Association, the amendment was described as preventing a patchwork of tenant regulations that vary from community to community across the state.

Having different regulations increases costs and creates confusion for landlords and tenants, Spaulding told the committee.

Ryan Mann, city of Indianapolis chief policy officer for the departments of business and neighborhood services and of metropolitan development, urged the committee 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.

The committee passed the amended bill on a 9-2 vote.

The Indianapolis ordinance included provisions that required landlords to give notices to tenants of their rights and responsibilities. Also, the ordinance prohibited landlords from taking retaliatory action, such as filing for eviction or raising rent, on tenants who report a violation.

In contrast, the amendment bans municipalities regulating certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship. Individual communities could not implement mandates on the lease terms and conditions, and fees charged by a landlord or require any disclosures such as giving tenants notification of their rights and responsibilities.

For Indianapolis landlords who retaliate against tenants, the city’s ordinance imposes fines starting at $2,500.

The amendment puts the burden on the tenant to prove the landlord took retaliatory action. If a court agrees the landlord has retaliated, the tenant is entitled to one month’s rent, but if the court finds against the tenant, the landlord is entitled to recover actual damages and attorney fees.

Brian Copes, president and CEO of Helping Veterans and Families, spoke at the protest about the hardships some tenants face. He noted while many landlords are upstanding, bad actors can inflict lasting harm on renters.

Copes recounted the story of one veteran who complained to her landlord of a roach infestation. The landlord retaliated, Copes said, by setting up traps and spraying around the tenant’s bed. Another veteran was threatened with eviction after he notified the health department that an abandoned car left on the property by the landlord became a home to raccoons.

On a largely party-line vote, SB 340 was passed out of the House but through legislative maneuvering, the amendment was stripped out and transferred 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 Thursday. After taking testimony from only two people, the Syracuse Republican immediately gaveled the committee in recess.

The Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic takes no position on any legislation, but Chase Haller, interim executive director of the Clinic, spoke at the protest, asking legislators to “render just decisions for the people.”

He pointed out that housing stability is a foundation to thriving families. Stable housing gives workers a better chance of keeping their jobs, enables children to perform better in school and allows the elderly to afford medication and nutritious foods.

“Many landlords and property owners do things the right way for the right reasons,” Haller said. “Some of them do it solely for profit and they are grinding their heels on the poor. They do not need your protection. Working people do.”

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