Underscoring that money is the root cause of the state’s eviction problem, the Indiana Eviction Task Force has focused its final report on the federal rental assistance funding that is still available and has made recommendations for ways to educate and encourage tenants and landlords to access the financial help.
“Our goal was to make sure the money got to the appropriate hands, and I think our guidelines are helping get to that point,” Court of Appeals of Indiana Judge Robert Altice said.
Altice chaired the task, which was created in September 2021. At that time, the COVID-related eviction moratoriums were ending and fears were rising that many families would be losing their homes.
The report notes that 50,725 eviction petitions were filed in Indiana in 2021, with Marion, Lake and Allen counties filling the top three spots, respectively, of the counties with the most filings.
Also, in the two rounds of emergency rental assistance provided by the federal government as part of the COVID-19 relief packages, the report highlighted that the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority has $582.78 million still available.
To prevent and reduce evictions, the task force made two recommendations in its final report that provide opportunities for the parties to tap into rental assistance dollars. Although the report was completed in January, the Indiana Supreme Court did not release it to the public until late April.
The first recommendation called for clarifying some elements of the pre-eviction diversion program, while the second recommendation suggested an initial hearing be inserted into the beginning of the eviction process. Both recommendations are presented as ways to help tenants and landlords learn about and access the resources available, including legal services and rental assistance.
In response to the task force’s interim report issued in October, the Supreme Court ordered the implementation of a pre-eviction diversion program. The program was designed to give parties information about the resources available and how to access those resources, opening up the possibility that the tenant and landlord could reach an agreement, thus avoiding an eviction.
The final report advises that the parties should be told that the 90 days allotted for the diversion program is the maximum time limit, and that period can be shortened. In addition, the program should enable the parties to reach informal agreements and should emphasize the need for both parties to “actively work” in accessing the resources available.
Not in the report is the call to mandate that tenants and landlords participate in the diversion program. Altice said the task force did discuss making the program mandatory but concluded any such requirement should be made by the Indiana General Assembly.
“I think it’s just completely different when you’re talking about people’s property and making things like this mandatory,” Altice said. “I think it’s more properly put before the Legislature as opposed to the courts.”
The report states the diversion program logged just 127 cases between Nov. 1, 2021, and Jan. 13, 2022.
“The diversion program is not the cure-all,” Altice said. “It’s kind of that last-ditch effort to let the parties know we have this program, we have this money.”
Within the court process itself, the task force advocated for the first hearing in the eviction proceeding to be an initial hearing during which tenants and landlords could be given information about the rental assistance and forms of help.
The task force described the initial hearing as improving court processes and procedures. Altice said his group saw that different courts were handling eviction matters differently, so adding an initial hearing was believed to be a way to prevent forum shopping.
“The other thing is, our hopes are that we get more tenants that will show up for those hearings,” Altice added. “To this day, people just don’t show up when they get an eviction notice. So by telling them, ‘Hey, this is an initial hearing only,’ it gets them to court to court and we can explain our diversion program to them and see if we can get both parties to agree to participate.”
Although the release of the task force’s interim report was followed by an order, the Supreme Court has so far not followed the release of the final report with any orders or announcements. The Supreme Court did tell Indiana Lawyer that the Office of Judicial Administration has been directed “to continue to support the implementation of best practices and identify opportunities to incorporate the recommendations outlined in the report.”
While the Supreme Court and the Legislature continue examining the problem of evictions and poor housing, Altice again pointed out that rental assistance funding is available and will continue to be there for another year or so.
Looking further into the future, Altice acknowledged, “I don’t know what happens when the money runs out.”