Indy launches tenant advocate program as eviction moratorium ends

A new tenant advocate program will put a housing liaison in every small claims court in Marion County during an expected surge in evictions, Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration announced Thursday.

The national moratorium on evictions is set to expire Saturday, allowing landlords to move forward with thousands of eviction filings already in the court system and to progress with new ones.

“Every tenant deserves the right to legal representation,” Hogsett said in a statement. “These programs bridge the gap between tenants and a system that is often seen as intimidating and stressful. While the federal eviction moratorium may be expiring, the effects of the pandemic are unfortunately not going away soon, and these efforts are more critical than ever to reduce strain on both landlords and tenants.”

The one-year pilot is in collaboration with Indiana Legal Services, the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society.

Housing advocates, including pro bono attorneys and law students, from all three organizations will provide legal advice and mediation and negotiation services, as well as connect clients to other eviction or rent help programs, said Matt Giffin, a deputy corporation counsel and formerly the interim director for Indy’s Office of Public Health and Safety.

“Typically, approximately 3% of tenants are represented when they come to our courts, and then about 81% of the landlords are represented when they come to our court,” Lawrence Township Judge Kimberly Bacon said at a news conference. “So by creating this program, we are hopeful that not only does it allow for tenants to … present their arguments in a more factual way that will allow agreements, [but] what we have seen around the country and in other states is that typically about 60% or more of the cases get resolved when both sides have advocacy.”

The pilot is already underway in Lawrence and Warren Townships, according to Tracy Pappas, managing attorney at Indiana Legal Services, whose organization will be handling those two townships.

The program is set to expand to the rest of Indianapolis’ townships next week, Giffin said. The Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic will take on Washington and potentially Center townships, while the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society will tackle Pike, Wayne and Decatur, he added.

It’s being funded with an estimated $800,000 to $900,000 from the federal American Rescue Plan money allotted to Indianapolis, according to Giffin.

Indiana instituted its own moratorium in 2020, lasting from mid-March to mid-August and sending eviction filings down to almost zero in Marion County, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. They shot up in the gap before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control established its own in September but have remained lower since. Still, more than 200 filings were made in the last week alone.

The Biden administration signaled Thursday that it would let the CDC moratorium expire, arguing that a June U.S. Supreme Court decision had placed the onus for action on Congress.

“President Biden would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC to further extend this eviction moratorium to protect renters at this moment of heightened vulnerability,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a statement. “… In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the President calls on Congress to extend the eviction moratorium to protect such vulnerable renters and their families without delay.”

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