Indy mayoral candidates want state law to better protect tenants

The major party candidates for Indianapolis mayor say they want to see changes in the state’s eviction laws that could help prevent some people from becoming homeless.

Democratic incumbent Joe Hogsett and Republican state Sen. Jim Merritt participated in a discussion about homelessness at the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention annual fundraiser and awards presentation on Wednesday evening.

According to CHIP’s 2019 point-in-time count, which captured the number of individuals experiencing homelessness on one night in January, 1,567 individuals were homeless in Indianapolis. That’s a 7% decrease from 2018, and community leaders are hopeful that trend continues next year.

In response to a question specifically about how they would help reduce evictions, which are one of several factors that contribute to homelessness, Hogsett and Merritt talked about improving protections for tenants at the state level.

Marion County accounts for 40% of the evictions in the state, even though only 14% of Hoosiers live in the county, according to research from the Indiana Public Policy Institute.

Merritt said the 10-day notice landlords are required to give tenants before evicting them is too short. He said as mayor he would work to change that law.

Hogsett said he sees several gaps in the state’s landlord/tenant laws. Among them: a written lease is not required and tenants can’t withhold a rent payment if the landlord hasn’t addressed major issues like nonworking utilities or roofs leaking. “State law today is unfavorable to tenants,” Hogsett said.

Hogsett said two bills that would have started to improve the laws for tenants were filed at the Indiana General Assembly during the 2019 legislative session, but neither moved forward. Merritt did not author either bill.

On the city level, Hogsett said he wants to create an eviction prevention fund by next year to support those who need legal representation or rental assistance. The fund needs approval from the Indianapolis City-County Council. Earlier this year, Hogsett, along with the Central Indiana Community Foundation, announced a $4 million Housing to Recovery fund to provide wraparound services to formerly homeless residents.

The mayoral candidates also discussed how they would address homelessness among minority and veteran communities. According to CHIP data, 61% of the city’s homeless individuals are black and 17% are veterans.

Merritt said he will address that issue in a black agenda his campaign plans to release within the next couple weeks, and he would work with CHIP and veteran associations to find a solution.

“No one should live in a cardboard box, especially a veteran,” Merritt said.

Merritt also said he would create a commission on homelessness that would include individuals who have previously been homeless, medical professionals, law enforcement and business leaders.

“I will run toward the challenge,” Merritt said. “It will be a priority to me.”

Hogsett said the racial disparities in the homelessness problem need to be solved by dealing with criminal justice reform, and he hopes the expanded transit services and his inclusive economic growth strategy will also help that.

On homeless veterans, Hogsett said cited data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that shows 78 cities and three states have found ways to effectively end veteran homelessness, so he thinks Indianapolis also can tackle the issue.

“It can be done, and it must be done,” Hogsett said.

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