Kris Kazmierczak, Katz Korin Cunningham PC
Jeff Heck, who currently serves as the Pro Bono Project Director at Indiana Legal Services (ILS) Inc., recently highlighted the backlog and avalanche of new eviction filings in Marion County and across Indiana. A high number of evictions and tenants who cannot afford to pay rent, let alone hire an attorney, is not a new development in Indiana. The eviction problem, however, has been vastly multiplied as one of the consequences of COVID-19. Jeff and his ILS staff have devoted countless hours in the past several months to staff and be available to provide pro bono legal services on an immediate and as-needed basis for tenants on the fringe of being evicted. Dockets have swelled to more than 125 eviction cases on average per week in some of the Marion County Township Courts. As a result, demand has increased for immediate pro bono volunteers to help with this eviction crisis.
Although efforts were well underway years ago to address ongoing issues with evictions in Marion County, including making pro bono legal services available to tenants, those efforts received a boost during the last few months in both funding and wider attention and recognition. In September 2021, the Indiana Supreme Court established the Indiana Eviction Task Force to outline a state-wide pre-eviction diversion program and the distribution of emergency rental assistance to landlords and tenants. This initiative advanced what began during the summer of 2020 when the Landlord and Tenant Settlement Conference Program was formed out of a partnership between the Indiana Supreme Court, Indiana Bar Foundation and the Governor’s Office. The initial phase focused on providing landlords and tenants with neutral facilitators to find viable resolutions and access to resources, at no cost to either party, even without filing an eviction case.
As of the date of this article, there are three options set out to assist tenants in dealing with eviction, including: (1) requesting rent assistance, (2) pre- or post-lawsuit Fast-Track Facilitation, and (3) Pre-Eviction Diversion Program. Further description of these options can be found at in.gov/courts/housing. According to the webpage, if the tenant and landlord agreed to participate in the diversion program, the case is marked as confidential and stayed for 90 days. Also, federally funded emergency rental assistance funds have been funneled to Indiana with the first tranche of those funds being available for distribution through Sept. 30, 2022, and a second phase extending through Sept. 30, 2025. According to the Task Force’s Interim Report, as of late September 2021, Marion County received rent assistance funds of $28.8 million. That same month the number of eviction case filings was over 5,100 cases – the highest it has been since the beginning of the year. Cases had averaged about 4,000 a month before that point. Marion County also ranked first in the state for total filings in the first nine months of 2021.
The Eviction Task Force observed that courts dealing with evictions during current times are challenged by tenants not being aware of rent assistance, failing to appear for court and not following up on pending rental assistance applications. Outreach was recommended as the main tool to assist with the crisis. This is where organizations like ILS, the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society and the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic have risen to meet the need in Marion County. Each has committed to be available to provide legal services on a limited representation basis at assigned townships on the days that eviction cases are heard. ILS is covering Lawrence and Warren Township with an intent to expand by one or two additional courts next week. Jeff shared that about 140 cases per week are set in each of the courts covered by ILS. Oftentimes, one to two attorney or paralegal volunteers are available and needed to assist in providing advice-only and limited legal representation for tenants.
Jeff summarized the process as having a presence at the court starting in the morning or afternoon of court hearings. As parties check in, the court’s staff inquires if they would like to visit with a lawyer for free. Those who take advantage of the program meet with an attorney for an initial interview to better understand the particular individual’s unique situation, and then recommendations are offered, whether it is to meet and communicate with the landlord to attempt to reach an agreement, to discuss the possibility for rental assistance or to go through the facilitator process. Likewise, tenants are given guidance on how best to interact and make their case with the judge. In doing so, potential defenses and the availability of rental assistance are explored. Rarely do the volunteer lawyers appear before the court. ILS also provides manuals and forms for pro bono volunteers to utilize along with experienced staff attorneys. In certain circumstances, referrals to other legal organizations or lawyers are made.
Jeff said that his experience has been personally fulfilling and rewarding. He explained that the program ensures that justice remains available to tenants and landlords in real time with immediate outcomes. Jeff said that the volunteer process gives tenants hope, a sense of order and understanding and resources for their next move in either keeping a roof over their head, or dealing with the pending eviction case.
There is an immediate need for volunteers over the last few weeks of this year, and likely into the new year, as there are approximately 140 to 150 cases set per week in each of the Lawrence and Warren Township courts alone. Although inquiries were made for volunteer opportunities at the other township courts, the workflow is currently being managed by the staff of the agencies assigned to those courts. If you would like more information about volunteering to provide pro bono services, I encourage you to contact Jeff at [email protected] or (317) 631-9410, or otherwise by contacting the Indianapolis Bar Association at indybar.org/tenantassistance.
The IndyBar Pro Bono Standing Committee recognizes and appreciates Jeff’s tireless and selfless efforts in his past and ongoing work to provide legal assistance to tenants in need. The objective of this article series is to acknowledge excellent pro bono efforts by members of the IndyBar and to inspire others. If you have been moved to action by this article, or otherwise desire to be added to the growing list of lawyers willing to assist others on a pro bono basis, go to indybar.org/probono to join the wave of community involvement.•