Potential for veto override of housing bill stirs call to action

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Fears of an attempt to override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s March 2020 veto of a housing bill is spurring housing advocates to publicly call on the Indiana Legislature to not resurrect SEA 148, particularly when many Hoosiers are continuing to struggle under economic stress brought by the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Members of the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition and other nonprofits said an override could only exacerbate the state’s problems with evictions and housing instability.

Allowing Senate Enrolled Act 148 to become law, they said, would increase evictions, create more homelessness and adversely impact the physical and mental health of children and adults. More broadly, it would hamper the state and local economic recovery from the pandemic-induced downturn.

“We urge our Indiana state leaders to do no additional harm through any measure that would override the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 148,” said Mandla Moyo, director of community engagement for AARP Indiana. “A measure introduced to amend the veto of SB 148 would expand the crisis through legislation that would lead to increased evictions.”

The advocates are objecting to language that was amended into SEA 148 late in the 2020 session of the Indiana General Assembly. Primarily, the provisions were seen as limiting local control over landlords.

Municipalities would have been prohibited from regulating such things as lease terms and conditions along with any fees charged to the tenant. Also, cities and towns could not have enacted regulations that addressed retaliatory acts by landlords. Finally, in certain circumstances, landlords would have been able to evict tenants who filed complaints with government entities for housing violations.

Holcomb vetoed SEA 148 just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gripping Indiana. The governor said the language was overly broad and the beginning of a public health emergency was not the time to enact such a law.

Coalition members said the time is still not right because the crisis has gotten worse.

Pointing to data that shows the income of some of the hardest hit Hoosiers has been slashed by more than half during the pandemic, James Taylor, CEO of the John H. Boner Community Center in Indianapolis, said it would be “ill-conceived timing” to override the veto.

The Boner Center administered the city’s IndyRent program, which funneled about $33.5 million in rental assistance to Marion County residents in 2020. In less than 180 days, funds were distributed to more than 15,700 households that had seen their income drop from an average of $34,600 per year to $12,878, according to Taylor.

A third of the renters who received the assistance were experiencing job loss while another third were coping with a cut in working hours.

“These are hardworking Hoosiers. These are responsible Hoosiers that had their livelihoods impacted through no fault of their own,” Taylor said. “During a national health emergency is the wrong time to roll back or restrict local rental protections.”

Advocates have not seen any specific action in the Statehouse to override the veto. However, Jessica Love, executive director of Prosperity Indiana, said her organization heard about a possible override attempt in a series of conversations it hosted with members and legislators across the state.

Vetoes, she said, can be overridden quickly with almost no prior notice and without an opportunity for public discussion.

The damage imposed by SEA 148 could impact the more than 2 million Hoosiers who rent, Love said.

Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, noted many large and small cities in Indiana have some of the highest eviction rates in the country. Meanwhile, the General Assembly has been passing legislation in recent years that, she said, has made the state’s housing laws overwhelmingly favorable to landlords.

Legislation has been passed that has made inspections to ensure “basic habitability” of housing “almost impossible,” Nelson said. Also, the Statehouse has approved laws that hinder the ability of local communities to address housing barriers, and laws have been passed that restrict housing protections for those most commonly discriminated against.

Nelson said legislators should represent renters as well as landlords.

“Instead, what is needed, starting in this General Assembly and which the pandemic has further emphasized, is a long overdue, in-depth and comprehensive review of needed changes to Indiana housing policies,” she said. “Policies fair to both housing providers and renters. Policies that ensure landlords can have profitable businesses while providing quality housing and where renters have safe, affordable housing free of discrimination.”

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