Tenants go to Statehouse to share stories, advocate for fairer treatment

Gloria Stewart has many stories to tell about her home.

The Indianapolis senior citizen lives in an apartment where bugs skitter across the floor, the drains clog causing sewage to sometimes bubble up into her bathtub, and trash bags have to be taped around the windows to keep the heat in during the winter.

Once this winter, her residence went dark just after she had finished cleaning the kitchen following a dinner of hotdogs. The entire complex had lost power, so she had to sit alone in the dark and increasing cold for several hours.

Stewart, hunched and dependent on a walker to get around, journeyed to the Indiana Statehouse last week to tell lawmakers these and other stories about her housing. She and several other renters took turns stepping up to the microphone in the building’s north atrium and sharing their stories during the Tenants Day of Action.

The event, organized by the Indianapolis Tenants Rights Union, a project of the Ross Foundation, brought together housing advocates and residents. Derris Ross, founder of the Ross Foundation, said the purpose was to provide a platform for tenants to share their experiences and give legislators another side to the stories they hear from apartment associations and landlords.

“How can legislators frame a bill if they never hear from the constituents?” Ross asked after the rally ended. “… This Day of Action will echo throughout the Statehouse, throughout the legislators’ offices and now they know we’re here. And moving forward, they will know that the tenants will show up, they do not fear retaliation and they will be heard.”

However, no legislator spoke during the event, and it did not appear that any stopped to listen to the tenants. Still, the renters spoke, telling of their difficulties finding places to live and, like Stewart, of having to live with bug infestations and no heat. Some talked about losing their jobs because of the COVID-19 shutdown, then struggling to pay rent before being forced to make a choice between voluntarily moving out and becoming homeless or getting an eviction on their record.

As they told their stories, no one asked to live rent-free or demand that past-due rent be forgiven.

“People like you heard today are open to paying their rent and doing right, but they want a fairer process,” Ross said. “They want a fairer landlord who understands, who will work with them, who will communicate properly and appropriately and professionally with them and help them work together so they can stay in their house.”

Michelle Dahl of Pride and Progress Inc. has tried to help many tenants in Johnson County stay housed. She said she is tired of only being able to offer Band-Aids to the individuals and families who ask for help. Many times, she said, these people have jobs, but their paychecks do not cover necessities like rent, utilities and food.

“We have had to have many more conversations where we have had to say, ‘We cannot help you,’” Dahl said. “We can find the resources that might be available for them but (those resources) are all tapped out.”

The Day of Action did highlight support for three bills introduced into the Senate this session that are seen as benefiting tenants.

Only one, Senate Bill 230, has been given a hearing by the Senate Local Government Committee. Authored by Sens. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, and Greg Walker, R-Columbus, SB 230 addresses habitability issues and includes a provision that would allow rent to be paid either to the court or into an attorney’s trust account whenever a tenant tries to enforce a housing law against a landlord.

The other two bills are Senate Bill 233, which prohibits the disclosure of information related to an eviction action, and Senate Bill 385, which requires tenants to be given an explanation when their application for a rental unit is denied. Those bill have been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee but have not been scheduled for a hearing.

To address the wave of evictions that was expected as a result of the pandemic, the Indiana Supreme Court did implement a landlord-tenant mediation program as an alternative to court. But asked how the program was helping the tenants she has been seeing, Dahl said, “I’ve never heard of it.”

Ross likewise said he was not familiar with the mediation program. Tenants, he said, do not have televisions, radios or internet connections, so the effort to inform them of programs has to be more intentional.

“I propose that the Indiana Supreme Court and other resources across the state partner with the grassroots organizations like the Ross Foundation and the Indianapolis Tenants Rights Union, and together we could be that outreach for them in meeting people where they are because that’s what we specialize in,” Ross said.

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