Renters rally at the Statehouse for further protections from bad landlords
Tenant Rhonda Cook describes living at an Indianapolis apartment complex in subpar conditions while at a tenants-rights rally at the Indiana Statehouse on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Rhonda Cook was living at an apartment complex in Indianapolis’ Far Eastside neighborhood when it caught fire. She was one unit away from the flames.
Cheswick Village Apartments moved her, but the next unit had a mouse infestation and a “busted-out” patio from a break-in. Cook lived behind boarded-up windows for eight months, waiting for repairs, after someone blasted bullets through her and a neighbor’s glass.
Every month, she paid about $1,000 for her two-bed unit. Indiana is one of five states that doesn’t let tenants put rent in escrow until landlords make essential repairs.
“It was so scary,” Cook told the Capital Chronicle. “I spent so many days just crying, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I have to live like this.'”
Cook was one of the dozens of Hoosier renters and tenants-rights advocates who rallied at the Indiana Statehouse Monday, calling for legislation to help renters deal with negligent landlords or uninhabitable conditions.
“We are demanding today, as Hoosiers, to be treated as human beings, not as a piece of property,” said Derris “Dee” Ross, an Indianapolis community leader and member of an interim housing study committee.
Event organizers and lawmakers highlighted two bills this legislative session:
House Bill 1148 from Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, would require that landlords fix or replace essential services within 24 hours of notification, let renters bring noncompliant landlords to court, and let courts order tenants to pay rent into escrow until the issue is resolved. The bill would also make it easier for local governments to crack down on “nuisance” landlords and renters.
But the bill hasn’t yet gotten a committee hearing, and will die unless it’s heard by next week.
“The House Judiciary Committee meets Wednesday morning. That’s the last day for my bill to be heard,” Errington told the crowd. “I know that the chairman of the committee is not thinking that he’s going to hear it but I think it’s important for all of you, if you can, to go visit him.”
“Tell him why this is needed, how it affects you,” Errington said of Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel. She said the measure was inspired by a company buying up and leasing out property near Ball State University, but not maintaining it, leading to complaints for electricity, water, sewage and more.
Senate Bill 202, from Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, has similar provisions. In addition, his bill would ban landlords from managing rental properties in Indiana unless they meet three conditions:
- Reside in-state, or landlords’ firms would have to be domiciled or authorized to do business in the state.
- Keep a physical office open in-state.
- Appoint a licensed real-estate broker or company to manage the rental property.
Qaddoura has been at the forefront of such efforts for several years, inspired by an infamous nonprofit affordable apartment provider that owned multiple Indianapolis complexes afflicted by multiple fires, mold, vermin, and more.
After a utility shutoff to hundreds of residents and multiple lawsuits, JPC Charities and its numerous subsidiaries were banned from operating in Indiana for seven years and forced to sell off the properties.
Senate Bill 202 is currently scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Qaddoura celebrated.
But he said his fellow Republican lawmakers do not like the rent escrow or three-pronged residency provisions.
“[Renters] are taxpayers,” Qaddoura said in an impassioned speech. “They pay their property taxes with their rental payments. They deserve justice!”
Cook now lives in better-maintained housing. But for some Hoosiers who’ve gotten out of poor living conditions, stability comes with a hefty price.
Dee Benton, who also attended the rally, said she lived at a JPC Charities building for about two years. When she noticed she was constantly sick, she called the health department. Inspectors found mold throughout the unit’s kitchen. Meanwhile, Benton’s windows were painted shut, so she couldn’t open them to air out the apartment.
She’s since moved, but struggles to afford groceries, medical bills, gas, a car payment and even doing laundry after paying her higher rent.
“It’s hard for me to live,” she said.
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