Tenants and housing advocates will have to wait — again
An audience member holds a “safe housing now” sign while at a tenants-rights rally at the Indiana Statehouse on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Last week hundreds of tenants, neighbors, and community partners gathered at the Statehouse for the launch of the Indiana Tenants Association and to celebrate that Senate Bill 202 by Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, was scheduled for a committee hearing.
Spirits were high, as the bill would finally bring badly-needed mechanisms to enforce Indiana’s health and safety laws that too often go unresolved without penalty. So what’s the problem?
By Wednesday, those hopes were dampened, as the bill was turned into yet another ‘study committee’ proposal. This meant the bill’s provisions would no longer be on the table this session, including those that would protect tenants living in units that violate already-existing health and safety standards by allowing them to apply for a court order to put rent into an escrow account until the landlord addressed the violation.
Nearly as bad, public testimony would no longer be allowed on the bill and lawmakers wouldn’t hear from the Hoosiers who’d already made plans to travel from across the state to support the habitability enforcement provisions. This included tenants, housing advocates, and community stakeholders such as Pete Taddeo of Mishawaka who manages several hundred properties and wrote testimony that, “Handled properly, rental escrowing benefits both landlord and tenant, and greatly helps separate good rental property management from poor property management.”
Tish Biggs, an AARP Indiana volunteer was prepared to testify that “As a former resident and landlord in Ohio for 25 years, [o]ur tenants never had to use the escrow provision[…] but it was there if they needed it.” The support for this legislation spanned a broad range of housing stakeholders. So what’s the problem?
Been there, done that
Of course, this issue has been studied. In 2022, the General Assembly’s own Housing Task Force studied evidence from Prosperity Indiana that the lack of habitability enforcement contributes to Indiana having among the lowest rates of affordable and available housing in the Midwest and the single-highest housing cost burden for the lowest-income populations in the region.
Allowing bad actors to let units, even entire developments, operate with unchecked health and safety violations artificially increases costs and depletes Indiana’s housing supply at a time of critical shortage, the signature issue the Task Force was designed to address.
A multitude of studies already connects Indiana’s substandard housing conditions to poor health, education, and workforce outcomes. A new report from the Notre Dame Law School concludes “Renters may be evicted for nearly any violation of their lease obligations, while landlords often violate their obligation to provide habitable homes with impunity.” Another new report from the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law not only identifies Indiana as one of only six states without rent escrow or ‘repair and deduct’ laws, but also provides a menu of legal options to help our lawmakers craft a solution the Indiana way. So what’s the problem?
The Housing Task Force’s final report delivered last October 27 included a recommendation that the General Assembly and Governor should “Support addressing substandard housing”, a recommendation that directly inspired Senate Bill 202. Looking back at the tape (at 1:06 here) only one appointed Task Force member, from the Indiana Apartment Association, argued against including that recommendation, with an interest ”to balance cost with safety.”
Blocking the bill
If a single special interest is all it takes to convince lawmakers to not even consider other perspectives to address substandard housing, that is the problem.
That’s why after the bill was gutted the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition called a press conference declaring “this issue is too critical to not address this session.” The Coalition urges the General Assembly to include the bill’s ’s habitability provisions in another moving housing bill, and to create a Housing Stability Pilot Fund in the budget to prevent evictions and homelessness for families hurt by the current lack of enforcement.
Community organizations and faith groups distressed by the housing crisis in their neighborhoods often reach out and ask “what can we do to help?” One step anyone can take is to witness an eviction court proceeding to see the outcomes of Indiana’s housing crisis for yourself.
But even more important is to find your lawmakers and urge them to act this session, because this crisis is a policy problem that requires policy solutions.
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