Housing is not a human right in Indiana
Housing advocates had big plans for the 2023 General Assembly but didn’t see them come to fruition. (Getty Images)
Those of us in the housing advocacy world had high hopes for the 2023 General Assembly. Speaker of the House Todd Huston organized a Housing Task Force this summer. While it looked like the task force would focus solely on home ownership and home building, task force members Dee Ross, tenant rights advocate and CEO of the Ross Foundation, and Sen. Fady Qaddoura were able to keep the voices of renters part of the conversation and final recommendations.
We all thought, finally, Indiana tenants will gain some legal rights. Alas, we were wrong.
Indianapolis is second in the nation for evictions. That’s not per capita – that’s total evictions, only eclipsed by New York City. Evictions are a symptom of the lack of affordable housing (that’s housing that allows a tenant to spend 30% or less of their income on rent), rampant out-of-state corporate investment in Indiana rental properties, and some of the most landlord-friendly laws in the country.
Women, immigrants, and people of color are over-represented among low-income renters and disproportionately affected by evictions. Evictions compromise family stability and affect heath, education, and economic stability for both the evicted and all Indianapolis residents.
Rent escrow, proposed in Senate Bill 202, is a simple vehicle that asks landlords to live up to their contractual agreement, the lease. Georgia, Idaho, Utah, N. Dakota, and Indiana are the ONLY states that have no provision for rent escrow or withholding. The escrow provision would have allowed tenants whose landlords are not responding to serious habitability issues like no heat, mold, rodents, appliances not working, etc., the permission to pay their rent to the courts. When the landlord completes the repairs, they can petition the courts for the rent.
This isn’t a punitive measure towards landlords, but the power to hold them accountable for the contract they make with tenants, the lease.
Indianapolis is now the #1 city in the country for out-of-state investment in rental properties, both multi-family units and single-family homes. While most American cities average 3% of their rental units owned by out-of-state investors, as of the end of 2022 Indianapolis was at 15% and growing.
Corporate investors have discovered Indiana is a place where they can act with impunity. As one eviction court judge told me, “Eviction is part of their business plan.” A typical scenario is a tenant requests repairs from their landlord and gets no response. Eventually, they either leave voluntarily or make the mistake of withholding their rent thinking it will force the landlord to act. It does – in Indiana landlords can start evictions proceedings a day after rent is due. Either way, the unit stays occupied and they don’t have to make repairs. Even citations from health departments go ignored.
We believed that rent escrow, a simple piece of tenant empowerment which 45 other states have, would finally become available in Indiana. Yet special interests killed it with malice.
In April of 2022, Prosperity Indiana reported that a severe shortage of affordable housing in Indiana means families with the lowest incomes suffer most. Indiana has a gap of over 135,000 available, affordable rental units for the bottom 30% of area median.
Indiana now has the single highest housing cost burden among all Midwest states for the lowest-income residents. Low income and immigrant tenants are the hardest hit, many cost burdened by housing and spending 50-80% of their incomes on rent. And as rents are rising at a staggering rate, wages are stagnant. One minor emergency – an issue with their car, an emergency room visit for a child, a parent is laid off, can cause families to spiral into evictions.
Housing advocates hoped that Indiana legislators would finally send the message that the citizens of Indiana come first, that human dignity is a Hoosier value, and that housing is critical to human well-being. Sadly, again, not this time.
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Rabbi Dr. Aaron Spiegel