Effects of veto override hitting home for vulnerable Hoosier renters

By Victoria Arthur

Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers

While federal COVID-19 relief efforts are offering hope to the most economically disadvantaged in Indiana, hundreds of Hoosier families are still facing eviction each week following the state legislature’s action on a controversial landlord-tenant bill. 

Advocates for the poor, including the Catholic Church, are deeply concerned about the effects of Senate Enrolled Act 148, which became Indiana law in February. They say the legislation severely undermines legal protections for renters, who make up about one-third of Indiana’s population, and that it has the potential for increasing the state’s homeless population amid the continued coronavirus pandemic. 

These concerns persist even following the recent passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which includes $50 billion for housing and homelessness assistance nationwide, and a December COVID-19 relief package that allocated $448 million in rental assistance for Indiana. 

Advocates also fear the potential consequences when a federal moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment of rent expires on March 31. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health agency of the United States, originally called for the temporary halt on evictions in September to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and has since extended it twice. It is unclear whether the CDC will take further action beyond the end of this month. 

“More than 950 families are being evicted every week on average in Indiana despite the CDC moratorium and the federal relief efforts,” said Andrew Bradley, policy director of the advocacy group Prosperity Indiana. “There is definitely a COVID-19 connection when evicted families have to double-up and cannot distance, and when people are forced to shelter in poor housing conditions. The eviction crisis, which is especially concentrated in places like Indianapolis and St. Joseph County, has been exacerbated by SEA 148.” 

Critics of the measure point to the lack of tenant protections against landlord retaliation and substandard living conditions. Among the most troubling aspects of SEA 148, according to Bradley, is the addition of seven new forms of expedited three-day evictions. 

SEA 148 was the result of language added to an unrelated Senate bill in the state legislature in 2020 and passed with virtually no opportunity for public debate. It was the only bill vetoed last year by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who cited among his concerns the coronavirus pandemic, which was then beginning to profoundly alter life for Hoosiers. 

The Indiana Catholic Conference, Prosperity Indiana and numerous other advocates wanted the veto to stand because the legislation placed an even greater imbalance in the relationship between landlords and tenants, which in Indiana typically favors landlords. However, lawmakers overturned the veto in February.

“We were incredibly disappointed by this outcome, and we are now witnessing the impact on the people already hit hardest by the pandemic and its economic effects,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “The enactment of SEA 148 is opening avenues of harm for renters at most risk of eviction, many of whom are served by Catholic social service organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.” 

Holy Family Shelter, a program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, is a prime example. The facility, which opened in 1984 as the first shelter specifically for homeless families in Indianapolis, can house up to 22 families per night, but due to COVID-19, has had to make other housing arrangements for some of those it serves. The shelter is currently serving 29 homeless families with a combination of the shelter itself, hotels and other alternative housing. 

“There is certainly an uptick in demand for emergency shelter for homeless families, which seems to be due to a combination of factors, including the overall pandemic effect with loss of jobs and loss of child care,” said Bill Bickel, archdiocesan associate director for Catholic Charities. “Certainly, the override of the governor’s veto of SEA 148 is causing part of this demand, but the most profound effects I think are yet to come.”

At the same time, Bickel said many landlords are waiting to see how the American Rescue Plan Act may benefit them with past tenant debt assistance. 

“We are hopeful that serious absolving of past rent can happen quickly and that the process is user friendly for the poorest of the poor,” said Bickel, who fields 10-12 calls daily from families looking for help. “So many of the families we serve have fallen through all of the community’s safety nets – rent assistance included – which lands them on the streets and into the homeless system. Of course, we have a particular concern considering that our largest percentage of individual residents at the shelter are homeless children.” 

The Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition, an umbrella organization of various advocacy groups formed last spring due to concerns over the pandemic as well as SEA 148, is seeking input from people whose housing situation has been directly affected by either or both. One of the driving forces behind the coalition is Prosperity Indiana, with Bradley and his colleagues at the forefront of the efforts. 

“We are working to build momentum for amendments that would address some of the worst dangers of SEA 148,” Bradley said. “That’s why the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition wants stories from tenants and community partners who are affected by the fallout of this legislation.”

Personal stories may be directed to Natalie James, coalition builder for Prosperity Indiana, at www.housing4hoosiers.org/share-your-experience

To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.