By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Advocates for the poor fear that an already dire housing crisis in the state could worsen dramatically if lawmakers override the governor’s veto of a landlord-tenant bill that was rushed through last year’s Indiana General Assembly.
The Indiana Catholic Conference and numerous allies warn that efforts on the part of some lawmakers to restore that legislation would undermine legal protections for renters, who make up about one-third of Indiana’s population. This could lead to widespread evictions and subsequently a rapid rise in the state’s homeless population during a cold winter and worsening coronavirus pandemic.
Senate Enrolled Act 148 was the result of language added to an unrelated Senate bill in the 2020 legislative session and passed with virtually no opportunity for public debate. SEA 148 was the only bill that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed during the session, at the time stating that the language in the legislation was “overly broad … preventing almost any type of local control over landlord-tenant relationships.” He also pointed to the global COVID-19 pandemic, which was beginning to profoundly alter life for Hoosiers.
“We want this veto to stand,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “We were opposed to this bill last year for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it didn’t go through the normal process, and that language was added to another bill that wasn’t really relevant. But at the heart of the matter was that it placed an even greater imbalance in the relationship between landlords and tenants, and it was pushed through before the pandemic hit with full force.
“All of us who stand with the most vulnerable in our communities applauded Gov. Holcomb’s veto of this legislation,” Espada continued. “We believe that an override of the veto in this legislative session would open avenues of severe 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.”
Espada was among the participants in a virtual call-to-action meeting held earlier this month by the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition, an advocacy group formed last spring in large part due to concerns over SEA 148.
According to Family Promise, one of the members of the coalition, Indianapolis was second in 2016 only to New York City in the number of evictions. In that year, 11,570 evictions occurred in the city – more than those in Chicago and Los Angeles combined.
This disproportionately high rate is due to a law structure in the state that is “heavily tilted toward landlords,” according to Andrew Bradley, policy director of Prosperity Indiana, another organization in the housing coalition.
Now, Bradley and other advocates warn, the global pandemic is making a bad situation worse.
“We already had a housing crisis, and COVID-19 further exacerbates that,” Bradley said. “We have evidence showing that the people who are typically low-income renters are the same people who have been hit hardest by the virus. These are people who are working in restaurants and bars, in hotels and hospitality, or in service industries like home health care. All of these people working in jobs that require them to be in-person and in close contact with others are more likely to have been laid off, and/or more likely to catch COVID themselves.
“Even before the pandemic, 40 percent of Hoosiers did not have even $400 saved for emergency use,” Bradley added. “So, missing even one paycheck puts people at risk for suddenly being homeless.”
He and other participants in the virtual call-to-action meeting say they are heartened by the response from a broad cross-section of organizations and concerned citizens. Now they urge members of the general public to make their voices heard with their legislators.
“This is a great opportunity for people all over the state to get involved in advocating for the basic needs of Hoosiers,” said Natalie James, coalition builder for Prosperity Indiana.
The ICC issued an action alert this week calling upon Catholics to do just that. The possible effort to overturn the governor’s veto of SEA 148 also was among the subjects of the new weekly podcast hosted by Espada and Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC.
“We are calling upon the Catholic faithful to contact their legislators — by phone, email or both — and ask them to vote ‘no’ on a veto override for SEA 148,” Espada said. “With fewer in-person meetings at the Statehouse due to the pandemic, these actions are more important than ever.”
To follow this and other 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.