Legislature shuts door on bill targeting landlord negligence

By Victoria Arthur

Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers

Days after a rally at the Indiana Statehouse for tenants’ rights, which spotlighted unlivable situations for countless Indiana apartment residents, lawmakers suddenly halted Senate Bill 202, a bipartisan measure designed to hold landlords accountable for providing their tenants with decent living conditions. They sent the bill to a summer study committee with no guarantee of further action. 

“I’m frustrated because this is justice delayed for hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers who are experiencing negligent behaviors from unresponsive corporate landlords, specifically out-of-state landlords,” said Sen. Fady Qaddoura (D-Indianapolis), who co-authored the bill with Sen. Greg Walker (R-Columbus). 

Qaddoura has fought for several years at the Statehouse to protect tenants battling out-of-state landlords who refuse to provide the most basic services as outlined in their leases. One example is New Jersey-based JPC Affordable Housing, owner of a number of troubled apartment complexes in Indianapolis. 

“In my district and in other places, (these landlords) took money from our tenants and then didn’t pay the utilities,” said Qaddoura, who formerly held roles at the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. “That caused the utilities to shut off water until we intervened and filed lawsuits. The living conditions in some of these places is unbelievable: no running water; mold growing through the carpets; holes in the ceilings; and we have young kids in those households. It’s injustice.” 

Senate Bill 202 would have allowed tenants living under such extreme conditions to place their rent money into a court-ordered escrow account. The landlord would be able to collect that money only when the issues at the property were fixed. 

But just before a scheduled Feb. 15 hearing on the bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee cancelled the proceedings and assigned the topic to a summer study committee, effectively killing the measure for this session. The legislation had been staunchly opposed by lobbyists representing the corporate landlords. 

A similar measure authored by Qaddoura met the same fate last year. 

“The General Assembly leans more toward protecting landlords, at any expense, more than tenants, so I designed my current bill to open the door of this discussion by focusing only on out-of-state negligent landlords,” Qaddoura said. “We’re not changing the law for Indiana; we’re going after criminals. Why are we reluctant, as a General Assembly, to give justice and protections for Hoosiers against criminals? I thought that our job as public servants was to protect our citizens.”

For the second year in a row, Qaddoura worked on the legislation in collaboration with partners including advocates for fair housing and faith-based organizations such as the Indiana Catholic Conference. 

“Landlords and tenants have an unbalanced relationship in the state of Indiana,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “A lease is a contractual agreement that a landlord will provide a place that’s habitable and provide certain services; and the tenant has the responsibility to pay. But if the landlord doesn’t live up to what it says in the lease – if the apartment is uninhabitable because of mold or rodents, or if the utilities or appliances aren’t working – the tenant has very little recourse.” 

The working poor – who often devote 50-80 percent of their monthly incomes to housing expenses – are especially vulnerable in these situations and have few alternatives, Espada noted.

Espada had been scheduled to testify in favor of Senate Bill 202 on the day that the bill was stripped and replaced by summer-study-committee topics. She and other advocates appeared the following day at a press conference sponsored by the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition to present the testimony they would have given and to call on the legislature to take further action. 

“The General Assembly has a duty to all Hoosiers to address these issues,” Espada said, adding that “landlords who operate in good faith have nothing to fear from Senate Bill 202.”

Renters represent more than one-third of Hoosier households, but Indiana is one of only five states that do not have strong protections for renters, according to Qaddoura and coalition members who supported his legislation. 

“Every week, we receive calls from Hoosiers living in sometimes-deplorable conditions,” said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, who also brought her prepared Senate testimony to the Feb. 16 press conference. “This is a statewide problem and an overwhelming burden. These are people who pay their rent, but their landlords won’t make needed repairs despite being asked over and over again. And for an increasing number, they can’t even find their landlords because it’s some out-of-state company and it’s hard to determine even whom to contact. What are people to do?”

Qaddoura attributes the legislature’s lack of urgency on these issues to what he believes is a misperception about the more than 800,000 people in Indiana who are renters instead of homeowners.

“My concern with the General Assembly, aside from their inaction, is that there is a stigma in our state that tenants do not deserve rights or protections,” Qaddoura said. “It seems that the General Assembly has forgotten that these tenants are property-tax payers, just like homeowners. They pay their property taxes through their rental payments.

“These are people who decided to live in an apartment who maybe cannot afford home ownership; or maybe they decided to live there because it’s their lifestyle,” he continued. “My point is that they are humans; they are full citizens; and they deserve protections under state law.”

Qaddoura is dismayed to see his legislation again relegated to a summer study committee, and advocates including the ICC are equally frustrated. 

“What is there to study?” Espada said. “We know this is a problem.”

Meanwhile, the ICC did see success this month on another matter of concern to vulnerable Hoosiers. Along with other advocates for the poor, the ICC stood in opposition to House Bill 1547, which would raise interest rates for certain subprime loans and create a new loan product in the subprime market. The bill has now stalled and does not appear to have a path forward in this session.

While supporters positioned the legislation as an alternative to unregulated online and out-of-state lenders charging Hoosiers exorbitant interest rates, the ICC maintained that another high-interest loan product was not the answer. Alexander Mingus, the associate director of the ICC, testified against the bill at the Statehouse and noted that people seeking loans in this market are typically low-income individuals with poor credit or no credit. 

As with all proposed legislation, the ICC decides to support or oppose measures based on the long history of Catholic social teaching. 

“There is such a depth in the Church’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor,” Mingus said. “We always stand with the most vulnerable in our society.” 

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.