By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Efforts to protect Indiana renters from unsafe conditions have stalled again at the state legislature.
The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) and other advocates for safe and affordable housing point to a Jan. 21 fire in South Bend as a tragic example of the urgent need for increased protections for renters, who represent one-third of Hoosier households. But two bills aimed at bolstering safeguards for Indiana tenants will not be moving forward in this legislative session, following a pattern that has frustrated advocates while stirring them to press on even harder in their pursuit of reform.
“This is a clear example of one of the most egregious violations of our human right to life, where living in substandard housing leads to death – especially the death of children,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “If anyone wonders why the Catholic Church is involved in these issues, this is very clearly why. Beyond the issue of life, safe and affordable housing is a basic human right that has long been articulated by the Church.
“We are not trying to vilify landlords,” Mingus continued. “There are good ones, but there are also those that are negligent. Part of what we’re trying to encourage is ensuring that they are responsible and treating people with dignity.”
Although the Jan. 21 South Bend fire is still under investigation, reports indicate that the home failed a safety inspection last summer, with a house-wide electrical issue as one of the hazards cited. The property management group serving as the landlord allegedly failed to fix the problems between the previous tenants moving out and the new family taking occupancy in October. Three months later, fire engulfed the house and claimed the lives of six siblings ranging in age from 1 to 11.
Currently, in Indiana, code violations are not required to be followed through once a home is unoccupied and, therefore, there is no active safety hazard. Advocates say this is one reason the state ranks near the bottom in the nation in terms of protections for tenants.
Senate Bill 243, authored by Sen. Andrea Hunley (D-Indianapolis), aimed to address some of these deficits, but it was focused only on Marion County. The measure, which was heavily amended ahead of its Jan. 31 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, stated that regardless of whether a property is currently occupied, prior violations must be remedied before a new tenant occupies the apartment or home.
“The bill does a good thing in decoupling the occupancy of the home from the code violations – that is, the violations would follow the house and not necessarily the tenant,” said Judith Fox, a representative of the South Bend Tenant Association, during her testimony at the hearing.
Fox and many other advocates, including the ICC, stated that their position on the legislation was neutral after most of the original language in the bill was stripped. Although she acknowledged the measure was a step forward for Marion County, Fox encouraged lawmakers to take a systemic, statewide approach to protecting Hoosier renters.
“Coming from one of the 91 other counties, my hope is that the committee will continue to work on this bill either now or in the next term, to try to improve it and include all of us in Indiana because tenants across the state need this kind of help,” said Fox, who is also a law professor at The University of Notre Dame.
Lawmakers also heard from Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, who cited the Catholic Church’s commitment to the poor and the vulnerable and called for greater balance in the tenant/landlord relationship in Indiana.
“We are happy that there is some movement (on these issues), but we would like for landlords and tenants who sign a contract to both have to abide by that contract,” Espada said.
Committee members voted 5-5 on the bill, essentially killing the measure for this session with no majority.
A broader tenants’ rights bill did not even receive a hearing at the Statehouse. Senate Bill 277, a bipartisan measure authored by Sen. Greg Walker (R-Columbus) and Sen. Fady Qaddoura (D-Indianapolis), would have allowed tenants living in unsafe or substandard situations 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.
Indiana is currently one of only five states that do not allow rent escrow accounts for uninhabitable housing.
But just like a nearly identical bill introduced at last year’s General Assembly that was staunchly opposed by lobbyists for property owners, the measure will not move forward. Sen. Qaddoura, now in his third year of bringing forth legislation to protect tenants, expressed disappointment but also hope.
“I do intend to continue working on this for next session, and even this session if there are germane bills coming from the House that we can amend,” he said. “It is my duty as a legislator to always continue to advocate and champion ideas that help our communities. I am always optimistic, and I will always continue to advocate for the voiceless in our communities.”
Advocates across the state also vow to continue their quest to protect renters from egregious housing violations, many of which they highlighted at a Jan. 29 rally at the Statehouse.
“This issue is just so important that we can’t afford to let it go,” said Andrew Bradley, policy director of Prosperity Indiana, a member of the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition. “It affects tens of thousands of Hoosier families that are the most vulnerable in our communities, and we cannot give up.”
Bradley, who was among those testifying on Senate Bill 243, says he is heartened by the fact that at least the measure was heard during this session.
“Even though the bill didn’t move forward, it was a bit of progress,” Bradley said. “The past two years, these types of bills didn’t even get a hearing.”
To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.