Aspen Clemons, executive director of Prosperity Indiana (left), and Tirish Jacobs, an Indianapolis resident who experienced housing instability, are asking Gov. Eric Holcomb to appoint a commission on housing. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)
By Marilyn Odendahl

Working as a waitress, Tirish Jacobs of Indianapolis was able to stretch her paycheck enough to rent a three-bedroom duplex, where she and her two children lived.


But when the ceiling in her daughter’s bedroom collapsed in 2009, life began to spiral downward. Her children had to squeeze into a single bedroom, but her landlord rebuffed her pleas to repair the damage. So Jacobs quit paying the full amount of the monthly rent, since only two bedrooms were usable. 


By the time she was served the eviction order, Jacobs was suffering under such stress that her debilitating Crohn’s disease had flared up again. She coordinated the move to a new home from her hospital bed. 


 “What happened to my family and I was not only unfair but also dangerous. My child could have been hurt,” Jacobs said. “I was being held to stricter, higher standards under the law than my landlord was. It shouldn’t be like that.” 


Stories about housing instability, such as Jacobs experienced, are becoming more common across Indiana. 


A new report – “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes” – by Prosperity Indiana and the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that Indiana’s housing problem is getting worse. The report shows the Hoosier state’s rate of affordable housing supply and severe housing cost burden for extremely low-income renters is the second worst the Midwest and now – for the first time in recent memory, according to Prosperity Indiana – is worse than the national average.


The 2024 Gap study revealed that Indiana has 209,710 renter households that are classified as extremely low income, meaning the individual or family has an income that is at or below either the federal poverty level or 30% of their area median income (whichever is greater). However, there are only 70,392 affordable rental homes available for these households, which creates a housing gap of 139,318 units or just 33.57 rental units available for every 100 extremely low-income households in Indiana.


Nationally, the report noted, there is a shortage of 7.3 million units of affordable and available rental homes, resulting in 33.89 units for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. 


Prosperity Indiana was joined by members of the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition at the Indiana Statehouse on Thursday to release the report and reiterate their call for Gov. Eric Holcomb to convene a special housing commission. Representatives of housing advocacy groups and Jacobs spoke about the impact the housing crisis is having on the state and on Hoosiers. 


“We often hear that Indiana is an affordable place to live,” Aspen Clemons, executive director of Prosperity Indiana, said. “The data contained in today’s report revealed that for a growing number of Hoosiers, particularly extremely low income households, aging Hoosiers, Black Hoosiers and brown Hoosiers, this claim is simply not true.”


Legislature’s inertia irks housing advocates

Prosperity Indiana and the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition first asked Holcomb to appoint a Commission on Housing Safety, Stability and Affordability near the end of the 2024 legislative session, after several bills aimed at helping Hoosiers stay in their homes failed to even get a committee hearing.


Andrew Bradley, policy director for Prosperity Indiana, pointed out the legislature’s inaction on housing in 2024 is part of a trend. 


The Indiana General Assembly convened a housing task force in 2022 that Bradley said did not produce any legislation to reduce the shortage of affordable housing. Instead, the “signature piece of legislation” from the task force was House Bill 1005, introduced in the 2023 session, which, Bradley said, “ultimately created a housing infrastructure revolving fund that is exclusively designed to subsidize already profitable market-rate developments.”


Bradley announced Thursday that the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition has written a letter urging Holcomb to form the housing commission. He also encouraged other organizations and individuals to sign the letter to show the governor the broad support for the initiative.


A housing commission, Bradley said, could address several key aspects of Indiana’s housing crisis without requiring the legislature to act. In particular, the commission could align existing housing resources and initiatives at the state and local levels, resolve confusion over code enforcement regarding housing, health and safety, and coordinate administrative and court-based rules to protect Hoosiers and expand the housing supply.


“Establishing a Commission on Housing Safety, Stability and Affordability would positively cement Gov. Holcomb’s legacy on what has been one of the most pressing issues of his time in office,” Bradley said, noting, in particular, Holcomb’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic to create Indiana’s first ever emergency rental assistance program, which kept more than 100,000 Hoosier households safely housed and their landlords solvent.


“A Commission on Housing Safety, Stability and Affordability,” Bradley continued, “may be one of the best opportunities Hoosiers have to identify the root causes of Indiana’s housing crisis and to advance solutions to prevent more (bad) outcomes.”


Housing crisis impacting Hoosiers’ health and safety

The Gap report also examined the severe housing cost burden, which is defined as a household spending more than half its income on housing costs and having little money left over for food, health care and other basic necessities. 


In Indiana, a four-person household with an annual income of $28,390 would be classified as extremely low-income, according to the Gap report. However, the yearly income needed to rent a two-bedroom home in Indiana at the fair market rate set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development is $39,526. 


Consequently, the Gap report found 76% of extremely low-income Hoosier renter households face a severe housing cost burden. 


Bradley said the housing crisis is a statewide problem that affects urban, suburban and rural communities. 


Data in the Gap report showed the counties with the fewest number of affordable and available rental units per 100 extremely low-income households were Tippecanoe at 14.64, Hamilton at 15.81 and Fayette at 16.87. By comparison, Marion and Lake counties had a gap of 23.75 and 35.37, respectively.


Union County had the only surplus in Indiana with 145.45 affordable units available for every 100 extreme low-income households, according to the report.   


Kim Irwin, executive director of Health by Design, a health advocacy nonprofit, highlighted research that shows safe and stable housing is the foundation for the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of Hoosiers across their lifespan.


Irwin said Thursday that housing instability, crowding and evictions have been shown to cause long-term damage to the health of individuals and families. The health risk comes from living in substandard housing that potentially exposes the occupants to mold, lead poisoning and respiratory problems. Moreover, the risk is compounded by any trauma caused by stress, abuse or violence.


Conversely, she said, the benefits of quality housing ripples beyond health. Stable and safe housing leads to improved prenatal care and better infant and child development, learning and educational attainment. Also, it offers protections against infectious and chronic diseases and supports healthy aging and longevity.    


“We are making tremendous strides to improve public health for Hoosiers,” Irwin said, “But we will not achieve those goals without a commitment to safe, stable and affordable housing in communities of all sizes across all settings throughout Indiana.”


Jacobs has lived in her current home since about 2014 and has entered into a rent-to-own agreement with the landlord. She has recently started a small business selling insurance, and, while her life has stabilized, she has not forgotten her past experience of losing her home. 


“I just think everybody needs to have their own space,” Jacobs said.  


Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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