By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

February 21, 2024

At least 10 bills, aimed at tackling various aspects of Indiana’s housing crisis, including negligent landlords, foreclosures induced by medical debt and biased appraisals, were introduced at the start of the 2024 legislative session.

However, the optimism that housing advocates shared at the beginning of the session has dissipated into familiar disappointment, now that many bills, particularly those providing protections for renters, failed to even get a committee hearing.

In response to what it sees as a lack of legislative progress, the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition is calling upon Gov. Eric Holcomb to appoint a Commission on Housing Affordability and Stability. The coalition, comprised of nonprofits across Indiana that advocate for secure and safe housing, says the commission is necessary because of the Indiana General Assembly’s failure in the past three sessions to pass any bills that significantly address the state’s growing housing problems.

Andrew Bradley, policy director at Prosperity Indiana, a member of the coalition, said the commission could take steps to remedy some of those issues in Indiana without having to depend on the legislature to act.

“There could be some solutions that really could just come from interagency discussion and also from inter-branch discussion, getting the administrative state agencies talking with the courts, and having legislator input, but not relying only on what would pass through the legislature,” Bradley said. “We think that there’s likely even funding and resources that are on the table” that could be combined for greater effectiveness.

The bulk of the bills introduced at this year’s legislative session were authored by members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus. At the start of the session, the IBLC touted its agenda, “Fair Housing, Fair Futures,” as focused on making housing in Indiana more accessible, affordable and equitable.

“As lawmakers, we have an obligation to ensure that our constituents and all Hoosiers have the ability to own a home, and those homes and livelihoods they provide should not be threatened by factors outside of an individual’s control,”  Rep. Earl Harris, Jr., D-East Chicago, chair of the IBLC, said in January.

Yet, at the midpoint of the legislative session, only two housing-related bills, both authored by Republicans, remain alive.

The two bills – House Bill 1068 and HB 1222 – have been described by their respective authors as addressing “predatory practices.” Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, author of HB 1068, told legislators his bill places some regulations on unlicensed real estate solicitors who are behind the “cash for houses” type of solicitations, which “prey on the most vulnerable Hoosiers.” Rep. Craig Haggard, R-Mooresville, said his bill, HB 1222, provides consumers some protection from certain kinds of residential real estate services agreements, which can encumber a property for decades.

The idea for a housing commission has been percolating within the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition for a couple of years, Bradley said, particularly as the number of housing advocates and housing providers interested in addressing the housing crisis has grown. But the frustration of not being able to get legislation through the Statehouse – particularly bills helping renters – has added a sense of urgency.

Bradley said the coalition has asked for a meeting with Holcomb. The governor’s office did not provide any comment, saying it had no knowledge of the push for a housing commission.

“The needs associated with housing affordability and stability are not likely to go away,” Bradley said. “I think that there are already several of these state agencies and courts that are seeing this increased demand and the stakeholders throughout that state who are feeling that. I think that’s a good reason to propel the issue forward.”

Bipartisan bill blocked from Senate committee

Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, authored three housing bills this session and said she began the session hopeful that some housing legislation would move forward. She has long championed homeowners and tenants, and, in 2022, served on the legislature’s Housing Task Force, which included a recommendation to address substandard housing.

From her past experience, Pryor said she thinks the consistent failure of legislation protecting tenants could be tied to the lobbying influence of the landlord-friendly Indiana Apartment Association.

“I think that the apartment association has far too much power over in the General Assembly and so anything that is done to try to improve the accommodations for people who are tenants, (the association members) are opposed to,” Pryor said. She added that legislators often give the industry group “more leeway and more authority to continue to do whatever they want to do,” which is usually not in tenants’ best interests.

The Indiana Apartment Association did not respond to a request for comment.

The apartment association was pointed out by Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, as being among the groups that opposed one of his bills: Senate Bill 277.

Building on SB 202 which Qaddoura had introduced in the 2023 session, SB 277 focused on habitability. The bill would have required landlords to provide safe and livable rental units free from rodents, invasive insects, mold and rot, and to repair or replace a malfunctioning “essential system,” which delivers an “essential service” like heat, water and electricity, within 72 hours of being notified of a problem. Also, the legislation would have enabled tenants to deposit their rent checks into an escrow account, rather than paying the landlord, if the issues were not being corrected.

Bradley said SB 277 provided a much-needed enforcement mechanism. Indiana is one of six states that does not enforce housing health-and-safety standards, he said, but the bill’s enforcement provisions could have been used to ensure property owners were adhering to the habitability mandates.

Republican Sen. Greg Walker of Columbus had joined Qaddoura as a co-author last session of the doomed SB 202 bill. This session, Walker switched places with Qaddoura, becoming the lead author of SB 277 to hopefully give it a better chance at passage in the GOP-dominated legislature.

Also, to give the bill broad support, Bradley and Qaddoura said, stakeholders were consulted from the start. Advocacy organizations and the housing industry were given the opportunity to offer their input while the legislation was being crafted.

However, once SB 277 was introduced, the difficulty of the legislative process became apparent.

SB 277 was assigned to the Senate Local Government Committee where, Bradley and Qaddoura said, several members were supportive of, at least, giving the measure a hearing. However, the committee chair, Sen. James Buck, R-Kokomo, never put SB 277 on the agenda.

“It just could not get to a place where he was comfortable hearing the bill and could not even get a really solid reason,” Bradley said. “It seemed like the reasons kind of kept shifting. So, ultimately, when the chair has the sole authority then you’re not going to get a hearing in that case.”

Neither Buck nor Walker responded to requests for comment.

House fire provides tragic example

Qaddoura has introduced bills supporting homeowners and tenants ever since he was first elected to the Indiana Senate in 2020 and, although none of his measures have gotten much momentum, he said he is committed to continue advocating for them. The General Assembly, he said, will hit a tipping point at which time a majority of legislators will vote in favor of a housing bill.

Even so, Qaddoura said he is bewildered that many Republicans are opposed to the housing bills that he and other lawmakers have offered. The bills, he said, are addressing an urgent need in the state and are meant to protect both responsible landlords and responsible tenants.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Qaddoura said. “This is an issue, to me, that impacts the workforce, education, civic life. So reasonable people, regardless of their political ideologies and affiliations, should be able to work through a solution.”

Bradley noted that Indiana lawmakers do not have to search far for a real-life example of tragic consequences that can come from substandard housing. In January, six children, ages 17 months to 11 years,  died in a South Bend house fire. According to an investigation by The South Bend Tribune, a federally mandated safety inspection of the house six months before the fire found 10 violations, including an “electrical problem throughout the entire house.”

Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, has introduced House Concurrent Resolution 26, which honors the firefighters for their “bravery and heroic actions” in battling that house fire. Forty-seven representatives have joined the resolution as co-authors and 49 senators have joined as co-sponsors.

A legacy for Holcomb?

Pryor, the Indianapolis Democrat, said pushing the legislature to take action on housing is going to take a grassroots effort. Some legislators, she said, are going to have to see the “deplorable conditions” in some of the rental units now on the market before they support any protections.

Similarly, Pryor sees a housing commission as providing some remedies, but she cautioned the members appointed to the body must include individuals who understand the problems renters can face. Moreover, she said, the group should have a deadline for issuing a report and making recommendations before Holcomb leaves office in early 2025.

“I think a commission is a good idea,” Pryor said. “I think the second step is making sure the people who are appointed are people who are going to be advocates for the tenants and the renters to make sure that we’re getting recommendations that are going to help renters.”

Bradley said the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition envisions the commission functioning like the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana. That group brings together state agencies, legislators, courts, local government partners and other stakeholders to examine specific issues and make recommendations.

Appointing a housing commission, Bradley said, would be a continuation of Holcomb’s effort to help homeowners and tenants. In 2020, the governor vetoed Senate Bill 148 which included provisions that would have limited a municipality’s ability to regulate the landlord-tenant relationship. Also, during the COVID public health crisis, Holcomb used federal pandemic funds to create the state’s first emergency rental assistance program, which Bradley credited with keeping tens of thousands of Hoosiers in their homes for the past four years.

The commission, Bradley said, would be “an opportunity for (Holcomb), in the final year of his term, to really stick a legacy on an issue where he’s made a couple of important steps.”

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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