September 1, 2021

Resources Are Available For Renters Facing Eviction. Should Courts Be Obligated To Notify Them?


Tenant Dylan Snipes at an eviction hearing in Lawrence Township. - Ben Thorp/WBAA

Tenant Dylan Snipes at an eviction hearing in Lawrence Township.

Ben Thorp/WBAA

With the end of the CDC eviction moratorium, thousands of eviction cases can now start moving through state courts.

An estimated 90,000 Hoosiers are behind on their rent - and there are millions of dollars in federal rental assistance waiting to help them. Most of them don’t know it’s available. One place renter advocates say that problem could be fixed is in the eviction courts.

Judges could notify tenants of what is available to them - but are not required to.

At a court in Lawrence Township in Marion County, attorneys have been offering legal services to renters facing eviction filings.

In one room, Brandon Beeler, housing law center director for Indiana Legal Services, walked 19-year-old renter Dylan Snipes through her filing.

“They say you are behind in rent. It looks like they are claiming you stopped paying on June 1 - is that correct?” Beeler asked.

Snipes explained that after a job fell through, she was unable to make rent.

Then, Beeler asked if Snipes had applied for rental assistance. Snipes said she hadn’t, and explained that she looked at the application for rental assistance but found it confusing.

She said she hopes that after applying for rental assistance, she’ll be able to work something out with her landlord.

“It’s summertime. It’s hot outside. Living on the streets isn’t the best option. I’m just trying to not have COVID,” she said. “I’m vaccinated but you have the new variant now. I’m trying not to die.”

Beeler, who also serves on the state’s Landlord Tenant Task Force, said he believes courts are a good place to connect people to resources.

“In court is a great place to catch people because this is really where we can get both parties together and kind of demystify where everyone is and what everyone knows,” he said.

Beeler points to federal guidance from the Department of Justice that has called on courts to do things like include information about eviction diversion programs along with a court summons, and require landlords to apply for emergency rental assistance before filing an eviction.

The advice is something that Judge Kimberly Bacon, working in the Lawrence Township court, has taken to heart.

“The importance of the project is to create a point of service for when tenants come to court,” she said. “The resources are presented to them at the time they come to court. They don’t have to go do the research on a day when they need to be going to work to earn money for childcare, for rent, for utilities.”

But, Judge Bacon noted, it’s ultimately up to a judge's discretion whether to inform tenants of assistance or not.

“From my perspective, my goal is multifaceted,” she said. “I am of the belief that keeping people housed creates stability in my community here in Lawrence Township, so if I can assist and make sure those resources are given here so they can maintain that housing then that is a win. On top of that, I believe that the landlords are entitled to their monies and their rent.”

Several landlord associations were reached for comment on this story, but none responded.

“What I have expressed to the landlords is this is money that is available that helps you maintain a tenant… and then also keeping a tenant housed so that we can make sure COVID is not spread, that children are able to stay in school and not transfer school or sleep in a car. We’re keeping people with a roof over their head and it’s a win-win for everybody,” Bacon said.

The strategies for notifying people of aid may also be having an impact on how much is disbursed.

Of the roughly $372 million in federal emergency rental assistance that has so far come to the state, just over $33 million had been issued as of Aug. 30. State officials noted that an additional $90 million has been “obligated” - meaning the dollars are reserved so that renters granted funds through the program can receive their full 12 months of assistance if needed.

The assistance sent out from the state program has gone to over 8,000 households. But that is still just a small fraction of the estimated 57,000 eviction cases that have been filed since the start of the pandemic, and tenant advocates say more cases will likely be filed now that the CDC moratorium has lifted.

Indiana’s numbers appear to follow a national trend: according to a report released by the U.S. Treasury Department, just 11 percent of the dollars allocated by Congress for rental assistance have been distributed so far.

A spokesperson for the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority said they are doing a lot to inform tenants of the various programs including a full press launch, social media campaign, and outreach through community and landlord associations.

That doesn’t account for all of the funding coming to the state, however. Elkhart, Hamilton, Lake, Marion, and St. Joseph Counties, along with the city of Fort Wayne, each run their own rental assistance programs.

In Marion County, so far over $24 million in rental assistance has been issued this year, assisting some 9,700 households. And, according to Caroline Ellert with Indianapolis’s Office of Public Health and Safety, all nine of the county's townships are participating in “some aspect” of the eviction diversion program being practiced in Lawrence Township.

Dustin House is with the Lafayette office of Indiana Legal Services. He said particularly in more rural counties, there aren’t as many community organizations working to make sure tenants are aware of what’s available to them.

“Other than sort of the non-profit sector, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of action from the state government to inform people about rental assistance,” he said.

This is why advocates say judges should be obliged to inform people about what’s available to them. State guidance only requests judges to inform tenants of resources, and there are many reasons some don’t -- some judges just elect not to, and for smaller courts with fewer staff, the act of distributing information can be a burden.

House said if the goal is ultimately to keep people housed - more should be done.

“I think the big story is there are a lot of people who could be helped, could be covered by the moratorium, could be getting rental assistance and just haven’t for some reason,” he said. “It’s just very unfortunate the ways in which we could have a lot more people remaining housed during the pandemic and that just isn’t happening.”

Andrew Bradley, with Prosperity Indiana, said the state could be doing more outreach -- using the money that it has received through the American Rescue Plan for aggressive outreach to let tenants know what is available to them.

“Do some boots on the ground outreach,” he said. “Literally do like door-knocking in the neighborhoods that we have the data to show are hardest hit.”

And, Bradley said, the risk of eviction doesn’t impact all Hoosiers equally.

“You have low-income renters who are disproportionately Black and brown Hoosiers, they are disproportionately families with children, and those are the type of renter households that are in occupations that were hit the hardest during the pandemic.”

Back in Lawrence Township court, tenant Dylan Snipes said she just hopes the state, and her landlord will have some patience with her as she tries to get everything figured out.

“I couldn’t pay my car payment, I don’t have my car no more,” she said. “My phone is off. It’s real. It’s not just people trying to get away with not paying rent. I wish people would understand that.”

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