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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Renter’s assistance during and after the pandemic

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In the early days of the shutdown in response to COVID-19, Jada Williams was worried. Not just about getting sick — she’s immunocompromised — but also about losing her home. 

Williams, 25, works in the food service industry, and when her hours were cut, she feared she would no longer be able to pay her monthly rent. 

“It was lose-lose,” Williams said. “The more I worked, the more likely I was to catch the coronavirus. But that first paycheck after my hours got cut, it just wasn’t enough to make ends meet.”

Williams’ story is not unique, and due to an unpredictable virus, renter’s assistance programs and rent relief have been focal points for local and state governments in recent months. 

In June, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced a renter’s assistance grant, funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that will provide eligible Indianapolis residents with up to three months of rent assistance. Gov. Eric Holcomb also announced $25 million of CARES Act funds was to go toward renter’s assistance throughout the state.

In Indianapolis, city government is working with the Indianapolis Urban League, Indianapolis Public Library and several neighborhood organizations to help residents sign up for the program. The neighborhood organizations will be helping eligible residents receive the funding. The application is a two-part process. The first part is completed by the renter, and the second part of the application must be completed by a tenant’s landlord or property owner, who have the right to not accept the funds from the grant.

However, Jacob Sipe, executive director of Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, said he hasn’t seen any instances of landlords refusing the funds. Sipe — who oversees the state, not Marion County — said many landlords and tenants are working together. 

“From the conversations I’ve had with landlords and the Indiana Apartment Association, there’s been a high percentage of landlords who are working with their residents to get on a payment plan,” Sipe said. “ … We need to make sure we open up lines of communication between the landlord and the renter, and in my experience, everyone has been trying to do that.”

Sipe said the only issues he’s heard from landlords relates to tenants breaking stipulations in their lease other than nonpayment, such as destruction of property. 

“For this agreement, the landlord has to agree to not begin any eviction process for at least 45 days,” Sipe said. “Since we’re in the middle of a moratorium, that’s not an issue. Right now, the only thing we’re hearing is that there are some who want to start the eviction process as soon as it’s lifted for other issues a resident is causing.”

However, Sipe encourages anyone who feels they are being discriminated against by a landlord or property owner to take advantage of Indiana Legal Services or the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. 

“Indiana Legal Services is offered free for anyone who is feeling they are being harassed or their landlord is violating any form of fair housing,” Sipe said. “If their landlord has began the eviction process for nonpayment of rent, that’s a clear violation of moratorium, so I would refer them to either of those two sources. They are in their corner.”

Under Indiana law, tenants cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, religion, ability or age. 

There has been a statewide moratorium on evictions since March. When the moratorium is eventually lifted, Sipe hopes organizations and state departments work to make applying for assistance easier than it is right now. 

“One of the things we’ve recognized from the very beginning — and it’s been magnified now with the pandemic — is … it’s a very complex web to figure it all out to apply for assistance,” Stipe said. “We in the housing industry and community leaders should be focused on trying to untangle that web, and help Hoosiers understand where and how they can get assistance.” 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

For more information about tenant rights and assistance, visit indianahousingnow.org.

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