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State lawmakers putting up roadblocks for Indianapolis

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The 2020 legislative session is nearly finished, but some lawmakers are using their final days in the Indiana Statehouse to disrupt local politics in Indianapolis.

An amendment added to a bill concerning imminent domain would nullify parts of a package of proposals passed by the Indianapolis City-County Council that help protect renters.

Another amendment added to a bill that addresses a regional development group in northwest Indiana would penalize IndyGo for not following an earlier rule and jeopardize the future of the Purple Line and Blue Line.

The bills carrying both amendments passed in their respective chambers and now go to a conference committee — which includes Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate — for final passage.

The last day for conference committees to meet is scheduled for March 13.

The fight for renter protections

Indianapolis renters faced 11,570 evictions in 2016, according to a Princeton University study. That was almost 32 households every day.

The only other city in America with more: New York City.

It’s why housing advocates, faith leaders and renters were ready to celebrate a set of proposals introduced by Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration, which would help further protect tenants by creating programs such as an information hotline and making landlords tell them their rights and responsibilities.

Hogsett signed Proposals 40 and 41 on Feb. 24, but he did so in a cloud of uncertainty.

About a half mile from the city-county building, in the Indiana Statehouse, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee passed an amendment on Senate Bill 340 earlier in the day that would nullify two major parts of the effort: fining landlords who retaliate against tenants for reporting poor housing, and requiring landlords to notify tenants of their rights and responsibilities.

The amendment was brought forward by the Indiana Apartment Association, which represents landlords.

Rep. Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis) introduced an amendment on the House floor in an attempt to erase that language from the bill, but it was defeated along party lines.

“Republicans are constantly preaching that we need to let those at the local level make these types of decisions,” she said. “Yet, here we are stripping control from the local level and hurting Hoosier renters in the process.”

The bill passed 62-31 in the House on March 2.

The Indiana Apartment Association did not agree to an interview but said in a statement Senate Bill 340 “will not prohibit cities from providing legal assistance or resources to tenants in need.”

The statement went on: “We are committed to providing safe and affordable housing throughout the state of Indiana and do not want patchwork regulations in various cities to hinder our ability to provide stable housing in our communities.”

It is technically true that the bill does not prohibit cities from providing legal assistance or resources to renters, but it shifts the burden of proof from landlords, as it was written in Hogsett’s proposal, to tenants.

Under Hogsett’s proposal, landlords would face a fine of $2,500 and $7,500 for violating the anti-retaliation measures, but Senate Bill 340 takes away fines and instead gives tenants one month’s rent.

If a court sides with the landlord, however, the landlord can recover damages and attorney fees.

Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, said this is a continuation of the Indiana Legislature’s history of favoring landlords over tenants.

“It’s important for our legislators to remember they don’t just represent landlords,” she said. “They represent tenants.”

Nelson said it’s also unlikely that tenants would feel comfortable calling the information hotline or using other programs meant to help them because they would no longer be adequately protected from landlord retaliation.

Nearly 300 organizations and individuals signed a letter to Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma opposing the bill. The list includes mayors, social workers, disability rights activists, the Indianapolis Urban League and more.

Jessica Fraser, director of Indiana Institute for Working Families, a signee of the letter, said the group wasn’t even paying attention to Senate Bill 340 originally because it was a mostly mundane bill. If it wasn’t for Nelson knowing what was going on, she said, renter advocates would have had even less time to organize against the bill.

Fraser emphasized that unstable housing can lead to instability in other parts of life.

Renters who challenge their landlord in court but aren’t found to have a good enough argument would be on the hook for that landlord’s damages and attorney fees. In that case, Fraser said, the family’s food budget could take a hit, just as an example.

“Housing has such a determinantal impact on all these other pieces,” she said.

Housing advocates are now staking their hopes on the language being stricken or at least reworked to better favor tenants, in conference committee.

Republican Rep. David Wolkins, who sponsored the bill in the House, said he expects the conference committee to consider if the amendment is relevant to the bill.

Retaliation against IndyGo

When the Indiana Legislature passed a law in 2014 allowing IndyGo to secure dedicated funding through a referendum, lawmakers included a provision that, six years later, is back in the spotlight.

In exchange for an income tax to raise money for projects — including the recently opened Red Line and the upcoming Blue and Purple lines — the law stipulates IndyGo would need to match 10% of its new tax revenue with private dollars.

But lawmakers didn’t include any penalties for not raising private money, and IndyGo hasn’t followed that part of the law.

Sen. Aaron Freeman (R-Indianapolis) introduced an amendment to House Bill 1279 that would require the state to withhold 10% of IndyGo’s local income tax revenue in years that it didn’t meet the private funding threshold.

The bill passed 43-7 in the House on March 3.

In a statement, IndyGo highlighted the support it’s received for expansion of services.

“Nearly 60 percent of Marion county voters supported a .25 tax increase dedicated to expanding public transit including bus rapid transit and a more frequent and connected network, that was not dependent on private funds,” the statement read. “… The amendment, as it’s written today, would jeopardize IndyGo’s ability to implement the plan voters supported, and the additional service IndyGo has already introduced.”

IndyGo’s “limited resources” were focused on launching the Red Line in September 2019, spokesperson Faith Chadwick said, so IndyGo didn’t get nonprofit status for its foundation — the Indianapolis Public Transportation Foundation — until June 2019.

The foundation’s board chair, Rick Wilson, said in a statement the foundation can now “move forward in supporting innovative and accessible mobility projects in the Indianapolis area.”

“The idea that the Foundation would have been able to raise these funds in advance of the opening of the Red Line is not aligned with the reality of the challenges and time constraints of making a brand new non-profit operational,” he said.

IndyGo did not answer questions about how much money the foundation currently has, but the Central Indiana Community Foundation, which manages the fund, announced a donation of $35,000 on March 2.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Rep. Robin Shackleford speaks on the House floor March 2 about Senate Bill 340. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

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