INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — To help reduce evictions in Indianapolis, which maintains one of the highest eviction rates in the nation, the city is launching a new legal assistance hotline.
“It’s for any resident who has questions about landlord-tenant laws or tenant protections or any other rental issues,” said Brandon Beeler, director of the Housing Law Center at Indiana Legal Services. “The idea is to provide them with as much information as possible.”
The hotline, which begins tomorrow, will be staffed by Indiana Legal Services attorneys, as well as other lawyers and paralegals volunteering their time to assist low-income tenants.
“Obviously right now there is lots of uncertainty with the Indiana and the federal eviction moratoriums, when they end, what protections and rights do tenants have during that time, what obligations do tenants have during that time. All of our volunteers have been trained to answer those questions for tenants, so anyone who has a question or a pending case can call and try to get some legal information about their rights,” Beeler explained.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed a statewide order in March that placed a moratorium on most tenant evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, he extended that moratorium until July 1. But that has not prevented some Indiana landlords from filing eviction lawsuits anyway.
Last month, 13News reported that REW Investments in Frankfort filed legal notices against several tenants for falling behind on their rent after COVID-19 caused them to lose employment.
“I’ve got a one-year-old and a three-year-old. I’m finally getting more hours. I can pay the rent. It’s just going to take me a second,” said TJ Shuck, a veteran who received one of the eviction notices.
“I’m willing to pay my rent. I signed an agreement and I’m bound by that, but I can’t help what’s going on right now,” echoed Johnathan Fouse, who lost one of his two jobs due to the pandemic.
After 13News reported on the eviction notices a few weeks ago, REW Investments dismissed lawsuits in Clinton County Circuit Court against both Shuck and Fouse – but only after good Samaritans came forward to pay their overdue rent. Shuck says the landlord still charged late fees and court costs.
Under the federal CARES Act, landlords may not issue evictions or impose late fees and court costs on tenants who live in federally-subsidized housing. That law is in place until July 25, and Congress is currently considering extending that date. It appears Indiana’s eviction moratorium does not offer the same protections, according to Beeler.
“If it’s a private landlord-tenant relationship, landlords are allowed to enforce lease provisions, so if late fees and court costs are part of the lease, those are valid potential debts the tenants could owe,” Beeler told 13News. “Landlords are entitled to those fees, but it doesn’t look great to impose those in the middle of a pandemic. And technically, there should not be evictions filed right now for late payments resulting from COVID.”
While eviction moratoriums will not expire until at least July, Indiana Legal Services recommends tenants who have fallen behind on their rent payments due to COVID-19 proactively work with their landlords to avoid future legal action.
“We have seen folks trying to get ahead of the problem, trying to say ‘Listen, I lost my job due to COVID, I can’t pay my rent, what can I do?’” he said. “Some general advice we are trying to give is to work with the landlords. If they can get on payment plans in advance and work those out in writing … that can be an email and quite frankly that can be a text message confirming with the landlord ‘Hey, I will pay this amount of money for the next few months until I make up the rent.’ Trying to get those agreements in writing as soon as possible is going to help those tenants once the moratoriums are lifted.”
In Indianapolis, city leaders approved a Tenant’s Bill of Rights and anti-retaliation statute in February. Part of the initiative also included funding for a Tenant Legal Assistance Project to help Marion County renters facing legal questions about eviction and other tenant-landlord issues. Thursday’s free legal clinic is the start of that project, which was originally planned as in-person events at the Warren Township Small Claims Court. But due to the pandemic, the legal assistance will instead be offered as a call-in hotline on the third Thursday of every month, from 10 a.m. to noon.
The hotline is intended to assist low-income tenants who live in Marion County. But tenants from other Indiana cities can call Indiana Legal Services’ general intake line (844-243-8570) weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to be connected to help. Individuals seeking legal assistance can also contact the agency online at IndianaLegalServices.org.
Tenant Legal Assistance Hotline (Marion County)
10 a.m. to noon
Third Thursday of each month
Tenant Legal Assistance (All Indiana Counties)
Indiana Legal Services
844-243-8570 (10 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. weekdays)
More information at IndianaLegalService.org
Other places to get or give help
Many communities have local programs to assist renters facing eviction, including emergency rental assistance from Township Trustee offices.
Indiana’s Hardest Hit Fund provides mortgage payment assistance up to $30,000 to qualifying applicants, and free foreclosure prevention counseling to any Indiana homeowner who needs it.
Indiana Legal Services offers free legal assistance to low-income Hoosiers and can help provide legal counseling to families at risk of eviction and foreclosure. The non-profit organization has provided the following list of resources to assist tenants during the COVID-19 crisis:
- Indiana Legal Services website is being constantly updated with the latest news and legal resources for not only evictions, but also for foreclosures, consumer issues (fraud/scams), and benefits
- Indianapolis Tenant Hotline (Marion County residents only)
- This new tenant initiative provides legal information about tenant's rights, and makes referrals to legal aid, when appropriate: (317) 327-2228 (2ACT)
- Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana
- If tenants in Central Indiana believe they are being discriminated against based on protected class status (e.g., race, gender, etc.): www.fhcci.org
- Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA)
- This agency administers some federally subsidized properties throughout Indiana (including many properties covered under the CARES Act eviction moratorium)