by Connie Thompson
In March 2020, both houses of the Indiana Legislature passed Senate Enrolled Act 148, with support from Republicans and Democrats alike. This bill would have nullified any city ordinances protecting tenants’ rights by making it illegal for any town, city, or county council to pass laws regulating the landlord-tenant relationship in any way. Constrained by social atmosphere around the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Holcomb vetoed the bill.
Currently, there are few protections for tenants in Indiana. Indiana does not allow tenants to withhold rent for disrepair of their housing and repair costs incurred by the tenant are not legally required to be deducted from rent. The absence of such statewide protections has resulted in widespread slumlording, where landlords rent out decrepit and unsafe homes to unprotected tenants, and it has also resulted in high eviction rates here in the Hoosier State. A study from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found that Indianapolis, in spite of having a population under 1 million, has the second highest total number of evictions of any city in the country. Only New York City, which has over 8 million people, had more evictions.
The scant protections available for Hoosier tenants are found under ordinances that people have fought for and won locally. SEA 148 was an attempt, proposed by several legislators with direct ties to real estate companies, to undermine these efforts.
While Holcomb’s veto is a small win for the working class, it’s definitely not to the credit of the governor. Holcomb said that his reasoning for the veto was that it is “not the right time,” citing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Indiana, especially downtown Indianapolis, disproportionately harder than states of similar populations. While these extraordinary times do explain his choice, Holcomb’s language suggests that he intends on removing the legislative power of municipalities once it is “the right time,” whenever that may be. Holcomb is still a friend of the real estate corporations, and not the people.
Despite vetoing SEA 148, Holcomb signed House Bill 1022, which is a disaster for poor people. Known as the “panhandling bill,” HB 1022 prohibits panhandling within 50 feet of an ATM, public monument, bus stop, restaurant, bank, parking meter, garage, and any place where a “financial transaction” takes place.
Housing access is a deeply racial issue. The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention reported 1,567 people experiencing homelessness at one point in time in Indianapolis last year. While African Americans make up 27%, of the population of Marion County, they are 67% of the county’s homeless population.
Other oppressed people, including the disabled, queer, and gender non-conforming, are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to housing.
The homelessness and poverty crisis in Indiana is directly exacerbated by racist and oppressive legislation, expensive rent, minimal regulations placed on landlords, and nearly nonexistent protections for tenants. If Holcomb truly cared about those affected, especially during a global pandemic, he would have vetoed HB 1022 and not left the door open for a future iteration of SEA 148.
We can’t count on individual politicians to fight for the rights we all need. That’s up to us.