Judy Fox is a University of Notre Dame law professor and directs the school’s Economic Justice Clinic. She’s represented low-income clients on eviction cases for more than two decades but said now is the worst she’s ever seen.
“Once an eviction is filed in court, it becomes like a scarlet letter,” Fox said. “It’s very hard for people to find other housing, to get relocated once that filing has been made.”
Speaking during a Wednesday night discussion hosted by the Community Forum for Economic Justice, Fox said that despite the implementation of the Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium earlier this month, St. Joseph County is experiencing an eviction crisis made worse by a lack of affordable housing.
“I can’t find housing for my clients — I have to look them in the eye and say you will be homeless,” Fox said. “I’ve called all of the landlords I know; I’ve called all of the agencies I know, the homeless center is full, there’s nowhere to go.”
According to the Princeton University Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions across the United States, St. Joseph County had 157 evictions filed in July and 63 so far in August. Similarly, Elkhart County had 118 evictions filed in the last 30 days.
Those numbers are below historical averages — St. Joseph County’s July filings were down about 44 percent compared to pre-pandemic, for example — but Fox said they are still too high and disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities.
The Biden administration did issue an eviction moratorium through the Centers for Disease Control earlier this month, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision Thursday night.
All three liberal justices dissented from the unsigned opinion, which was issued without hearing oral arguments. It said the CDC exceeded its authority with the temporary eviction ban.
The moratorium was supposed to run through Oct. 3, but did not apply to everyone.
Instead, it could only help people who were adversely economically affected by the pandemic and lived in counties with “substantial” or “high” community COVID-19 transmission.
In addition, the CDC moratorium did not absolve any rent payments — so tenants also had to seek rental assistance.
How can you get assistance?
St. Joseph County does have an Emergency Rental Assistance Program established with federal stimulus money. The program is still available despite the Supreme Court striking down the CDC eviction moratorium.
To apply, applicants must meet all the following criteria:
- Are currently a resident of St. Joseph County
- Name appears on the rental lease
- Income is less than 80% of the median household income in St. Joseph County, which is $52,769 for a family of four and $27,208 for an individual.
- Demonstrate housing instability or risk of homelessness due to COVID-19
In addition, they also must meet one of the following requirements and provide supporting documentation:
- A member of the applicant's household has received unemployment benefits since April 1, 2020
- The applicant's household has experienced a reduction in household income due to an involuntary job layoff, reduced work hours, or reduced pay
- The applicant's household incurred significant costs or experienced a financial hardship due to COVID-19
Priority consideration is given to applicants who have already received a notice of eviction, have a household member unemployed for at least 90 days at the time of submission and applicants with a household income of less than 50 percent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Fiscal Year Income Limits.
Those change by the number of people in a household but include $35,400 for a family of four and $24,800 for an individual.
But Fox said many people who could qualify for the program don’t even know it exists or have trouble getting all the documentation.
“As much as we’ve been out there trying to tell people about it, a lot of people don’t know about it,” Fox said. “The county has a lot of money; it’s just getting people to know how to use it.”
One recurring issue? Having your name on a lease.
“Many of my clients, many low income people do not have an actual written lease,” Fox said. “They’re month-to-month tenants.”
And sometimes, landlords just refuse to work with the program.
“There are a couple large apartment complexes here in South Bend that have been refusing the money,” Fox said. “And they have a lot of tenants, and they file a lot of evictions.”
Fox said there are a whole host of reasons, from not wanting to give details of their business to just wanting a new tenant who’s not unemployed, as the rental market is currently very competitive.
“That’s why I would prefer if we would adopt what some other states have adopted,” Fox said. “Just work with the tenant and not involve the landlord if they’re going to be a problem.”
Still, Fox said the program has helped a lot of people.
During the Wednesday evening forum, St. Joseph County Council President Pro-Tempore Diana Hess said it has spent nearly $5 million, about a third of its total.
That’s a better track record than much of the country — on Wednesday, the Treasury Department said states and cities have only distributed 11 percent of the tens of billions of dollars in federal rental assistance.
“Our county, I’m pretty proud to say, has done a very good job of pushing that money out.” Hess said. “We have already expended $4.9 million in rental assistance here in this county. We’ve approved 1,188 requests and have almost another 2,500 waiting.”
Hess expects all the money to be spent by October, but the program is getting more federal dollars later in the year.
You can submit a program application online, but if you need help, Fox said any of the following agencies can offer assistance. Some could also help with mortgage assistance or utility bills in addition to rent:
- St. Vincent De Paul Society
- REAL Services, Inc.
- Indiana Parenting Institute of St. Joseph County
- Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Inc.
- United Religious Community of St. Joseph County
And if you need rental assistance but don’t qualify for the CDC order or the county program, Fox recommends reaching out to St. Vincent De Paul or REAL Services.
“They often know who else might have money that might be able to help,” Fox said.
What if you are a homeowner struggling to afford your mortgage?
Fox said she’s also concerned about a potential foreclosure crisis.
During the pandemic, many people requested and were given mortgage forbearance — basically, you don’t have to make payments, but you still owe all the money once the forbearance is over. Most forbearance programs are currently set to expire Aug. 31.
Fox said older homeowners are especially vulnerable, as they are less likely to be internet savvy or know how to apply for help.
Indiana was allocated $167.9 million through the American Rescue Plan to prevent foreclosures. The state’s Homeowners Assistance Fund is supposed to start taking applications this August, but it’s still under development.
Currently, you can sign up to be notified when the application portal opens.
“Keep your eyes and ears open for that,” Fox said. “There’s a lot of money in that fund as well that’s supposed to help people with mortgages to make sure they don’t lose their homes.”
Solutions to Indiana’s eviction crisis
Despite the pandemic making the situation worse, Fox said Indiana has had an eviction crisis “long before COVID,” and that Indiana laws are very unfavorable to tenants.
“Indiana has ranked among the top states in the country for evictions,” Fox said. “Three of our cities — Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend are in the top cities for evictions.”
And she has a blueprint for reform — “How Indiana Courts Can Prevent Evictions: Responding to a Looming Public Health and Economic Crisis.”
Released July 28, the report was developed in collaboration with the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law’s Health and Human Rights Clinic and the Indiana Justice Project.
It outlines eight steps Indiana could take to decrease the level of evictions.
Firstly, it recommends making participation in Indiana’s Landlord and Tenant Settlement Conference Program mandatory before an eviction is filed.
Indiana launched the optional program last year, which aims to help landlords and tenants see if they can reach an eviction settlement out of court. But tenant advocates say it doesn’t have enough buy-in to be effective.
As of Aug. 4, the program has received 791 requests for mediation, but only 46 have been facilitated and just 26 resulted in a tenant staying in the property.
Secondly, the report recommends clearer notices for eviction hearings, as many people do not show up and get evicted without having a chance to present their case.
Fox said Indiana handles evictions via a bifurcated procedure, with two hearings on different dates — the first is the actual eviction hearing, and the second is a trial that determines if there is any damages.
For example, St. Joseph County puts these two dates on different pages, so Fox said it’s easy to get confused and miss your actual eviction hearing.
“Indiana courts in some other counties have changed the form so both dates are on the front page,” Fox said. “And at the very minimum, we should be doing that in St. Joe County.”
Thirdly, the report recommends restricting access to eviction court filings and limiting the use of eviction records. Fox said currently, tenants are blocked from renting apartments even if they win their eviction case.
“Landlords have told us over and over again — they don’t look to see what the result is. If there’s an eviction filed, they’re not going to rent to you,” Fox said. “There’s such a shortage of housing right now that they can be extremely picky about what tenants they take.”
In addition, she wants evictions to be expungeable like criminal records.
“If you were evicted 10 years ago, should that matter today?” Fox said. “We’d like to see there be a 3-to-5-year limit on when those records show up, so they don’t continue to haunt somebody for the rest of their life.”
Fourthly, the report recommends mandating the right to counsel in eviction proceedings — currently, tenants are not entitled to an attorney.
Linked to that, it also recommends changes in how eviction courts handle defenses.
“The Supreme Court has said multiple times that tenants have a right to defenses,” Fox said. “They have the right to say, ‘Look, I wasn’t paying my rent because I had to go out and buy a new toilet because my landlord wouldn’t fix my toilet.’ But unfortunately, many judges don’t let tenants present their defenses.”
Fox said one of the “main reasons” people have not paid their rent is because they’re withholding it until the landlord makes repairs, but Indiana “doesn’t really allow you to do that.”
“The judges consistently say, ‘Well if it’s so bad, why did you stay?’” Fox said. “And I can tell you the answer 100 percent of the time has been, ‘Because I can’t find anywhere else to go.’”
Finally, the report recommends creating more eviction diversion programs and supporting more research on evictions, as current data is not good.
In addition, Fox advocated for more affordable housing and said many county residents are rent burdened — or spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Potential solutions in that area include an expanded federal Section 8 voucher program or the creation of a local voucher program. She also wants to make it harder for landlords to reject tenants with housing vouchers.
“Most people are renting houses they really can't afford, but they have no other choice,” Fox said. “Which means they’re one flat tire or one illness from not being able to pay their rent.”
This story was updated Aug. 27 following news that the Supreme Court struck down the CDC eviction moratorium.
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