The Thursday afternoon session of the Warren Township Small Claims Court on the east side of Indianapolis begins with a clerk reading out loud the terms of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium on evictions. This applies to renters at risk of becoming homeless because they lost substantial income due to reduced work hours or medical issues who have been trying to obtain rental assistance while paying what they can to their landlords, the clerk announces. Tenants who qualify can submit a declaration to their landlord that should keep them in their homes for the time being.
Judge Garland Graves takes the bench, and the hearings begin. One of the tenants who is facing eviction this afternoon, a young mother, tells Judge Graves that she had not understood the moratorium before the clerk read it aloud. It turns out she had COVID, lost her job, and is awaiting a decision on her application for help with her rent. The judge instructs her on how to file a declaration that may postpone her eviction.
But her reprieve may not be for long. The CDC moratorium is set to expire on July 31, and Indiana, like most states, has no current local or state moratoriums that would protect tenants. This young mother in Indianapolis, like many across the nation, sits on the verge of an eviction crisis.
Most likely, her case will get added to the three-hundred-plus stack of evictions in this court, all set for hearings soon after the moratorium expires. Graves estimates more than a thousand eviction cases are pending in other courts in the Indianapolis area.
“I think both landlords and tenants see the end of the road for the CDC moratorium coming,” he says. “The rent some of these tenants owe is more than they can catch up on, and some landlords are refusing to accept government rental assistance. So we have a huge number of evictions set to happen once the moratorium ends.”
Neighborhoods and housing courts across the country face the same looming surge of families being thrown out of their homes. Up to now, the wave of evictions has been largely held at bay by the federal response to COVID-triggered economic struggles. Between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, many laid-off workers have received extra unemployment payments, which were expanded to cover gig workers and others who historically did not qualify. More than $40 billion has been earmarked to rental assistance — even though much of that money has been very slow to reach renters — while various eviction stays have been issued, including the national CDC moratorium.
But for many renters, the temporary government payments and moratoriums delayed the pain without remedying it. According to The State of the Nation’s Housing report, released June 16 by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than half of all renter households lost employment income between March 2020 and March of this year. One in five renter households is behind on rent. Among black renter households, that number rises to nearly one in three.
For tenants unable to keep up with the rent, the harm will likely go far beyond losing their current homes. A landlord’s mere filing of a court request for eviction, even if the case ends up being dismissed or settled, is sometimes referred to as the “Scarlet E,” since it will severely restrict the tenant’s housing options for many years. Many landlords check court records and automatically reject applicants with a previous eviction filing.
As a result, many Americans with a past eviction filing become homeless or are forced to rely on expensive, tenuous extended-stay motels that accept “bad credit” tenants — in return for far higher housing costs and no lease protections.
Beyond the damage caused to the tenant’s prospects in the private housing market, an eviction filing can disqualify a tenant from eligibility for a scarce and valuable spot in federally funded housing programs. For example, one elderly Chicago tenant had her landlord dismiss an eviction filing after it was discovered that a rent collector had been stealing the money the tenant had been paying faithfully. Yet that eviction filing’s presence on her record caused the tenant to be denied a spot in senior subsidized housing.
Nationwide, the impact is expected to be devastating. “We are preparing for an increase in eviction filings after the moratorium ends, and possibly a big increase in families losing housing and becoming homeless,” says Alieza Durana, a spokesperson for the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. “The pandemic has really laid bare the housing crisis in this country, including how we treat black families, especially the women with children who are all evicted at disproportionate rates. But this is not new. The fear is we may go back to the pre-pandemic level of evictions of 3.7 million per year, which is seven people being evicted every minute.”
The people most at risk of being thrown out of their homes are well aware of what is coming. The US Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey issued on June 15 showed that nearly 4.2 million people nationwide report that it is “likely” or “somewhat likely” that they will be evicted or foreclosed upon in the next two months.
The Problem With Indiana
For Indiana renters, the situation is even grimmer than in much of the rest of the country. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the director of the Eviction Lab’s tracking system singled out Indiana as one of the states with the highest risk for a post-moratorium surge in evictions, as a result of both limited rental assistance and no significant state-level eviction protections.
That conclusion is not surprising, given Indiana’s consistently high ranking among states with the highest eviction rates. The most recent available data show the Indiana cities of Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, and South Bend all rank in the top twenty cities in the United States for eviction rates. In Indianapolis in 2016, an average of nearly thirty-two households were evicted every day — the highest rate for US cities with a population over five hundred thousand.
During the past year, the CDC moratorium slowed that rate. But in Indiana and beyond, this may only be delaying the inevitable, since the moratorium does not prevent landlords from eventually demanding all rent that has accrued. In Indiana, nearly 20 percent of renters were unable to make any payments as of December 2020. Calls to Indiana’s 211 helpline in late 2020 were showing housing and utility costs as the top unmet need. As Judge Graves notes, federal pandemic tenant assistance funds have been made available in Indiana, but many landlords are choosing not to participate in the programs.
Many of the most stubborn landlords are those who rent to parents with children, particularly black parents. Children spending more time at home during the pandemic has increased landlord-tenant tensions, consistent with the longtime evidence that the presence of children increases the likelihood of an eviction. Multiple national studies show that black women with children are particularly at risk of being evicted, so it is not surprising that recent Indiana data show that black and Latino households are at the greatest risk of post-moratorium evictions.
Most often, tenants’ struggles come down to a simple, brutal fact: they do not have enough income to afford high rent costs. More than half of Indiana’s eight hundred thousand renters lost employment income during the pandemic, and fewer than one in four eligible low-income renters is able to access federally supported housing programs. That leaves most low-income Hoosiers at the mercy of the for-profit housing market, where affordable options are scarce.
As reported by Prosperity Indiana and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, even modest rental units in Indiana come with a rent that takes up an unsustainable percentage of many Hoosier workers’ wages. For example, a fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Indiana is $848. If a worker is going to devote the recommended 30 percent of their income to housing, they need to earn over $16 per hour in full-time employment, or even higher in Indianapolis and other metropolitan areas.
The $16-per-hour full-time wage needed to afford housing is significantly higher than the average Indiana renter wage of closer to $14 per hour. And it is far above the wages of workers in fields like home care, retail, and food service, industries disproportionally impacted by the pandemic — not to mention the very limited incomes of people living with disabilities. The gap between the income needed and the rent demanded causes financial strain, and a breaking point often occurs when an unexpected medical, family, or transportation cost arises. Nationally, far and away the top reason for eviction is nonpayment of rent.
Eviction in the Spotlight
On paper, it seems like procedural safeguards, including the moratorium, should protect struggling tenants. But national and local advocates say that the respect shown for the CDC moratorium in Judge Graves’s court is more the exception than the norm. Brandon Beeler, director of the Housing Law Center at Indiana Legal Services, says that landlords and courts across the state routinely fail to inform tenants of the moratorium’s protections. Many Indiana tenants have already been evicted even though they qualified for extra time to stay in their homes, he says.
Beeler’s observations reflect an overall approach across state government and the legal system that weighs the scales of justice heavily in favor of landlords over tenants. In one Indiana county, the court was discovered to be using a court reporter to issue pre-signed eviction orders, refusing to allow tenants to even speak to the judge before stamping a court order forcing them out. A client of Beeler’s saw her rental home’s roof cave in during a snowstorm. When the landlord refused to fix it, the tenant rigged up a tarp to keep snow out of the home and held back some of her rent payment. The court found that the gaping hole in her roof was no excuse for not paying in full and ordered her evicted.
“It is difficult to avoid being evicted if the tenant did not pay rent — even if the tenant has complained about deplorable housing conditions,” Beeler says. “Most tenants do not have an attorney. When unrepresented tenants go to court, they don’t know how or when they could raise legal defenses, so the issue comes down to nonpayment of rent, and, by and large, they lose the case.”
Indiana’s failure to provide due process for renters is so acute that even the state’s chief justice of its Supreme Court highlighted it in her 2020 State of the Judiciary address:
I recently spent a morning in a small claims court. The morning docket included 275 eviction cases. None of the defendants/tenants had legal representation. Not one. They all faced the judge and opposing lawyer alone. That is not the model of a legal system where the poor, disadvantaged, and vulnerable are protected.
The audience for Chief Justice Loretta Rush’s observation was the Indiana General Assembly. But when the city of Indianapolis tried to adopt local protections for tenants whose landlords retaliated against them for reporting poor conditions, those same state legislators passed a law making such local ordinances illegal.
As bad as the environment in Indiana is for renters, several other states seem intent on matching it. The Eviction Lab’s Alieza Durana points out that many judges in states like Texas have been ignoring the CDC moratorium for months, and tenants in those states enjoy few due-process protections. In Florida, for example, landlords can obtain an immediate default judgment against any tenant who does not deposit all unpaid rent within five days of receiving the court notice — no court hearing required. Over 40 percent of eviction cases in the state end in this automatic default ruling against the tenant.
Beeler fears that the summer’s eviction surge will further weaken Indiana’s already limited protections for renters. “The emergency rental assistance funds are still coming in, so there should be time allowed for renters to catch up,” he says. “But my concern for our clients is that this coming high volume of cases overflowing dockets will make these courts act even more transactional on landlord-tenant cases than they already do.”
To Durana of the Eviction Lab, the struggles in Indiana and other states illustrate a systemic problem that predates COVID. “Property rights are formalized in the US Constitution, but we do not have an equivalent set of rights set out nationally for tenants,” she says. “Eviction is not just a condition of poverty; it is a major cause of it. It has been unregulated for a very long time, and the pandemic is just putting that into the spotlight.”