Supreme Court blocks Biden’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium
Blocking the eviction moratorium allows property owners to begin evicting millions of Americans who are behind on rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
STAFF VIDEO, USA TODAY
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of households Indianapolis has helped pay rent since July 2020. The city has helped more than 32,000 households in that time.
When the pandemic first hit last March, longtime Delaware Township Trustee Debbie Driskell sent a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb offering township trustees’ help as financial assistance requests climbed, asking that they be a part of the distribution of federal funds.
“We are in an emergency situation and at this time, the Townships are seeing a substantial increase in financial assistance requests,” Driskell wrote in the April 1, 2020, letter. “Trustees are the only ones that are equipped and trained to fairly and quickly assist our constituents in a time of need.”
Driskell, the executive director of the Indiana Township Association, said she never got a response.
Township trustees are supposed to be the elected officials that residents go to in their worst moment of crisis, when they need help paying rent or utilities.
Evictions: ‘Have you no sympathy?’ Evictions skyrocket as Indiana sits on $544M in rental assistance
Indiana: As thousands face evictions, Democratic lawmakers urge governor to hasten rental assistance
Yet, all but five of the 1,000-plus township trustees offices across Indiana are not directly involved in the state’s administration or distribution of emergency rental aid. And those five are involved only in processing emergency rental assistance applications as paid contractors for the whole state, and not in the distribution of funds.
Township trustees interviewed by IndyStar said it makes little sense that they have been “cut out” of the COVID-19 rental assistance efforts.
“That’s like not giving your best running back the ball,” said Brendan Clancy, the Portage Township trustee in Porter County. He added that township government is “the government closest to the people.”
The governor’s office did not respond to questions about why the township association’s letter requesting to be involved in the distribution of federal rent relief dollars went ignored.
Indiana’s rental distribution efforts have been slammed by advocates as a “crisis” and a “failure”. Indiana is one of the 22 states where the state and local rental assistance programs together failed to spend at least 30% of its eligible first round emergency rental assistance funds on households in need by the Sept. 30 federal deadline, according to a Oct. 25 report on emergency rental assistance spending issued by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Furthermore, Indiana’s state-run rental assistance program also failed to allocate 65% of first round emergency rental assistance funds to residents in need by the Sept. 30federal deadline.
Because Indiana failed to meet both requirements, it could have to return about $49.3 million to the federal government, according to the latest guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury Department on Oct. 4.
A Treasury department official told IndyStar that Indiana may be able to avoid losing those funds if, by Nov. 15, it is able to show to the Treasury that it has met both requirements, or if it submits a program improvement plan that, if approved, would result in a one-time increase of 15% in their rental and utility assistance spending.
“I’m not happy because the trustees could have used that funding,” said Lisa Pierzakowski, the Center Township Trustee in LaPorte county. “I know some of the townships here are running out of funding. I know I used more funding this year than I’ve ever used. It’s the government that caused most of these problems in the first place, had we received the money to help us get out of this, we would be in a lot better shape.”
Holcomb’s office defended the state’s efforts by pointing IndyStar to a letter Holcomb wrote to the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, on Oct. 5 appealing for help regarding Indiana’s emergency rental assistance program.
In the letter, Holcomb wrote that the Indiana housing authority “has worked diligently to incorporate best practices to streamline its procedures” and pointed out how it managed to significantly increase the allocation of rental assistance funds.
The state has also implemented a voluntary eviction diversion program, although tenant attorneys have expressed concern that the program may be less effective because it does not mandate landlords participate.
The state rental assistance program has been beleaguered with problems including slow distribution due to a lack of infrastructure, lack of publicity and an online application process that non-internet-savvy tenants or landlords have a hard time using.
As of Sept. 30, the state emergency rental aid program had allocated only 57% of the first round funds to local governments in various parts of the state or to individuals.
The Treasury Department is requiring Indiana to propose improvements to its existing rental aid distribution system.
Township trustees — among other community organizations — should be a part of that, said Andrew Bradley, policy director of Prosperity Indiana. Township trustees interviewed by IndyStar agreed.
Trustees: we need more pandemic-time funding
In Driskell’s April letter asking for a portion of CARES Act funding, she emphasized that trustees needed financial support.
“Trustees want you to understand that with the uptick in financial needs,” she said, “the Townships will not be able to assist all residents that request help without additional financial support from the stimulus package given to the State by the Federal Government.”
Indiana Housing Authority spokesperson Lauren Houck said in an email to IndyStar that townships were told to let state officials know if they were low on money.
“Last year, the Indiana Township Association leadership was advised that if township trustees exhausted their funds due to an increase in requests for assistance, to let state officials know so that additional funding could be considered,” Houck said. “Thankfully, the state has been able to administer successful rental assistance programs, and the fears of the township trustees were not realized.”
Township trustees disagreed. In interviews with IndyStar, they painted a picture of operating on a shoe-string budget with no help from the state, all while on the front line helping tenants avoid becoming homeless.
Pierzakowski said at least seven of her clients have been waiting six months to receive state rental assistance. In the meantime, the township has had to step in and use its own funds to keep these tenants from being evicted. They’ve tapped into a $30,000 grant from United Way and a $100,000 allocation from the county council’s American Rescue Plan.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said, adding that she had made appeals to state representatives and senators to receive more funding to no avail. “Why would you not give it to the agency that is the very first person that everybody sees?
Trustees suited to distribute aid, they say
A major obstacle for state and local rental assistance programs during the pandemic has been getting landlords to cooperate with completing the application — providing the lease and necessary verification that a tenant is behind on rent — or to accept rental assistance at all.
The process can cause delays, resulting in the aid not arriving soon enough to help a tenant stave off eviction.
Driskell said township trustees’ offices are better suited than state bureaucrats to negotiate with landlords and help tenants get their rent paid, ensuring the landlords receive payments and Hoosiers remain housed.
“It’s much easier to negotiate with a landlord when you identify yourself as someone who knows the area, and understands what they’re going through,” she added.
Yet, trustees’ role in distributing pandemic-time rental aid has been limited to “processing paperwork,” said Driskell.
Driskell said the involvement of trustees in this manner does not make sense because it is not being not localized: A trustee in Fishers is expected to process applications for tenants and contact landlords in Evansville.
Jesse Harper, the Center Township trustee in Porter County, added that trustees are able to act more proactively than the state because of their depth of local knowledge. They know which residents are single moms who may be affected by schools closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks. They know who works in hardest-hit industries, like restaurants and hair salons.
“People who work in state government aren’t seeing people on a daily basis that are one crisis away from having their heads under water,” he said, “and we come into contact everyday with people who are one emergency away.”
Harper said the state failed to foresee the “tsunami” of renters who would be badly-hit by the pandemic and did not staff up accordingly.
“The people outside the trustees office have a Pollyannaish view of what’s out there and I think they were caught flat footed about the amount of applications they received and how much work it would take to get the money out that,” Harper said. “The trustees could have done that,” he added, if only they had been given the funds and the chance to help.
Likewise, the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition, a non-profit organization that researches affordable housing, said in a September report that governments should collaborate with township trustees to distribute rental aid.
The report pointed to La Porte County as the most successful county under the state-run emergency rental assistance program in serving the largest proportion of households. There, almost a third of the county’s estimated 1,354 rental households who are behind on rental payments received rental assistance.
A reason for their success, according to the report?
The County created a rental assistance program in partnership with the township trustees, using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.
That said, not all successful rental assistance programs have relied on trustees.
Indianapolis has used all of its first round of federal rental aid dollars, and helped more than 32,000 households pay their rent since July 2020.
And they did it by partnering with thirteen neighborhood centers who already shared the same technological platform for energy assistance applications, making it easier to scale-up the program for rental assistance, said Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett, who leads the IndyRent assistance program. Bennett said they have been able to run the program without involving trustees so far, but that may change as the program begins to offer more rental assistance.
Trustees being shut out is not new
Township trustees say the current pandemic-time struggle is a holdover from another moment in history when township government was under siege: during Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration, when he was among those who fought to eliminate township government in order to reduce government waste and taxes.
Under his leadership, the 2007 Kernan-Shepherd report issued scathing criticism of township government, criticism which still has political ramifications today, township trustees said.
Daniels’ attempts to get rid of township government were ultimately defeated in the December 2009 legislative session, and since then government leaders have avoided any serious push for change. Still, there are critics of township government.
“There has been a push in the state of Indiana going on almost 20 years to get rid of township government,” said Harper. “And being cut out of the COVID funding, there was definitely an element of that in there. Do I think that played a part in the decision making? Absolutely.
“The more irrelevant township government can be made to seem, the better for the people who want to do away with township government.”
When asked for comment, Erin Murphy, a spokesperson for Holcomb’s office, reiterated the housing authority’s stance that township trustees were encouraged to reach out if they exhausted their funds, and that only five trustees applied to help process applications for rental assistance.
At least one county is considering turning to trustee’s offices for help in the future: Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett told IndyStar that the IndyRent program is strongly considering partnering with the county’s nine trustees offices to administer rental aid in the future and that they have had initial conversations to that end.
Contact IndyStar reporter Ko Lyn Cheang at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-903-7071. Follow her on Twitter: @kolyn_cheang.
Credit: Source link