Editorial: Housing needs more attention at Statehouse

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The (Columbus) Republic

By now it’s generally accepted that Indiana has an affordable housing crisis. People of low to moderate income face incredible challenges in simply securing a habitable roof over their heads that doesn’t consume the majority of their income.

In such an environment, it’s also generally accepted that landlords hold disproportionate power. Tenants in Indiana are supposed to have rights in addition to obligations under the law. But when tenants try to exercise those rights — such as by withholding rent until the heat is fixed — it’s also generally accepted that they are asking for retaliation, maybe eviction.

That’s why it was so disappointing that a modest reform bill authored by Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, fell on deaf ears at the Statehouse this year.

Walker wrote Senate Bill 277, which you might characterize as an anti-slumlord bill. Among other things, it would have established procedures through which tenants would be able pay rent to a court-held escrow account if the landlord was refusing to repair broken essential systems, mitigate pests or mold, or otherwise failing to meet their obligations under the law to furnish a habitable rental.

These are not radical ideas. To the contrary, Indiana is among just five states without some form of tenant escrow law like SB277 would have provided, according to a 2022 study for Prosperity Indiana conducted by the Student Policy Network at the University of Notre Dame.

Last year, a similar bill was authored by a Democratic lawmaker. It went nowhere. Realizing this was an important issue, Walker authored SB277 this session. The thought was that a Republican-offered bill would fare better in a legislature controlled by a Republican supermajority.

But Senate Local Government Committee Chairman James Buck, R-Kokomo, killed the bill in committee, refusing to even schedule a hearing.

Buck, a retired real estate broker, may have had his reasons. Aside from Republican Party organizations and candidates, a leading donor to Buck’s campaign was the Indiana Multifamily Housing PAC. That landlord-friendly lobbying arm of the Indiana Apartment Association wrote Buck’s campaign checks totaling $14,000 since 2020, state campaign finance records show.

For Buck, that is, at the very least, a perception problem. But Hoosier tenants have a real problem: elected leaders who use their power to block even the consideration of long-overdue reforms.

As the Indiana Capital Chronicle reported last week, citizen groups such as Prosperity Indiana, Hoosier Action and others rallied at the Statehouse demanding better for Hoosier renters.

“In Indiana, there’s only 39 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households,” said Andrew Bradley, the policy director for Prosperity Indiana. “We need tools like (Senate Bill) 277 but, unfortunately, it wasn’t given a hearing.”

Bradley, speaking on behalf of the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition, called on Gov. Eric Holcomb to appoint a commission on housing affordability and stability following inaction from the General Assembly.

That would be the very the least that state government could do to help mitigate this ongoing crisis, but it’s an open question whether they will even do that.

The (Columbus) Republic is a sister newspaper to the Daily Reporter.