MUNCIE, Ind. — Standing in front of the Delaware County Justice Center in late August, two groups, Freedom First International and the Muncie Housing Crisis Coalition, began their anti-eviction campaign.
Those speaking called for a complete halt to evictions, locally and nationwide, as the pandemic continues.
Founded in 2009, Freedom First International is an organization working in cities across the country, focusing on research and advocacy on human rights-related issues.
During the press conference, Bishop Gregg L. Greer, founder and president of Freedom First International, said Muncie was the start of a campaign.
“We are here, because as of right now, in the buildings behind us and surrounding the courthouse, folks are getting evicted,” said Greer, who currently lives in Indianapolis. “As of right now, people are losing their homes.”
After saying local and federal governments were not doing enough to stop the eviction crisis, Greer called for local organizations to join his effort, especially if they are already working to provide cooperative housing or COVID-19 assistance.
Expanding from Muncie, he wants to take the campaign to other cities, including Chicago and New York City. The group also will challenge any unethical or unlawful evictions.
Monica James, a local woman who helped spearhead the campaign, said she’s been approached by many local residents who are currently facing eviction or foreclosure. To help be their voice, she started the Muncie Housing Crisis Coalition.
James started the campaign at the beginning of August when her 78-year-old mother, to whom she hadn’t spoken in years, reached out to her to say she was facing foreclosure.
Since creating the coalition on her mother’s behalf, she has received messages not only from others in Muncie, but from all across the country, asking for her help in their eviction cases. She’s heard many stories of illegal evictions and of people living out of their cars.
“If we don’t start in Muncie, where do we start? We have a huge homeless population, and those numbers are now doubling,” James said. “They’re doubling quietly because people are embarrassed and don’t want to speak up.”
From there, James contacted Greer, asking if he would partner with her to address the issue of eviction on a larger platform. She now serves as Freedom First International’s vice president.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, renters in Indiana were already burdened.
According to Eviction Lab, an organization making nationwide eviction data publicly available, multiple cities in Indiana were in the top 100 for evictions nationwide, including Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary and Lawrence. Housing is also the number one unmet need reported to the Indiana 211 hotline.
The median rent for Delaware County is $750 compared to Indiana’s overall average at $820. However, 52% of renters in Delaware County are putting more than 30% of their income towards rent, and 31% are paying more than 50%, according to PathStone, a nonprofit organization that provides housing counseling.
How has COVID-19 impacted renters and landlords in Delaware County? From the CDC’s new moratorium to local assistance programs, here’s what you need to know:
Are evictions on the rise?
As Gov. Eric Holcomb’s eviction moratorium for the state of Indiana came to an end on Aug. 14, many wondered if eviction numbers would rise.
For Delaware County Courts Administrator Emily Anderson, it’s been hard to tell, since data for tracking evictions in Indiana only recently became available.
Cases covered in small claims court, Anderson explained, fall into three different categories: going to court for money, recovering personal property and eviction. Until late August, “There was no way for us to track how many evictions had been filed, unless we went case-by-case and looked at the complaint,” Anderson said.
With an interest in evictions “skyrocketing” due to the virus, Anderson said the state stepped in and created a sub-category so evictions could be tracked.
While the courts can now track new eviction cases, Anderson said it may be difficult to catch ones that happened earlier in the pandemic. Someone would have to go back, even as far as January, and input the cases.
“Keeping track of all of this has been really difficult; it’s been changing ever since we started with the pandemic. Since day one, we’ve had so many changes, ongoing, every day,” Anderson said. “And evictions is one of them. I can say yes, I feel that there has been an increase, but I can’t say definitely, because we’ve had no way to track that.”
Not being able to track evictions has caused issues not only for the courts, but for researchers as well. John West, an assistant professor of urban planning at Ball State University, has also had trouble looking at eviction numbers at the local and state levels.
West, whose class helped create Muncie’s Rental Advocacy Book, “The Renter’s Book,” said while eviction data is free and open to the public in other states, it is not in Indiana. The information is available to the public, but there is a cost and a procedure for getting the results.
“First, you have to buy the data, and then you have to spend a tremendous amount of time sorting through all of the data, finding ones that are evictions, and then looking at the judgment,” West said.
Currently, West is writing a grant to purchase the data from the state and then create an online dashboard to show the number of evictions, foreclosures and other housing-related issues in the Delaware County area.
While evictions due to nonpayment of rent are supposed to be frozen during the various moratoriums that have been in place during the pandemic, the data could show how landlords are finding other ways to evict.
“I would imagine that it’s extremely relevant. If I had all the information in front of me, one of the things I’d be curious about is if landlords are engaging in evictions at a higher rate for things like property damage or other infractions as a way of circumventing the law,” West said. “The data would be very useful.”
Local landlords experiencing low eviction rates
The Muncie Rental Property Association represents 8,000 non-owner-occupied parcels in Delaware County. Hosting monthly meetings, it is the association’s goal to facilitate positive relationships among landlords, government officials and the community.
Of the approximately 30 landlords involved in the organization, few have experienced mass evictions like those in larger cities, said Kimberly Ferguson, president of the association.
Nationally, COVID-19 has harmed the rental property industry, Ferguson said. The mortgage relief in the CARES Act is specifically only for federally-backed mortgages from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
That doesn’t include the vast majority of owners of rental properties, which are often commercial or contract sales, Ferguson said.
Despite this, Ferguson said local landlords who live and work in Delaware County have not seen the same nonpayment rate as the rest of the country.
“Many of the landlords around here are seeing one, maybe two, tenants struggling, and most landlords are working with those tenants to come up with payment plans,” Ferguson said. “From our experience, at least from our organization, most of our members are working with tenants and not seeing the large eviction rate that we’re seeing nationally.”
The same has gone for larger property owners in the area, with whom Ferguson also has been in contact.
Ryan Kramer, of RE/MAX and owner of Absolute Property Management, confirmed with The Star Press that he was not seeing increased evictions or nonpayment due to COVID-19. He said he’s spoken with several local property management companies that are seeing the same.
“The reason I believe this to be is that the larger markets are being impacted with more job loss,” Kramer said. “Rent rates are much higher in those larger markets, which makes it harder for those tenants to continue to pay when they experience long- or short-term layoffs.”
If local landlords and tenants do find themselves struggling, though, Ferguson said communication and documentation are key. An open line of communication needs to go both ways.
During these uncertain time, Ferguson said its also helpful for landlords to become familiar with rental assistance programs in the area. That way, when a tenant comes to them for help, the landlord can point them in the right direction.
“As landlords become aware of rental assistance programs, they can tell their tenants, ‘Hey, go to Bridges and contact that program, you may be able to get help,’” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said it’s crucial that tenants do not abandon the property, because if they do, any rental assistance program will become unavailable.
What you need to know about the CDC’s new moratorium
On Sept. 4, the CDC’s residential eviction moratorium went into effect in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
In effect until Dec. 31, the order temporarily halts rent payments for those impacted by COVID-19. However, there is a process renters must go through and all past payments will become due after the deadline.
“The really important thing is for tenants to be protected, they have to be proactive,” West said. “They have to submit a form (to their landlord) that indicates they have taken five different kinds of actions.”
According to the moratorium, those actions include:
- The individual has used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing.
- The individual either expects to earn no more than $99,000 in annual income for 2020, or no more than $198,000 if filing a joint tax return.
- The individual is unable to pay the full rent or make a full housing payment due to substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a layoff, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.
- The individual is using best efforts to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other nondiscretionary expenses.
- Eviction would likely render the individual homeless — or force the individual to move into and live in close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting — because the individual has no other available housing options
West said the moratorium’s sole purpose is to halt evictions due to nonpayment of rent up until Dec. 31. Tenants still can be evicted for other lease violations, including property damage, drug use and other infractions.
The moratorium also states landlords are allowed to add late fees and other penalty fees onto the rent tenants owe. At the end of December, they will have to pay all missed rent and possibly even more.
For those facing rent payments or eviction after the moratorium is up, West said it is essential they begin saving money now and educating themselves on local assistance programs.
“I used to serve as a housing counselor, and one of the things that I saw most frequently is whenever there’s a big problem, people tend to freeze,” West said. “When people can’t pay rent, they just avoid thinking about it. Renters should be thinking about it now. What am I going to do if I’m evicted?”
How to get help when facing eviction
Facing eviction amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be a especially frightening situation, but there are various local renters’ assistance programs.
One of them is the new Delaware County Courts’ Eviction Mediation Program, created this year in response to the pandemic.
Anderson, who helped create the program alongside PathStone, said that previously there was no eviction mediation program in the entire state.
West had contacted Anderson about the situation, asking the courts if they would be interested in starting one. There was such a program in Ohio, federally funded with millions of dollars. A program in Muncie would have to be built from the ground up.
“We saw the train going down the tracks with COVID,” Anderson said. “We kind of mirrored it to our divorce program. This is totally not funded. For this mediation program, I’ve relied on grants.”
In the mediation program, neither the landlord nor the tenant is ordered by the court to participate, Anderson said. However, both parties must choose to do so in order for it to be effective. There is no fee associated with the program.
The tenant and landlord will meet with a neutral person, trained to help people solve disputes. PathStone housing counselors also can help mediators with the case, looking to see if there are any other resources that can help the tenant, or, if the tenant can set up a binding payment plan contract.
Mediation is a win-win for both tenant and landlord, Anderson said.
“First of all, it keeps your person in your housing. We all know when you have a landlord that has to evict someone, it costs them money,” Anderson said. “It costs them to file an eviction case, it costs them to go in and clean it up, paint, replace carpet, and then to find a new renter.”
“On the tenant side,” Anderson continued,” “They’re out, they’ve been evicted and they now have an eviction on their record, which then they have trouble finding new housing.”
If the landlord and tenant can’t come to a payment plan agreement, Anderson said the program offers an exit plan for the tenant, which keeps an eviction off their record.
Once the local courts put the program into place in August, the state of Indiana adopted the program, using senior judges as mediators and holding meetings virtually. Anderson said local cases will still be handled here in Muncie.
So far, only one case has been presented to the mediation program. Anderson is trying to spread the word, leaving paper pamphlets with different organizations around the city. She’s also writing another grant for a social media campaign. Once the first case is completed, she hopes the program will pick up.
Illegal evictions also been a concern, said West. The topic came up at various points during a virtual meeting of the East Central Indiana Rental Housing Consortium on Sept. 2.
West, who heads the project along with PathStone, said the consortium’s goal is for housing professionals, housing providers and tenants to be talking about what’s going on right now with evictions and COVID-19.
If a tenant is facing a situation where the landlord has decided to evict them by making the house unlivable, they can call the police, West said.
“I’ve heard stories about landlords taking the locks off doors, removing the door or cutting off the heat,” West said. “The tenant has the right to call the police or the sheriff’s office. They should respond to that as a criminal complaint.”
What happens after the moratorium?
While COVID-19 seemingly has not had a huge impact on the local rental property industry so far, that could change once the CDC moratorium comes to an end on Dec. 31.
For Ferguson, she currently doesn’t see evictions as a huge issue locally, since the landlords she works with aren’t seeing a high nonpayment rate.
However, for those tenants who are impacted by the virus, she knows it will be hard.
“I do think tenants who are not paying, that reckoning is going to be hard for them. Like residential mortgages, there’s a reckoning that will happen at the end of the year; you’ll have to pay all of that back,” Ferguson said. “That reckoning will be hard for anybody; you know, when you rack up bills and you don’t pay them, it will be challenging.”
She highly recommends landlords begin working with those tenants, even now, to start forming a payment plan or other agreement.
While Ferguson doesn’t see a housing catastrophe like those in New York City or other big cities, she said she can’t imagine how it would be if the county’s 8,000 non-owner-occupied parcels stopped paying their property taxes due to a halt in rent payments.
“Tenants need to pay their rent and landlords need to pay their mortgages and property taxes, so we just don’t want that snowball effect to continue,” Ferguson said. “I think the best thing we can do as a community is get the information out to the tenants.”
West sees it a little differently, and while he’s not an expert in the impact of COVID-19, he thinks many have lost their jobs and are unable to pay rent. With no state or federal legislation to help people pay, he expects a lot of evictions.
The only way to solve the issue, West said, is an infusion of cash. When a lockdown was mandated in other countries, there was often a holiday on mortgage payments, which is missing from the current CDC moratrorium.
“Landlords are still obligated to pay their mortgage, but tenants don’t have to pay their rent, so now we’re looking at a foreclosure crisis on top of an eviction crisis,” West said.
As December nears, the housing consortium will have two more virtual meetings at 2 p.m. on Oct. 15 and Dec. 2.
West’s hope for the consortium is to provide useful information to housing professionals that work in local government and the nonprofit sector, as well as the tenant and landlord advocacy groups. While his knowledge is limited, he hopes that having all of those people in once conference can help others learn.
To get involved, visit https://www.facebook.com/East-Central-Indiana-Rental-Housing-Consortium-104670564691567.
Charlotte Stefanski is a reporter at the Star Press. Contact her at 765-283-5543, [email protected] or follow her on twitter @CharStefanski.
Facing eviction? Where to find help
Delaware County Courts eviction mediation program:
- Through PathStone, 420 S. High Street, Muncie, by calling 765-286-2162. PathStone is acting as the Referral Agency for the program.
- By having the party’s attorney contact either PathStone or Court Administrator Emily Anderson, 765-747-7734, who will coordinate the program on the courts’ behalf.
City of Muncie resources:
The Muncie Housing Crisis Coalition (Monica James) and Freedom First International:
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