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High rents, few options: Addressing poverty, profit, and disconnection in Fort Wayne’s housing system

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By Kara Hackett
Input Fort Wayne

This article is distributed in partnership with the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, a group of media outlets and educational institutions in Fort Wayne committed to solutions-oriented reporting. More information will soon be available at fwmediacollaborative.com

When Nick Ferran was looking for a new apartment in Downtown Fort Wayne, he stumbled across a “For Rent” sign around the corner from his previous residence.

Born and raised in the Fort Wayne area, Ferran is a 31-year-old freelance graphic designer and employee at the Allen County Public Library's Main Branch. He learned to love Downtown as a student at the University of St. Francis. So when he moved back to Fort Wayne from Grand Rapids in 2017, he rented a two-bedroom apartment with a basement Downtown for about $650 a month.

But in 2019, that “For Rent” sign at 1232 W. Washington Blvd. caught his eye, so he inquired about one of its recently renovated units. He was surprised to learn that the 600-square-foot space rents for $950 per month (unfurnished) or $1,100 per month (furnished).

PolpoGroup2
Kara Hackett
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Input Fort Wayne

Once the sticker shock wore off, Ferran began researching the rental’s ownership. This led him down the all-too-easy-to-follow digital paper trail of Jakt founder, Anthony Tumbiolo, and his Fort Wayne-born business and life partner, Sasha Aurand. The duo run Polpo Group Real Estate and operate as part real estate investors and contractors, part social media influencers. They previously worked in New York and Miami until they realized Fort Wayne would be the ideal place to launch an experiment: Could they make $100k per year in income from assets and investments?

In the fall of 2019, Tumbiolo announced this goal on his blog and social media with the intention to help other would-be investors get in on the game.

“I plan to document the journey so you can follow along,” he writes.

One of his next blog posts is “Why I’m investing in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” where he details why Fort Wayne is the ideal city to invest in real estate and maximize profits. He reTweets the blog with the subtext: “Putting in max effort in NYC gets you almost nowhere. Putting in max effort in bumblef**k makes you one of the hardest working investors in that city.”

Since relocating to Fort Wayne in the fall of 2019, Tumbiolo announced the Polpo Group was on track to own more than 60 units in the city’s Downtown and Northeast neighborhoods by the end of 2021.

“Want to be at 100+ next year,” he Tweets on Sept. 30.

Playing “real life monopoly/sims,” as they once put it, Polpo Group owns their own construction company, PG Construction, which manages their projects to “maximize rents and increase overall property value.” They’re sharing the details of their transactions and business decisions via Tumbiolo’s social media, too.

“Why is it standard to sign year leases and raise rent once a year?” he questions in a Tweet on Oct. 9. “We sign month to month leases. In theory, we could raise rents every 6 months.”

It’s posts like these that are earning the outrage of Fort Wayne renters, like Ferran, concerned about investors buying up properties in Fort Wayne’s up-and-coming urban core and outpricing longtime residents. Over the holidays, one of Polpo Group’s acquisitions made headlines for terminating a West Central couple’s lease, forcing them to evacuate their home of 13 years in 30 days while dealing with a medical condition.

Polpo Group did not respond to a request for an interview.

Kelly Lundberg, Deputy Director of Housing and Neighborhood Services at the City of Fort Wayne, says she wasn’t aware of Polpo Group’s specific transactions prior to an interview with Input. But practices like these (while often more discreet) aren’t necessarily illegal or unusual, particularly in a hot and “affordable” housing market like Fort Wayne’s.

Fort Wayne has long earned national media attention as one of the “most affordable” cities and “an excellent place to buy a house.” But this perception of affordability often complicates matters for renters and conceals the disparity in cost, value, and equity they face. While Fort Wayne is “affordable” for those able to pay the upfront costs to purchase a home, its rental market can be more costly and end up trapping tenants at the mercy of landlords’ whims, especially under Indiana’s landlord-friendly laws.

Coming out of the pandemic, these pre-existing challenges are compounded by increasing rent prices, housing scarcity, and national inflation. The Purdue University Community Research Institute points out that the Midwest region’s year-over-year inflation between February 2021-2022 slightly outpaced the nation at 8.0 percent vs. 7.9 percent, according to the Midwest Consumer Price Index Card. Rent increases essentially matched the nation at 4.3 percent vs. 4.2 percent.

In Ferran’s case, he notes that he is “privileged in many ways” to be able to shop around. He found another apartment within his budget in West Central. But for others—particularly those who must rent and those who need Section 8 affordable housing in Fort Wayne—the reality of few housing options and rising rent prices is far more grim.

***

Even before the pandemic, Fort Wayne made national headlines in 2018 for having the 13th highest eviction rate in the nation, where an average of eight people per day were being evicted.

“The pandemic didn’t do anything to make that situation better,” Lundberg says. “People just got further behind.”

Lundberg notes that while federal and state CDC eviction moratoriums might have led some to believe that evictions weren’t happening during the pandemic, that was not the case.

“There were actually a lot of evictions that occurred during the moratorium here in Allen County,” Lundberg says.

Local numbers are not yet available. But data from Eviction Lab shows that during Indiana’s moratorium from March 19-Aug. 14, 2020, statewide eviction filings surpassed 170 in April, 400 in May, and were upward of 850 in both June and July.

Oftentimes, evictions were happening informally, too, Lundberg notes, with tenants simply vacating properties and not seeking assistance. When tenants did seek assistance, conditions were often worse than usual.

“In some ways, the moratorium added even more challenges because instead of tenants being one or two months behind on rent, we’re looking at people who are six and nine months behind on rent,” Lundberg says.

To help address these challenges, Housing & Neighborhood Services allocated $150,000 of pandemic emergency relief funding to launch the Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic in 2020. Led by Andrew Thomas, an attorney with Indiana Legal Services, Inc (ILS), the clinic offers cost-free legal counsel and representation to tenants facing evictions, establishing an on-site, ready-to-serve presence for ILS and its community partners at the Allen County Courthouse on days when eviction hearings are happening.

Indiana Legal Services
Input Fort Wayne
Indiana Legal Services, Inc. (ILS) is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal assistance to eligible low-income residents throughout the state of Indiana.

To date, the program has served nearly 500 households, Thomas says, noting that most of the clients he serves aren’t trying to “game the system” or evade rent payments. Instead, many are simply getting priced out of their current homes in Fort Wayne’s market, which has a significant shortage of options—specifically for residents seeking safe, Section 8 housing.

“I hear again and again that rents are going up considerably—sometimes hundreds of dollars at a time—and one reason people are stuck in these eviction cases is because they have nowhere else to go,” Thomas says.

In keeping with national trends, he notes that the majority of his clients seeking rental assistance identify as single, African-American women who are the heads of their households. Many are concerned about landlords buying up properties in Fort Wayne who are “maybe not local” and “not being empathetic to tenants’ situations.”

As Executive Director of Just Neighbors Interfaith Homeless Network, Joshua Gale believes that, at its root, Fort Wayne’s housing crisis is a symptom of a deeper “lack of connection” in the community.

“Disconnection is the number one cause of homelessness,” he says. “That really is the name of the game. If you’re a single parent without connections and your child is sick when you have to work, who is going to watch them?”

As a result, his organization and others are working to establish stronger connections between landlords, tenants, and multiple stakeholders in Fort Wayne’s community—including service organizations like themselves.

In 2019, Gale, Thomas, Lundberg, and other leaders addressing housing and eviction challenges formed an Eviction Task Force under Housing & Neighborhood Services. They began ideating collaborative solutions, but didn’t have funding to implement them. Then the pandemic hit the U.S., and while it exacerbated housing and eviction challenges, Lundberg says one silver lining is that pandemic relief dollars have given this task force the funding they needed to bring some of their ideas to life.

This includes the Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic, as well as a complementary COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and Eviction Diversion Program.

***

Beginning in March 2021, the City of Fort Wayne received two federal allocations of Emergency Rental Assistance funding. The first was just under $8.1 million and the second was $6.4 million. Lundberg says the city requested and received an additional $12.9 million of reallocated funds through the state.

These funds have largely gone toward activating the City’s COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and back-funding a second Eviction Diversion Program to help humanize and expedite the process of getting payments to landlords to prevent evictions.

ERAP covers past due rental payments, future rent, and current utility bills for residents of Fort Wayne who have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median (or $57,500 for a family of four). Lundberg says the day after the moratorium on evictions was overturned by the Supreme Court in October 2021, her ERAP manager set up a laptop-based presence at the Allen County Courthouse, making the program visible and accessible to applicants on-site.

This on-site presence at the courts has snowballed into the Eviction Diversion Program, funded through United Way of Allen County and managed by Just Neighbors. It extends to residents beyond Fort Wayne’s city limits and allows tenants in time-sensitive legal battles to have access to funding faster than they might through the ERAP.

Along with funding, Gale says the program also gives Just Neighbors a staff presence at the courts, as a social service organization, to support tenants and direct them to the Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic.

“We’ve been able to use this fund from United Way, with 65 percent being reimbursed from the City’s ERAP, to give us a rapid resolution to eviction cases,” he says. “Being on-site allows us to form better partnerships with landlords, face-to-face, too. It creates an interaction that’s relationship-based, rather than merely resource-based.”

As of April 7, the ERAP has assisted 5,750 households with an average of just under $3,000 each. Gale notes that, between Nov. 15, 2021, and April 1, more than 964 households have taken advantage of the Eviction Diversion Program, too, on average requesting just under $2,000 of rent assistance.

“Of the cases decided so far, only 38 have resulted in evictions,” Gale says.

The way Thomas sees it, three factors make for successful eviction assistance programs in cities: Legal assistance, caseworkers or social services, and rental assistance funding.

“The way we’re coordinating these programs and services provides all three of these resources right on-site at the courts,” he says.

Even so, he notes that these programs are heavily funded by pandemic relief dollars, which have an eventual expiration date, with funds from ERA1 to be 100 percent obligated by Sept. 30. He also notes that many landlords are opting out of any form of eviction diversion, particularly outside of Allen County, either due to a lack of knowledge about the programs or a lack of incentive on the landlord’s behalf to participate.

“Unfortunately, many landlords just say ‘no,’ and I’ve heard several reasons why,” Thomas says. “Oftentimes, attorneys for landlords have to do more work to be under these programs, and they don’t see the incentive to participate. Or they might not like that they need to have additional hearings, and it will take more time.”

While the Polpo Group’s flashy display of flipping rentals and raising prices Downtown is only part of a larger problem, higher market value and the opportunity for landlords to make more money by terminating leases and raising rents plays a factor in evictions, too.

“There’s a concern that with rising rent prices, landlords will be even less likely to take part in rental assistance or eviction diversion programs due to the incentive for profit that might be out there,” Thomas says.

In other words, when it comes to poverty and profit in Fort Wayne’s housing market, it’s all connected.

***

While eviction assistance programs offer temporary emergency relief, leaders like Lundberg, Thomas, and Gale see the need for more preventative, longer-term, and sustainable solutions in Fort Wayne’s housing system.

Gale says identifying and activating these types of systemic solutions is Just Neighbors’ focus in all it does. While the community might think of the organization for its physical shelter—where 90 percent of occupants leave to stable housing in 30 days on average—the organization’s real emphasis is advocacy, outreach case management, and shifting social paradigms in Fort Wayne through relationships. It equips area churches with connections to case managers to serve unhoused families, and it’s launched ventures, like its food truck, to serve restaurant-quality meals to people who are unhoused.

“What’s missing in Fort Wayne isn’t more money to address these challenges,” Gale says. “It’s more people willing to make connections.”

His team is currently gathering data on the demographics of who they’re serving through the Eviction Diversion Program. One trend they’re seeing so far is that a “noticeable percentage” of people applying for rental assistance either have a chronic health condition themselves or in their family.

“Many of them are deciding between paying for healthcare and paying for rent,” he says. “Ensuring livable wages for our citizens in Fort Wayne would make a major difference in the city’s homelessness and eviction rates.”

Other long-term solutions might require advocating for stronger tenants’ rights and protections in the state legislature. While issues between landlords and tenants are unique to each person and situation, Indiana’s laws, as a whole, strongly favor landlords, placing restrictions on resources, like rental registries, which can ensure the maintenance and habitability of rental spaces.

“There are protections that tenants have in other states that you won’t find here,” Thomas says. “For instance, if your furnace goes out, tenants in other states can withhold rent until their landlord makes the repair; they cannot do that here. There are also loopholes for landlords in Indiana to get around giving tenants a 10-day notice for eviction in nonpayment cases. This creates a situation where, if a tenant is one day late on rent, a landlord can file for eviction the day after that.”

In response to these lacking legal protections and real estate investors flipping houses for profit, local tenants have formed a private, citizen-led Facebook group called the Fort Wayne Tenants Alliance (FWTA). Members of the group have declined to comment at this time. But a post on the page encourages tenants to “share experiences with local landlords and property management companies, organize advocacy actions, educate one another on renters rights, and share any relevant information impacting tenants in our area.”

While Lundberg is encouraged to see Fort Wayne tenants organizing, it also makes her nervous.

“I really am hopeful they have somebody with legal expertise who will guide them, so they don’t get more people evicted inadvertently,” she says.

Having seen how the issue often plays out statewide, she knows the fight to improve the rights of tenants in Indiana can be highly contentious, wrought with lobbyists, deep-pocketed investors, and legislators who have ties to the real estate industry.

About a year ago, there was an effort to improve tenant rights within Indianapolis alone, and the Indiana Apartment Association lobbied and proposed a Senate bill to override it, prohibiting any other Indiana cities from passing or enforcing any regulations concerning retaliatory landlords.

“That’s the type of stuff tenants are up against,” Lundberg says.

Still, one sign of momentum she sees recently is the passing of HB-1214, which takes effect this summer and allows the sealing of a tenant’s eviction records in certain circumstances. It is retroactive, so it applies to records on closed and older cases, which can be sealed.

To continue the conversation on improving housing conditions in Fort Wayne, Lundberg’s team is collaborating with the city’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission to host a Fair Housing Summit scheduled for April 27 at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Matthew Desmond, Ph.D., whose best-selling book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, has shaped the understanding of inequity and economic exploitation in the U.S.

Nikki Quintana, Executive Director of the Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission, is also a member of the Eviction Task Force. The Metropolitan Human Relations Commission enforces civil rights laws in Fort Wayne and educates residents on diversity and discrimination issues. Quintana says about 20 percent of the discrimination complaints they deal with are housing-related.

When she and Lundberg saw Fort Wayne had the 13th highest eviction rate in the U.S., based on Desmond’s Eviction Lab data, they began working to bring him to town to speak. Now, they’re hopeful a free, public Housing Summit will help raise awareness and catalyze further reform and connection in Fort Wayne’s housing system.

“With this Summit, I hope we can provide greater awareness of what fair housing is, and I hope individuals and organizations will take the information they learn in these breakout sessions and apply it in their everyday practices,” Quintana says. “That’s a big piece of why we’re offering this Summit cost-free; we want to reduce barriers.”

Attend the Housing Summit

The 2022 Fair Housing Summit will be Wednesday, April 27, from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The keynote speaker will be Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Matthew Desmond, Ph.D., author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The event will also feature workshops regarding fair housing, lending discrimination, the housing and racial wealth gap, and more.

Continental breakfast and lunch are provided at no charge. This event is free, but limited to 300 guests. Register at 2022fairhousingsummit.eventbrite.com.

Input Fort Wayne is a story-telling platform, a part of Issues Media Group in Detroit. Their community partners include: Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., the City of Fort Wayne, Allen County, Parkview Health, the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, Indiana Tech, PNC Community Development Banking, Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, Arts United, Visit Fort Wayne, and Downtown
Improvement District.