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Navigating tenant and landlord rights for affordable housing in Fort Wayne

Fort Wayne Media Collaborative

Mell Bennett, a Fort Wayne Housing Authority (FWHA) tenant, has been living in her home for almost a year and has issues with appliances breaking, but it usually gets fixed in a few days.

“I applied for FWHA a while ago and was finally accepted and I am blessed to have a home for me and my children,” Bennett said. “It is a lengthy process to get accepted, but it is worth it.”

Bennett has three children and FWHA found her a three-bedroom home for them around good schools. FWHA helps low-income renters find a home using criteria based on income and the size of the household.

FWHA is one of several local organizations that seek to help low-income families find affordable housing – a task that has become more challenging as housing prices and rental costs have increased dramatically over the past several years. Increases to housing costs mean evictions have become more common throughout Allen County since the COVID-19 moratorium ended, said Andrew Thomas, an Indiana Housing Resource Attorney with Indiana Legal Services.

According to National Equity Atlas, more than 5 million households nationwide are currently behind on their monthly payments, with a total of nearly $10.5 billion in rent debt. National Equity Atlas is a data analysis and policy tool focused on racial and economic equity.

In Indiana, if rent is not paid, landlords can file for eviction quickly. The process begins with a 10-day notice to quit for nonpayment. Other lease violations require a 30-day notice period.

Just in the past nine months there have been 74,727 eviction filings and 6,824 eviction filings in August 2023 in Allen County, Thomas said.

Data provided by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab shows 73,894 eviction filings in Indiana in the past 12 months, 5,402 of which were filed in the past month.

According to National Equity Atlas, Indiana’s estimated total rent debt is $100,300,000 with 138,000 households with children behind on their payments. Indiana has no rent control laws, meaning there is no limit to how much a landlord can increase their tenants’ rent at the end of each lease term.

“Landlords have a powerful bargaining chip since the effect and harm of an eviction is immediate,” Thomas said, adding that it often becomes difficult for tenants to find new housing after an eviction.

Some landlords give their tenants a grace period during which late fees are not assessed. However, Indiana law does not require landlords to provide a grace period. Late fees may also vary by property owner.

“I give a grace period until the fifth of the month and then I send out late fee notices of $75,” said Rosalind Wilson, property manager for Stellhorn Apartments in Fort Wayne.

Once an eviction is filed, the tenant is given a court date that they must attend, during which they can make their case to an Allen County magistrate. In some cases, tenants can resolve the dispute or have the eviction filing dismissed, but most eviction filings end in an order to vacate. Indiana law does not provide a minimum amount of time a landlord must give a tenant to move out, but each jurisdiction sets its own rules. In Allen County, tenants have seven days to vacate once an eviction is ordered.

New policies put in place in November 2022 require eviction proceedings start with a preliminary hearing at least 20 days after a tenant is notified of a pending eviction case. Tenants can decide whether to take their case to trial during that preliminary hearing.

Tenants are strongly encouraged to find legal representation, if possible. Indiana Legal Services, is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal assistance for low-income Hoosiers, Thomas said, and can help tenants facing eviction who meet the firm’s income eligibility requirements.

But renting in Indiana isn’t entirely stacked against a tenant.

Under state law, tenants do have rights. All rental units must be clean and safe, meaning tenants renting a house or apartment have the right to have working toilets, furnaces, and windows. There also must be working indoor and outdoor locks on a dwelling’s entrances.

“Indiana Code 32-31-8-5 requires the landlord to deliver the property complying with health and building codes,” Thomas said. Property owners also should provide and maintain certain necessary systems, including electrical and plumbing.

“I make sure all my tenants get the maintenance they need and know when maintenance will be entering their home,” Wilson, the Stellhorn Apartments manager, said.

Repairs must be made within 10 days of a tenant request. If these repairs are not made, renters have options, including placing a portion of monthly rent into escrow. However, tenants should consult an attorney beforehand, Thomas said.

“Some tenants believe they can withhold rent when repairs are not made. This is usually not true in Indiana,” Thomas said. “If a tenant puts their rent in escrow, they must seek legal advice.”

State law stipulates that tenants must generally pay rent on time, regardless of any uncompleted repairs. Placing rent in escrow is a mechanism meant to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords.

Upon moving in a rental unit landlords can request a security deposit that may be returned when the lease is terminated. A landlord must return a security deposit within 45 days, or provide the tenant with an itemized list of damages that the funds will be used to correct.

“We can keep security deposits if there is any damage to the rental unit or the tenant does not pay rent,” Wilson said. Examples of damage includes torn carpet and large holes in the walls.

“Tenants should do a walk through and take pictures on move-in and move-out to avoid claims of damages by the landlord,” Thomas said.

As the affordable housing crisis continues, individuals with low income can find affordable housing options through the use of voucher programs like Section 8.

For example, in Fort Wayne, a one-bedroom apartment with a voucher could be $657, depending on the applicant’s income level. However, waiting lists for housing vouchers can last for years, and not every landlord or rental complex will accept them.

Wilson said that there are some Section 8 units available at Stellhorn Pointe – one of many local apartment complexes that has increased rent recently. It’s not uncommon, she said.

“A lot of the apartments have had an increase especially due to the inflation we are all experiencing,” Wilson said.

This piece was done in conjunction with journalism students taught by Heloisa Sturm Wilkerson (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) Assistant Professor of Journalism in the Communication Department of Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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Fort Wayne Media Collaborative

This content is distributed in a partnership between Purdue University Fort Wayne and the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, a group of media outlets and educational institutions in Fort Wayne committed to solutions-oriented reporting. More information is available at fwmediacollaborative.com

Janiah Moore
Janiah Moore is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana and is a student at Purdue Fort Wayne, Class of 2024. In her free time she enjoys reading a good book, watching basketball, and spending time with friends and family. Upon graduation, she hopes to work as a sports journalist.