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With Eviction Moratorium Set To Expire Next Week, Local Legal Project Prepares For Spike

Housing and Eviction Prevention Project Monroe County

(South Central Indiana Housing Opportunities)

When Kelson and Emily Burke moved into their rental house two years ago, they had found the perfect place to raise their family.

“The house, it was a dream come true,” Kelson said. “We've always wanted to homestead and the pandemic forced us to really buckle down and concentrate on our dream.”

The house is located northeast of Bloomington on a hill, surrounded by tall pine trees, with enough space for four kids, a handful of ducks and even a couple rabbits. Stuck inside for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Burkes were able to add to their gardens and animal pens.

“We've grown to have our full garden and birds here,” Emily said. “Our homestead has blossomed and taken off, and we were supposed to be renewing our lease.”

Emily Burke eviction story
Emily Burke picks green beans with her daughter. (Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

But a disagreement regarding the lease put them in a position where their landlord wanted them out and filed for an emergency eviction to do so.

“And with less than 30 days for us to figure out where we're gonna go. In Bloomington. In the Bloomington area, that’s next to impossible,” Emily said.

The state’s eviction moratorium only covers evictions for those who are unable to pay rent because of the pandemic. With some government assistance, the Burkes have been able to keep up with their bills – but that meant the moratorium didn’t apply to them.

When they Zoomed in to their virtual court hearing, the Housing and Eviction Prevention Project of Monroe County stepped in. Comprised of nonprofit groups from around the area, the project started in 2019 as a way to reduce evictions and solve housing problems in the county.

“We thought it was time to look at this with a multi-faceted approach of bringing in social services and attorneys and mediators,” Judge Catherine Stafford said, describing the program. Stafford is one of two Monroe County judges who hear eviction cases in the county, along with Judge Judith Benckart.

Now, a year later, the project has newfound importance.

Although evictions for nonpayment are on hold until at least next week, emergency eviction hearings like the Burkes faced have continued. Mediators with the project were able to come to an agreement that extended the Burkes’ move-out date, and most importantly, kept an eviction off their record. The project was also able to connect them with housing opportunities for when they leave their current residence.

“It was fantastic just to have them there,” Kelson said. “And without them there, we would not have come to this agreement. It was invaluable.”  

Kelson Burke eviction story
Kelson Burke feeds the family ducks. (Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

With a week until the moratorium is set to expire, Governor Eric Holcomb announced the state will be setting up a free settlement arbitration tool for landlords and their tenants to try to keep eviction cases out of courts.

But since landlords can’t file evictions, it’s tough to determine how many there might be.

A June study from the Aspen Institute says around 20 million people across the country could be at risk of eviction by September – with potentially 448,730 of them residing in Indiana.

Over 24,000 Hoosiers have applied for the state’s COVID rental assistance program, which led the governor to add an additional $15 million to the fund, for a total of $40 million. And the federal relief program that provided families with $600 to help with things like rent hasn’t been extended.

Jamie Sutton, executive director of Justice Unlocked legal services, described the rental assistance programs as “a little patchwork.”

“Obviously, if people can't pay their rent because they're not working, the idea that they're suddenly going to have the money to catch up $2 or $3,000 in past rent seems a little bit like a pipe dream,” he said.

The City of Bloomington published a housing study this week says the city’s rental vacancy rate sits just below 2 percent, lower than the city’s estimated rate of 9 percent. That same study says over 60 percent of renter households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Monroe County Apartment Association president Mark Figg says his talks with landlords haven’t led him to expect a huge wave of evictions, but the lack of filing data makes it impossible to know.

“I'll be honest, I don't have any idea,” Figg said. “I mean, I'm assuming it's going to be up. But I, I have no evidence to support that.”

An October 2019 news release on the Housing and Eviction Prevention Project said Monroe County landlords file between 700 and 800 eviction cases each year. Nonpayment eviction hearings have been halted since March 12.

“I think the bigger challenge is going to be the capacity of the courts if we do face a deluge of eviction filings,” Judge Stafford said. “And they aren't able to file yet. So we don't really know where that's heading. We don't know if that's going to be a deluge or if it's going to be a trickle.”

She says currently, she and Judge Benckart are able to hear under 30 eviction cases a week: “So if we find that there's such a backlog that they can't get fit in, it's going to take us two or three months to adjust for that and create more time on the court schedule.”

For now, the governor says those who are struggling with payments need to work with their landlords on payment plans – something those with the eviction project have encouraged, as well.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here

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