The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 19, 2021 1:00 am

Home security: Tenants, landlords and community all benefit courtesy of federal dollars to ward off evictions

KAREN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

With expiration of the federal eviction moratorium on Aug. 26, news that only 11% of the $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance had been distributed nationwide suggested a landslide of evictions and homelessness. In some communities, that's beginning to happen.

Not so in Fort Wayne. On a recent Friday in the West Superior Street Courthouse Annex, where eviction cases are heard, there were no long lines. Just a handful of attorneys, tenants and landlords waited for court proceedings. The day after the federal moratorium expired, most eviction proceedings were averted.

That's thanks to the work of the city of Fort Wayne, Allen Superior Court and nonprofit partners working to connect those at risk of eviction – and their landlords – with federal resources directed toward COVID-19 relief. As of Aug. 31, the city's Emergency Rental Assistance Program had distributed $7 million from two federal allocations totaling about $14.4 million, placing it among the top 100 governmental units in getting money to where it's needed. More than 2,000 local households have benefited from the relief.

Fort Wayne's Division of Community Development easily beat a Sept. 30 deadline to spend at least 65% of its initial allocation, having obligated every dollar of the $8 million awarded in December. The city has done such good work distributing rental assistance, it's likely to receive more, reallocated from states and cities that have failed to use their own allotments.

That's good news for everyone in northeast Indiana. Evictions and the upheaval they create cost us all.

“Housing instability creates so many different problems,” said Allen Superior Court Judge Jennifer DeGroote. “It's that snowball effect – it can turn into loss of a job; it changes school for a student – a lot of different factors that impact from the tenant side.”

For landlords, it's the loss of income they depend on for their own livelihoods, for reinvestment in housing and, in some cases, for mortgage payments on their income properties, she said.

DeGroote, who was named Monday to a statewide eviction task force established by the Indiana Supreme Court, has been working with judicial officials and housing representatives since June 2020 to prepare for the end of state and federal eviction moratoriums; to address the needs of both tenants and landlords; and to determine how best to connect them with resources. The new task force is charged with making recommendations for a program to prevent evictions even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

A local model

The emergency rental assistance program authorized by Congress makes pandemic assistance available to households in cases where someone in the household qualified for unemployment benefits or experienced other financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. Eligible households must be at or below 80% of area median income.

Thousands of area residents qualify. The challenge is making tenants and landlords aware help is available.

To that end, Shirley Rork adopted what her boss describes as “guerrilla social work” in heading off evictions as family case manager for Just Neighbors, which works with churches, volunteers and local nonprofit agencies to provide shelter and support for families at risk of homelessness. The agency, headed by Joshua Gale, works to address the roots of homelessness. Rather than wait for families in crisis or their advocates to contact Just Neighbors because they have been evicted, Rork began spending Fridays at the courthouse annex. The federal money provides a powerful tool for resolving disputes.

“When I see people go up to the window for evictions, I approach them and ask them why they're there,” Rork said. “If they are the tenant or the landlord, then I ask, 'Well, are you open to looking at avenues (to avoid eviction)?' Most every tenant I've approached has automatically come to talk to us. In every single case, we have assisted in either stopping the eviction, getting rent assistance or a delay in the eviction hearing.”

Rork was referring to herself, attorney Andrew Thomas of Indiana Legal Services and Bernie Becker, Emergency Rental Assistance program manager for the city.

Kelly Lundberg, who oversees Fort Wayne's Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services, hired Becker, a former AmeriCorps member, to oversee the city's rental assistance program. The amount of federal funds flowing through the city has increased tenfold with the pandemic, leaving little time for the small Community Development staff to spend on rental assistance.

“We realized that we just needed somebody who was focused 100% on this, breaking down barriers and smoothing out the rough edges, and just getting the money out to help people,” Lundberg said. “So we brought on Bernie, and it worked.”

Becker said she's been successful because she's able to give the program her full attention, and she's had the enthusiastic support of Allen Superior Court magistrates handling eviction proceedings.

“They want to make sure that we're using this program to its fullest extent,” she said. “One of the magistrates said a program like this has never happened before; it may never happen again, in this capacity. So they're going to try to use the most of it to help as many people out because these are extraordinary times.”

Becker, Thomas and Rork essentially serve as on-site navigators at the courthouse annex, connecting landlords and tenants to the assistance program. They also are resources for attorneys in eviction court, who sometimes approach them to walk their clients – landlords or management companies – through the application process their tenants must follow.

Rork said she often finds herself in the role of mediator.

“A landlord will come in angry and just wants (the tenant) out. After talking to him about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, they realize the tenant now has this income and they can sustain (rent payments) once the assistance is over. Usually, they're amicable to canceling or delaying the eviction.”

Lundberg said landlords needed to be convinced the assistance was real.

“One thing we heard early on is that a lot of landlords are skeptical – 'My tenant is $10,000 behind in rent. There's no way you're going to cut me a check for $10,000,' ” she said. “And, by god, we did. And then they start to believe.”

Now, the landlords are reaching out when they have tenants struggling, although Rork said some are still wary of restrictions.

Those restrictions are minimal. A landlord must agree not to evict a tenant for failing to pay rent or to raise the rent. Tenants can still be evicted if other terms of their lease are violated.

Landlords benefit

Erwin Christie, who owns multiple rental units in the Lakeside Park area, was one of the landlords who learned of the rental assistance program through Shirley Rork and Just Neighbors. He said the pandemic has been difficult for tenants, including his own.

“COVID has really been hard on everybody,” he said. “The courts do the best they can. They try to help everybody. People like those at Shirley's agency help everybody. There's a lot of help out here, if you're willing to go through the hoops. Some people won't do that.”

Avoiding an eviction is worth the trouble, Christie said.

“Nobody wins in that situation. I don't get my money. And then these folks get a bad rental record because that's the first thing I look at when I'm getting a prospective tenant. ... It really messes the person up even even if they are trying. But trying doesn't pay my bills.”

Terra Johnson-Lee, on-site manager for Southern Court Mobile Home Park in southeast Fort Wayne, has also worked with Rork and Becker to help her tenants apply for assistance.

“Rental assistance is something everybody needs at some point,” she said. “We're all trying to cope with COVID.”

Advocates for tenant rights in Indiana have long argued Indiana law favors landlords. In 2018, data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University showed Fort Wayne had the 13th-highest eviction rate in the nation. Indianapolis was ranked 14th and South Bend was 18th.

DeGroote, who handled landlord-tenant disputes as a magistrate for 19 years before her appointment as Superior Court judge, said one challenge has been tracking eviction outcomes. The process requires filing cases to pursue relief.

“Without knowing what the resolution of all those eviction cases were, the fact that they're being filed is because (judicial officials) wanted to make sure (a landlord had to) come to our court,” she said. “If you're going to pursue getting back possession of a rental property, you have to come to court.”

DeGroote said eviction cases were formerly filed as “SC,” along with all cases filed in small claims court, or “PL,” for plenary docket. Effective Jan. 1, they are now filed as “EV,” making them easier to track and to record outcomes.

A 'silver lining'

Community Development's rental assistance program is open only to tenants who reside within city limits. Other northeast Indiana residents must apply online, through the state program. But the public health crisis seems to have only strengthened the safety net protecting all at-risk households. The coordinated entry program administered by Brightpoint pairs with case management services contributed by Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. The region's nonprofit community is working collaboratively to keep families and individuals in their homes.

From a pandemic responsible for great pain and loss, it's reasonable to look for something good to come from it all. The people most familiar with low-income housing issues and evictions are cautiously optimistic.

Lundberg said her department was thrilled to learn the courts were interested in working with them in creating an eviction diversion program.

“The stars have kind of aligned,” she said. “Our hope is we can build that relationship. I know this is like an emergency program, but to prove the value of it and show that it can work long term and maybe create a permanent solution. To me, the silver lining of this pandemic is that it provided solutions and the focus to actually come up with some solutions.”

DeGroote said everyone is recognizing the benefits of the rental assistance program.

“It's helping landlords keep their homes; helping tenants stay in their homes or, if they are going to end that landlord/tenant agreement, still allowing the tenant not to have that eviction on their record so that they can seek new housing,” she said. “This just gives them some more time to get to that point without more hearings, more court dates, more potential judgments, and then trying to collect on a judgment.”

The statewide eviction diversion program sought by the Indiana Supreme Court could be a true silver lining to the pandemic. If landlords can rely on procedures that allow them to make a living providing safe and affordable housing; if all Hoosiers have safe and stable housing, we all benefit.

Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.

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