It was nearly one year ago, during the 2020 session of the Indiana General Assembly, that we urged state lawmakers to reject a bill designed to prohibit local governments from regulating landlord-tenant relations without state authorization.
At issue was a tenants-rights ordinance passed in February by the Indianapolis City-County Council and approved by Mayor Joe Hogsett as part of an effort to cut down on evictions.
The initiative doesn’t prohibit landlords from evicting tenants, but it does levy fines against landlords who evict tenants in a retaliatory fashion—should they report unsatisfactory living conditions to authorities, for example.
But lawmakers didn’t like it. And so, on the last day of the 2020 session, they passed a bill to prevent the city of Indianapolis—and any other cities, towns or counties in Indiana—from creating their own rules for landlord-tenant relations.
It was the kind of move that is especially disappointing from Republicans, who espouse local control when it suits them and howl when the federal government tells states what they can and can’t do.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, however, disagreed with the Legislature. And so he vetoed the bill just as the pandemic was taking hold in Indiana.
“While I understand the bill was intended to create uniformity between state and local law governing the relationship between landlords and tenants, I believe this is not the right time for such language to become law,” Holcomb said.
The governor also called the legislation “overly broad.”
The veto came after the Legislature adjourned for the year, meaning lawmakers only now have the opportunity to override it. And that’s not difficult to do. In Indiana, the House and Senate can override a veto with a simple majority, meaning that, if the same people who supported the bill support the veto, the measure will become law.
In fact, because the bill passed 29-19 in the Senate and 64-32 in the House, the Legislature could still override the veto even if several of the original supporters switch sides.
But we urge lawmakers to let the veto stand.
We believe that, in most cases, local officials are best suited to make decisions that directly affect their communities. And that seems especially true in the area of landlord/tenant relations. As we wrote last year: The landlord-tenant rules that work in Bloomington or West Lafayette—communities that are packed with rental housing for students—might be less appropriate for suburban communities or urban centers.
This week, Indiana housing advocates say they are worried a vote on the veto is coming, although House and Senate leaders have not publicly revealed their plans.
Despite our opposition to the legislation—and to overriding Holcomb’s veto—we encourage more discussion about housing issues as well as landlord/tenant relations. We believe tenants should be treated fairly and have access to safe and quality housing, but the rental market exists only if landlords can be profitable.
That requires a balancing act—one that can’t be struck in individual communities if the state preempts their ability to act.•
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