House committee amends bill to keep cities from regulating tenant relations

Indiana legislators on Monday amended a bill on property owner rights to remove a municipality’s ability to regulate landlord-tenant relations—just hours before the Indianapolis City-County Council was slated to vote on a hefty tenants-rights ordinance.

The Indiana House Judiciary Committee amended Senate Bill 340, which largely deals with condemnation and property owner rights, to prohibit local governments from regulating landlord-tenant relations without authorization from the General Assembly.

The amendment, which passed through committee, 8-3, also would prohibit a landlord from taking certain retaliatory actions against a tenant who has engaged in protected activities, such as complaining to a government entity about a violation of building or housing codes.

The bill, with the amendment, next goes to the full House for a vote.

The city of Indianapolis says the amendment would nullify recent local efforts to protect tenants from predatory landlords.

“I am deeply disheartened by this effort to kill local protections for renters in Indianapolis,” Mayor Joe Hogsett said in a media release. “The vast majority of states have enacted real retaliation protections for tenants, and on the night in which our city is poised to adopt its own regulations at the City-County Council, a watered-down version of real change is being slipped into a bill at the last minute.

“Stunningly, this amendment goes so far as to ban cities and towns from notifying tenants of their existing rights under the law.”

Last month, Hogsett’s administration presented a multi-faceted tenant-protection initiative, which, in part, aims to cut down on evictions in Indianapolis. 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. It also requires landlords to provide tenants with a notice of their rights—and levies fines should a landlord fail to do so.

Two proposals related to the initiative are slated to be voted on during the City-County Council meeting Monday night. They’ve already passed through committee.

The first appropriates $250,000 to the initiative, including $40,000 to launch a tenant information hotline and $210,000 to Indiana Legal Service’s Tenant Legal Assistance Project.

The second requires landlords to give tenants notice of their rights and responsibilities; connects tenants to legal assistance when necessary to vindicate their rights and avoid eviction; protects tenants from retaliation for exercising their rights; and prohibits discrimination against applicants for housing based on expunged and sealed criminal convictions.

The proposal is bolstered by a $500 fine for landlords who fail to give tenants notice of their rights and responsibilities, and fines from $2,500 to $7,500 for landlords who retaliate against tenants who report issues with their living units to authorities.

The city argued Monday morning that the amendment to Senate Bill 340 effectively would ban the implementation of their regulations and take away its ability to exercise fines against landlords who violate their regulations.

During the judiciary committee meeting Monday morning, representatives for several organizations testified in favor of the amendment and its anti-retaliatory provision. They included Brian Spaulding of the Indiana Apartment Association, who opposed Indianapolis’ initiative when it was being discussed in committee earlier this month.

“Bad property owners exploit some of the most vulnerable populations and damage the reputation of our members, who strive to provide safe, affordable housing solutions to residents,” Spaulding said. “We believe that this tenants rights component is a reasonable solution which targets bad actors and keeps a level playing field for all parties involved.”

Mark Shublak, a representative for the Indiana Affordable Housing Coalition, also spoke in favor of the amendment, saying the coalition believes there should be uniform rules across the state regarding tenant-landlord relations.

Ryan Mann, a chief policy officer for the city, asked committee members to take more time to study and review the amendment. He said the city wouldn’t withdraw its ordinance.

“We took the time, the effort, to research it, to understand it, to try to gather as much input as possible,” he said. “We would hope that any efforts here would take the same track.”

Mark Chapuran of Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis said Indianapolis should have power at the policy level to come up with laws given its uniqueness.

He said the anti-retaliation part of the amendment would take out the teeth of the city’s ordinance by removing its ability to fine.

Only Rep. Ed DeLaney, who voted against the amendment, explained his vote, saying “I just really don’t want to be prejudging what the city council will do and overturning their decision before they made it.”

“I think this is very bad procedure, and it also ignores the unique nature of our largest city.”

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