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Pro bono attorneys offered to Indy tenants facing eviction

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Posted at 10:59 PM, Aug 05, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS — For Hoosiers who are still struggling to catch up on their rent because of the pandemic, the CDC has issued a new 60 day eviction moratorium. This comes after a previous moratorium just expired over the weekend.

The ban will stop evictions in certain areas of the country with high or substantial transmission of COVID-19. President Biden said this should give tenants and landlords time to connect with emergency rental assistance that is available while also protecting them from the virus still spreading across the country.

But because this could change so rapidly, tenant advocates say the threat of eviction is still very real for many people. It’s estimated as many as one in ten Hoosier households are at risk of eviction right now. In Indianapolis, 16% of renters are currently being on rent.

To combat this, the city has come up with a brand new initiation — first of its kind in the state — calling it the “tenant advocacy project.”

For the first time ever, if renters arrive to eviction proceedings without representation, they are offered free legal counsel through Indiana Legal Services and the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic to help them with their case.

“I’m struggling to keep my head above water,” said Stasia Swanigan at the Lawrence Township Small Claims Court for her eviction hearing. “Like, it’s hard. The pandemic hit everyone hard.”

One by one, tenants took the pro bono attorneys up on their offer.

Attorneys reviewed their case, provided legal advice, and determined who might qualify for this new CDC moratorium. Plus, they made sure people are aware of rental assistance, and actually helped them apply for the Indy Rent program right there on the spot.

“There’s a lot of resources that I didn’t even know about,” Swanigan said.

Swanigan said her hours were reduced during the pandemic and she struggled to pay rent.

“The bills, oh my gosh,” she said. “My light bill tripled, my gas and water, because the kids are at home now.”

Coming to fight to keep she and her three kids in their home without legal representation was terrifying.

“We don’t know what we have as our rights; we don’t know what we can do and can’t do,” she said.

According to Judge Kimberly Bacon, only about 3% of tenants bring attorneys when they come to court, whereas 81% of landlords bring representation. If people can’t pay their rent, advocates say they likely can’t pay for legal fees either, which can add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

“If we can’t make sure that people stay stably housed, then we also can’t make sure that they are safe, and their kids are safe and that they’re healthy,” said Beth White, a pro bono attorney with the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. “And so I just felt like it was something I could do. It’s not everything but it’s something. And I am one, but I am one. And I can be here and I can help.”

This is only a pilot program for one year. The city is working to place attorneys in all nine Marion County small claims courts. Mayor Joe Hogsett says the goal is to give people unfamiliar with the legal process, facing the system alone, a fair shake.