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Statehouse bills fight to address poor tenant rights following JPC housing crisis

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Posted at 10:16 PM, Feb 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-03 22:17:32-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Time and time again throughout 2022, residents at four apartment complexes owned by the same landlord were at risk of having their utilities shut off because the landlords weren't paying the bills.

Now, there's a fight in the statehouse to make a difference.

"We need action right now," Mahogany Mann said.

Mann and her three children see boarded up windows and abandoned units when they walk out of their front door.

It's a familiar sight at Berkley Commons apartments on the southside of Indianapolis, even for Mahogany's downstairs window.

"This is so unfortunate. My children and myself were homeless prior to moving in here, and I've gotta tell you — we had it made better than we do now. This was the very worst decision that I have ever made," said Mann.

There are 15 current health code violations inside her unit.

Mahogany showed us how her kitchen ceiling leaks when the shower is turned on.

"The ceiling in the kitchen has actually collapsed three times. We're going on the fourth time," said Mann.

berkley commons ceiling falling in

She says there's also a mice and mold problem.

New management took over in December. Before that, the complex and three others across town were owned by JPC Affordable Housing.

It's a nonprofit that racked up $1.8 million in unpaid utility bills, although it was supposed to be included in resident's rent.

At one point, some residents briefly had their water shut off.

In February, the city paid $850,000 to restore services for residents at Capitol Place and Berkley Commons. The water had been shut off after the owners failed to pay Citizens, even though landlords at both complexes had been collecting utility bill money from tenants.

For months, 1,400 families were told their service could soon be disconnected because of the unpaid bills.

"This is from them saying how sorry they are," read Mann.

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The city, utility company and attorney general's officestepped in, forcing the owners to sell.

It was a nightmare that Mahogany says the residents are still living.

"Frustration is an understatement at this point. I am pissed," said Mann.

Representative Justin Moed says the JPC housing crisis is a wakeup call for lawmakers.

It exposed how poor tenant rights are and how the city barely has authority to step in when it comes to nonprofits.

"We were out there with all those folks at JPC property apartments and saw the despair and frustration. They were doing their part, they were paying their rent and this company was not only taking their rent money, getting rental assistance and other sources and was turning around and really screwing these folks. It really came from this belief that we need to do our part as the government to make sure people are taken care of," said Rep. Moed.

WRTV Investigates: 'We're saddened this ever happened': WRTV Investigates asks apartment management group why bills are unpaid

Moed says right now, Indiana law favors landlords.

There are laws in neighboring states that that allow the city to step in when bills or repairs aren't being made.

Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett says that's not the case here.

"For example, we don't have the ability to escrow utility payments in the state of Indiana," said Bennett.

If they could, then the AG's office could stop bad landlords from receiving rent and allow the city to collect and handle the funds.

That's what bills in the General Assembly are hoping to address, to prevent something like this from happening again.

"Somebody, somewhere has to take a stand for us," said Mann.

House Bill 1157, authored by Rep. Moed, would expand the ways in which the Marion County Department of Metropolitan Development can incentivize residential housing development programs.

He also wrote an amendment into House Bill 1075 that clarifies that residential housing projects owned by nonprofit corporations that are not paying their bills can be placed into receivership to protect the tenants.

The attorney general's office tells WRTV it's encouraged by the efforts of the General Assembly to crack down on bad actors abusing the non-profit status.