INDIANAPOLIS — A statewide moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs for those who can’t pay will soon expire as Indiana continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Eric Holcomb said at a weekly virtual update Wednesday there will be other support available to renters as the moratorium ends.
For one, the state plans to spend an additional $15 million on a rental assistance program offering grants to renters in most Indiana counties. The state also will extend a mediation practice — typically used to help homeowners avoid foreclosure — to renters and their landlords, before a dispute ends up in eviction court.
The rental assistance program started accepting applications July 13. Jacob Sipe, executive director of the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, said there have been 24,000 applicants so far. Many renters applied on the first day, when the program received around 8,000 applications.
The program is not available in Marion County, which is offering its own assistance to area renters. But of the 91 counties that are eligible for the state program, just five make up almost 45% of the applications received so far, Sipe said.
Around 18% of the applications came from Lake County, for example, and another 10.5% came from St. Joseph County. Applications from Allen County made up almost 8.5% of those received, while Tippecanoe and Vanderburgh counties contributed around 4% each.
In addition to the expanded rental assistance program, the state is working to expand a free substitute to court for tenants at risk of eviction. The tenant and landlord would meet with a neutral person instead of a judge in what is called a settlement facilitation program. If the parties reach an agreement, that can end the dispute without having to go before a judge.
State officials addressed other issues at Wednesday’s news conference in which health leaders said the number of COVID-19 cases in Indiana continues to rise. The state health department recorded 740 additional cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 69,975.
In addition to the case increase, the number of patients hospitalized because of the virus also continues to rise, said Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box.
School is now in session in Indiana, and many districts opted to offer some form of in-person instruction to students while introducing new restrictions to keep students safe, including physical distancing in classrooms and mandatory masks.
But the outcomes haven’t been perfect. Last week, several school districts reported students and staff members who had contracted COVID-19 came to school, potentially exposing other students and educators.
This prompted one of the state’s largest teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers, to demand Tuesday that the state do more to protect students and educators, noting their members would support safety strikes if necessary to send a message.
State leaders are choosing to encourage school districts to work with their local health departments to determine what’s best for them, leaving most decisions about how to educate students this school year up to their discretion. Box and Holcomb said it wouldn’t make sense for the state to give uniform requirements to all Indiana schools as they have different needs and face different challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is simply no single benchmark that accurately represents the level of community spread for every community in our state,” Box said as one example.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Holcomb said that in-person voting needs to be an option if the state is to have a fair and effective election. He pointed to several opportunities voters have to cast their ballots without going to a poll site on Election Day, including early voting 28 days before the election and a list of excuses that would permit them to vote absentee.
Common Cause Indiana and the state conference of the NAACP filed suit last week to force Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson and members of the state election commission to extend the deadline to receive absentee ballots past the current noon deadline on Election Day. If the suit succeeds, absentee ballots could be counted up to 10 days past the election, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
The suit is now before a federal judge. Holcomb said the state is awaiting more details from an opinion before making any changes to the election.