Town hall stresses affordable housing issues

Intensified community focus on affordable housing issues was evident Thursday evening at a Columbus Town Hall organized by Hoosier Action and held in the First Presbyterian Church sanctuary at Seventh and Franklin streets.

Hoosier Action, a New Albany-based statewide organization founded in 2017, works at the grassroots level to spark change in such public-policy areas as housing, health and the environment.

The meeting was chaired by Hoosier Action Bartholomew County leaders Jennifer Wells and Stephanie Zhang.

Several members of the local chapter shared the personal experiences that inspired them to get involved. They included Wells, Diane Pritchard, Don Bell and Jessica Savage. A common themes in their stories was unsafe housing conditions that had gone unaddressed by landlords.

The local chapter has two immediate policy aims it is pursuing. It wants to see creation of a website and mailing initiative informing tenants of their rights. It also seeks creation of a database of records for each rental property in the county regarding any code and health violations.

Three Columbus City Council members, Jerone Wood, Tom Dell and Grace Kestler, were present. Each was given three minutes to remark on his or her vision for housing in Columbus and whether each supported the two goals the chapter had described.

Kestler explained that state laws establish many of the tenant and landlord rights of concern locally, and those changes would have to come from that level.

Dell said that the city has tried multiple times to bring low-income developments to Columbus, but has had difficulty generating interest among developers. He spoke in favor of making rental property inspections mandatory. They are presently voluntary.

Wood said that his work for an apartment complex has given him a greater understanding of all sides in the realm of property rental. In answering whether he supported Hoosier Action’s two immediate aims, he said, “Of course, I do.”

Audience members were given sticky notes on which to write their visions for Columbus housing. After they were collected and posted, Zhang read a few, and then asked, “Why is this not happening? Why is there a power imbalance? Who is writing the rules?”

She described power as “simply the ability to influence” and said it is a combination of organized people and money. She said that there is presently a power vacuum where everyday people, who have more barriers to organizing, are concerned, which means that power is held by government and landlords.

Aida Ramirez, executive director of city government’s Human Rights Department, was present and offered a few remarks. She said her office is specifically tasked with addressing discriminatory issues in housing. She said that those with such issues can file a Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to particular landlords. She also said that the City Council is “more than welcome” to expand her office’s charter to further empower it to help citizens who rent.

Several Hoosier Action speakers mentioned having persuaded State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, to author Senate Bill 230, a bipartisan bill that would give tenants the right to withhold rent until unsafe living conditions had been rectified. Among other things, the bill also would require landlords to address utility breakdowns and and disruption of other “essential services” in a rental property within 24 hours.

SB230 was sent to a summer study committee earlier this year. Hoosier Action intends to follow up in the next legislative session and see that it continues to progress through the legislature.

Zhang said that the next step those in attendance could take include signing the Hoosier Action petition, sharing their stories one-on-one with team members, attending the next local chapter meeting on October 13, and gathering at the Statehouse in Indianapolis for a rally on the General Assembly’s organization day Nov. 22.

The Bartholomew County chapter of Hoosier Action has over 50 members.