Indiana’s House Hitting Students Where They Live
Students who choose to remain apolitical often feel that politics just don’t hit home with them. A bill before the Indiana House aims to change that, quite literally.
House Bill No. 1543 recently advanced in the Indiana General Assembly. Crafted by Indiana’s Apartment Association, which lobbies the Statehouse on behalf of landlords, the bill would substantially limit local government efforts to protect renters. Students may not have the money to match their landlords’ lobby, but they should make their voices heard in opposition to this bill.
By its terms, HB 1543 would substantially impede any effort by local government to regulate local landlords. First, it would prohibit local governments from requiring landlords to be licensed. Indiana law requires you to be licensed to hunt, fish, drive, or tend bar, but the landlord lobby wants to draw the line at your apartment door.
The bill also seeks to drastically curb rental inspections, prohibiting routine inspections unless there is probable cause to suspect a violation of a housing code. Quality housing shouldn’t depend on lawyers debating “probable cause;” it is best ensured in the simplest way possible: allowing inspections. Finally, the bill would handcuff local governments by forbidding fees for certain inspections. While we’re all accustomed to writing the government a check for its permission allowing us to do things, landlords want someone else to pick up the tab.
Bloomington’s regulatory structure would probably survive—the law would likely grandfather it in. Efforts to change the law or strengthen it in the future, however, might fall under the bill’s restrictions. Tenants in areas without strong regulations would be without the protections provided by licensing and inspection requirements such as those in Bloomington.
The context of this bill is hardly a mystery. Indiana’s House of Representatives changed dramatically after the election of 2010. A narrow Democratic majority evaporated, giving way to a broad Republican majority; this reversal coincided with the rise of the so-called Tea Party Movement. HB 1543 certainly appears to be a treat served to Tea Party attendees: less government interference, reduced regulation, a reliance on the market to regulate housing conditions.
Housing regulations exist, however, because the market does not effectively regulate the condition of apartments. Renters tend to be in lower income brackets. In towns like Bloomington, students are a huge component of the renting population. While luxury tenants will demand quality housing, lower-income residents and students often see substandard housing as an inevitability. Housing regulations are a crucial safety net for those without the power of an overflowing checking account or the ability to move.
Any legislation is by definition political, but opposition to this bill need not be partisan. Progressives at IU are already up in arms about some legislators trying to serve red meat to tea partiers: amending the state constitution to keep wedding rings off gay and lesbian fingers, curbing collective bargaining by union members, cutting off Planned Parenthood. Their concerns are valid and sincerely held. However, students of all political leanings can find common ground on one issue: after a hard day of protesting and counter-protesting, it’s nice to come home to a safe and clean apartment. Whether you’re in a red or a blue state of mind, housing codes and landlord regulation help ensure that.
Students frequently ask me how they can improve rental housing in Bloomington. My answer is simple: become involved in Bloomington. Vote in Indiana, even for just the four or five years you live here. Write to your representatives and let them know that you do cast a ballot here and that you care about issues affecting students’ quality of life. If you vote in another part of Indiana, let your legislator know that you support robust housing protections and oppose HB 1543.
When I went to IU, activists told me to think globally and act locally. Global thinking will always draw bigger crowds: national and international issues help define societies and entire generations. Keep in mind that student voices can effectively sway statewide issues as well. The Indiana General Assembly wants to hit you where you live. Let legislators know you disagree. You’ll sleep better at night.
Randall Frykberg is an attorney and Director of Student Legal Services at IU.