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ABC57 Investigates: South Bend eviction rate 3 times the national average

According to the eviction lab at Princeton University, South Bend’s eviction rate doubled between 2012 and 2016. Its current rate of 6.71-percent is almost three times the national average.

That adds up to a little more than three evictions a day.

While investigating the issue, three key issues kept coming up - a lack of affordable housing, a lack of tenants’ rights and some shady practices that are believed to be happening in our local housing market.

All things that will likely continue driving the eviction rate up until they are dealt with.

Don McKinney, his wife and three kids have been shuffled around quite a bit this year.

"We had to stay in a hotel for three months and that was rough. Living in a room with three children that was hard," McKinney said.

The family was forced out of their South Bend home where they lived for a year and a half.

"When we moved into the house the house was torn up, like a hood house. So we moved in and we did all the work. We laid down tile. We laid down carpet on the floor. We brought the house up to where it's like a brand new house," McKinney said.

McKinney says their problems started because of trash left outside the home.

Code enforcement billed the owner to remove the trash from the property.

He passed that bill along to McKinney who says the trash was there when he moved in.

"He said since we didn't want to take care of the bill then we need to move out of his house," McKinney said.

So they did.

They moved into a hotel and went searching for a new home.

When they found one they were denied because they were told they had an eviction on their record. Their landlord had filed an eviction in court even though they already moved out.

Turns out he still wanted reimbursement for that code enforcement bill.

"We just got blindsided and I felt that was wrong," McKinney said.

The judge ultimately ruled in the landlord’s favor.

Something that is not uncommon in St Joseph County or the state of Indiana.

"Indiana has really, really bad eviction laws compared to the rest of the country," Judy Fox said.

Fox is an attorney at the Notre Dame Clinical Law Center where she deals with evictions every day

Fox says many of the properties people are being forced from are in horrible condition, but the law leaves tenants virtually powerless.

"The most important thing is the ability to withhold rent when there are serious condition problems. In many other states, for instance, if you don’t have water, heat or you’ve got black mold you can say to the landlord - look I’ve got these problems and if you don’t fix them I am going to hang on to the rent until you do," Fox said.

That's not the case in Indiana, though. State law prohibits withholding rent.

Fox also says landlords aren't often held accountable.

"Part of what we are seeing has a lot to do as a remnant of the foreclosure crisis. You had a lot of investors coming in and buying abandoned foreclosed properties and frankly there’s a lot of fraud going on and many of these properties are not inhabitable," Fox said.

Fox recently filed a lawsuit in St Joseph County on behalf of nine clients. The suit lays out how one landlord was able to allegedly collect rent and even evict tenants from properties he never legally owned.

The case has even led to a re-evaluation of how evictions are handled in St. Joseph County courts.

"The courts have recently become concerned about this as well and now are requiring proof of ownership before you can evict and some landlords are very upset about this, but it’s always been the law," Fox said.

When filing evictions, landlords are also supposed to put up a cash bond that protects the tenants in the event they’re wrongfully evicted.

"A practice developed that really does not comply with state law where landlords would instead of paying a cash bond would put the property up that’s being rented as collateral," Fox said.

In cases like the lawsuit Fox filed, the landlords were putting up property they had no legal ownership of.

Does that mean the courts were inadvertently helping people scam the system?

"They were - inadvertently. I think systems develop over years and years and years of practice and they just happen and yes that is what happened," Fox said.

With that, South Bend's eviction rate has soared leaving many people now with a tainted record and hard-pressed to find housing in a market already tapped out on affordable housing.

According to HUD, affordable means the cost for low income families is less than 24 percent of the area median income. In South Bend the median income is about $35,000, which makes affordable housing anything less than $690/month.

"The houses that my clients are renting that have mold and have no facilities in them are going for $800 and $900 a month, because that’s all that’s out there for them. That’s definitely not affordable housing especially when it’s not safe housing," Fox said.

In August, U.S. Senator Todd Young, R-Ind., made a stop in South Bend to promote a bill he introduced to create a task force to look at the impact the lack of affordable housing has on things like education and health care.

If approved, the federal task force would then make recommendations to Congress.

But locally Fox says there are things that need to be cleaned up now.

"Some of this is fraud. Some of this is really shady stuff going on that I would love to see the prosecutor take a look at. There’s criminal activity going on," Fox said.

Mckinney hopes for the same.

He and his family are settling into their new home after finding a landlord who agreed to rent to him despite the eviction.

"Thanks to God we survived it and we got past it," McKinney said.

He knows others aren't always as lucky.

Often, tenants don't show up for eviction hearings.

Fox says tenants have some rights, so it is important to show up, defend your rights and seek help.

There are several organizations that provide free legal aid and can help in an eviction case:

Volunteer Lawyer Network, Inc.
Phone: 574-277-0075
Fax: 574-277-2055
Email: volunteerinc@sbcglobal.net
117 N Main St
South Bend, IN 46601

Indiana Legal Services
Phone: 574-234-8121
401 E Colfax Ave Suite 116
South Bend, IN 46617

ND Legal Clinic
Phone: 574-631-6704
725 Howard St
South Bend, IN 46617

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