Eviction prevention groups get new lifeline

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The director of one legal aid group on Tuesday hopes a new federal grant ultimately leads to fewer people facing eviction.

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch’s office announced seven legal aid groups will receive a combined total of $13.1 million in grants to hire more lawyers and legal support staff to help people who are facing eviction. The grants also will fund the installation of information kiosks in courthouses and libraries to help connect people with resources. The money comes from the American Rescue Plan.

Indiana Legal Services Executive Director Jon Laramore said he expects to hire up to a dozen additional full- and part-time lawyers. Laramore said his organization alone handles about 15,000 eviction cases a year, each of which typically ties up a lawyer in court for 2 to 5 hours. Laramore said eviction cases so far match 2021 levels, which were 80% higher than what we saw in 2020. This is because many renters are still recovering financially from job losses and other expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Laramore said.

“They’re mostly behind in rent. So they need to be connected with a way to pay their rent, and those resources are available, and then they need an advocate who can help the court understand that it’s going to take them some time to get those resources,” Laramore said.

Chuck Dunlap, president and CEO of the Indiana Bar Foundation, said his organization was able to secure a contract on behalf of the aid groups with the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority at the end of last year. The contract became effective Feb. 1 but officials waited until Tuesday to make it public to give the organizations time to prepare. Besides Indiana Legal Services, the other groups receiving funding are the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Legal Aid Corporation of Tippecanoe County, Legal Aid Society of Evansville, Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and Pro Bono Indiana.

“A lot of it is just going to be an increase in capacity and bandwidth. So we have more attorneys helping more people,” Dunlap said.

Besides more lawyers, Dunlap said the money will pay for so-called legal navigators, who will help connect people with rental assistance and other services. Much of the legal infrastructure the grant will pay for can also be applied to other areas of civil law. Once the grant money runs out, the foundation likely will seek a mix of public and private funding to keep the project going, Dunlap said.

Laramore said he is still taking applications to fill the new lawyer positions on his staff. Once those lawyers are in place and have had time to work on outstanding eviction cases, he said he suspects he will need to move their responsibilities around as clients’ needs change.