Lafayette council members: Fix system that allows slumlord conditions
After pressed by renters and neighbors calling for crack down on landlords who ‘care not a whit,’ city promises a look into solutions, easier inspections after complaints
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LAFAYETTE COUNCIL MEMBERS: FIX SYSTEM THAT ALLOWS SLUMLORD CONDITIONS
Lafayette City Council members sounded ready to start cracking down on the city’s worst landlords, after pleas from renters dealing what they called horrible conditions and their homeowning neighbors who say their blocks are getting worse.
“I’ve been hearing these stories for the last 15 to 20 years,” Perry Brown, a city council member, said during a public comment section of Monday’s monthly city council meeting.
That night, roughly a dozen residents came to testify about living conditions in shabby and sometimes dangerous rentals that they portrayed as just being there to prey on people in vulnerable situations.
“We’re in a situation where we’re going to make no friends,” Brown, who represents much of the city’s north end in District 3, told the rest of the council. “Our resolve is not going to be enough. Because trust me, as soon as we start to do this, we're going to start to get phone calls from people who are going to be whispering in our ears to explain to us that this is not something that we have any business doing and all that kind of stuff. But we are here to protect the citizens from just this kind of foolishness. …
“We need to fix it,” Brown said. “Not ‘if’ we can. We need to.”
What that means and what the city can do more about it than already is happening is another question.
Jacque Chosnek, Lafayette’s city attorney, said the wheels are in motion to adjust city code to make it easier for renters to ask for a city inspection when there are problems with water, heat, mold or other uninhabitable living conditions. That could include allowing city inspectors to respond to tenant requests, even if a tenant is behind on rent or a landlord already has started an eviction – something the city avoids, Chosnek said, so it doesn’t get used as a tool simply to delay the court process.
The city responds to complaints and orders repairs, when necessary, under the unsafe building law, Chosnek said. But short of installing a routine rental inspection program – something the state allows, as long as cities don’t charge fees to run it and hire necessary staff – Chosnek said solutions aren’t ready-made for the city. (West Lafayette remains among the few Indiana cities with regular rental inspections, grandfathered in under previous laws despite efforts in the General Assembly to take that away.)
“One thing I would like to see is a more pre-emptive type of program, so we can ensure the housing is habitable to begin with,” Chosnek said. “I’m always looking, but I’ve not found a good solution, yet.”
A couple of local outlets have been doing a solid job laying out issues with problem or distant landlords, in what Chosnek says has been a growing problem for the city.
J&C reporter Noe Padilla has strung together a series of stories worth revisting:
Purdue Exponent reporters Marco Rivero, Seth Nelson and Alex Haddon had taken closer looks at Chaofeng Liu. The Purdue lecturer who goes by Charles Lee has a portfolio of more than 80 rentals and a reputation for poor maintenance and swift evictions – 230 since 2020, according to court records pulled by the Exponent. Among their stories this summer, dealing with often desperate renters and Liu’s insistence that all his properties follow Indiana law:
That coverage amplified some of what the group of tenants and homeowners told the city council Monday night.
Angela Moody talked about how one house she rented from Liu on Hartford Street was so full of mold and in such bad condition that she wound up in a tent in the back yard, waiting for things to be fixed. They never were, she said.
“Landlords should be held accountable and make sure the rentals are in good condition,” Moody said. “You should also not have to jump through so many hoops to get an inspection.”
Monica Casanova, Fairfield Township trustee, called for answers to “landlords who care not a whit about the tenants they house.”
“I’m not talking about all landlords, but there are landlord who are exploiting the market,” Casanova said. “They buy up properties in economically distressed neighborhoods, hike up rent and rent to the most vulnerable. Often the housing is subpar and unhealthy for its tenants. When they are brought to the carpet either by tenants or the city, they make little or no attempt to address the issue. They find excuses to kick out tenants and turn around to rent the property all over again.”
John Copeland, a homeowner who lives on North Street in Lafayette, said he expected the city would hear plenty about property rights as it approaches the issue.
“If all of you are genuinely committed to improving the quality of life of the citizens of Lafayette, improving the quality of the rental housing stock has to be part of that,” Copeland said. “Improving the quality of life of the citizens of Lafayette includes all the citizens, including those who rent.”
State Rep. Sheila Klinker, a Lafayette Democrat, told the council that she understood the options were limited for the city. She said it likely would be up to those at the Statehouse to give cities the tools. Klinker told city council members she was willing to carry any bills that might help, telling people to write to their state representatives and senators to help sway the conversation in the General Assembly.
Chosnek suggested to Klinker that Indiana could join a majority of states that allows for rent escrow accounts that allow tenants to withhold rent when housing is not habitable.
Brown said that when he’s brought up the subject, he hears people ask why someone would put up with those conditions and why they wouldn’t simply move. He said it wasn’t as simple as that for people barely able to scrape together first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, necessary to get some leases.
“In a lot of cases, just to live in a trash heap,” Brown said. “I'm here to tell you, there's people out there that will pimp these people into the ground, simply because they know that folks will have just barely enough money to get housed and will go anyplace to get housed. … This has to be fixed.”
THIS AND THAT …
SOLAR EFFORT LANDS AN INSTALLER: A new co-op looking to bring affordable solar energy options to homeowners and businesses in Tippecanoe and Montgomery counties landed on a firm that will do installations. According to a release Friday, Solar United Neighbors will go through Huston Solar, based in Lafayette. The co-op has 26 members, aiming at an original goal of 50 when the project was announced in May. Solar United Neighbors, launched with support from leaders in Lafayette, West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County, will hold a series of its Solar 101 informational meetings in person and virtually over the next two months. Among them:
6 p.m. July 19, Wea Prairie Branch Library, 4200 S. 18th St., Lafayette.
6:30 p.m. July 26, via Zoom.
6:30 p.m. Aug. 17, also via Zoom.
For more information: www.solarunitedneighbors.org/tmcounties
JUDICIAL ELECTION LAWSUIT, A FOLLOW-UP: Friday morning, I had a piece on Lafayette-based attorney Tom Herr and his lawsuit challenging the way judicial candidates run with political party labels in Tippecanoe County and the majority of others in Indiana, except in Vanderburgh and Allen counties. Herr’s lawsuit lost in Tippecanoe Superior Court 1 in January. That decision was affirmed by the Indiana Court of Appeals in late June. All along, Herr has contended that his questions – including, shouldn’t all local judges be elected in nonpartisan races to help preserve faith in the system? – deserve the attention of the Indiana Supreme Court. On Friday, Herr filed a petition to transfer his case to the state’s high court. The state has 20 days to respond. Here’s a look at the case: “Lawsuit to end partisan judicial elections knocked by Appeals Court.”
OTHER READS …
Indiana Capital Chronicle reporter Casey Smith had a look at the Indiana Commission for Higher Educations new benchmarks for the state’s public universities, including Purdue. Finalized Thursday, the metrics for each school “focus on low‐income youth enrollment, adult enrollment, on‐time degree completion, overall degree completion, low-income degree completion, adult degree completion and STEM degree completion.” Here’s the full report: “Degree completions are top performance goals set for Indiana’s public colleges and universities.”
U.S. Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, was among those touting a bipartisan amendment to the annual Defense authorization bill Friday that would require the federal government to collect and make public records related to unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs) and unidentified flying objects (UFOs). “The American people deserve transparency on all issues related to UAPs,” Young said in a statement Friday. Reporter Alexander Bolton with The Hill had this: “Senators to offer amendment to require government to make UFO records public.”
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