INDIANAPOLIS — Having tasted administrative success in forcing the Indianapolis Housing Agency (IHA) to agree to clean up a troubled downtown high rise apartment building, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita told FOX59/CBS4 he has other troubled and deplorable local public housing properties in his crosshairs.
”It’s in our best interests to make sure that these properties are at least livable, because the fact of the matter is, we pay the rent,” Rokita said. “We’re not getting the services, and we’re not getting the product from the landlord.”
Earlier this month, Rokita announced an unprecedented agreement between IHA and his office to fix up and secure Lugar Tower, named for honored Indiana U.S. Senator Richard Lugar.
In his Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, Rokita listed broken elevators, a lack of hot water, no security and human feces in stairwells. IHA denied all the complaints but pledged to resolve similar issues in the future.
At the time of the settlement, IHA residents at other properties asked FOX59/CBS4 when they could expect the AG to inspect their living conditions too.
Rokita said he plans to do so soon.
”We owe them safe and affordable housing,” Rokita promised the 26,000 IHA residents and rent subsidy recipients. “If you feel like you don’t owe them anything, look at it this way, the tenants, if not them, are the city and state taxpayer, and if the tenants aren’t paying, other taxpayers are. So, any way you look at it, we’re all involved.”
IHA has an interest in 15 apartment and townhouse properties across the city with an annual budget of $70 million, which is mostly funded by the federal government.
The public housing agency’s private equity partners control 10 of those sites and have recently insisted on private management firms taking over operations.
Despite sporadic maintenance and management improvements, IHA residents continue to file complaints about their living conditions as state and federal auditors repeatedly cite financial mismanagement of the agency’s books.
Friday afternoon, a man was murdered at Blackburn Terrace — an IHA property on the eastside — while another man was shot early Sunday morning at an IHA site in Haughville.
At Laurelwood on Indy’s south side, a man recently murdered a woman and shot himself in a complex that features gang graffiti on the building walls and shattered windows in a shuttered community center. The complex has also been featured in several recent music videos of gun-toting young people.
The walls of Beechwood Gardens, an eastside townhouse/apartment complex, are riddled with bullet holes as plywood covers the windows of several abandoned units.
At Bethel Homes, residents said plumbing problems are attributable to construction debris dumped in drain pipes while rodent infestation has overrun the complex.
Red Maple Grove has been the site of several recent shootings, including the wounding of two children last month.
”That’s a common thread throughout this — horrid, unlivable conditions that we wouldn’t tolerate in a third-world country,” Rokita said. “We are tolerating, not only here in Indianapolis, but we have cases in other parts of the state as well. ”This is the first time that we’ve had to go after, quote-unquote, another government agency for outright failure over what I’m understanding to be a long period of time to do their work that, again, the taxpayers paid for.
“So, we’re paying for their rent for these people to live, we’re paying IHA and we’re paying HUD in federal tax dollars for this kind of product … a product that shows squalor, that shows feces on the floor and walls, elevators don’t work for disabled and elderly people, HVAC doesn’t work, and it’s just not right on whatever angle you look at it.”
In 2022, Rokita’s office joined with Mayor Joe Hogsett and the City of Indianapolis in pressuring derelict non-for-profit owners of dilapidated and unsafe private apartment complexes to sell out to new operators. The AG said this will be the first time he will launch investigations into public-private equity partnerships that allegedly provide substandard housing for low-income Marion County residents.
”If you’re an owner of one of these properties, you are responsible,” Rokita said. “So, we start with IHA, and if they can’t do their jobs, maybe we take this to other venues, and other entities, and other owners. We’re not letting this go.
”We’re gonna take that same tenacity to this situation, and hey, if you’re gonna come to Indiana and act this way, it’s gonna cost you more than its worth.”
IHA is overseen by a Board of Commissioners — the majority of which is appointed by Hogsett and the City County Council — with various members who, during the last several years, have presided over the gradual degradation of public housing properties. Their reported missteps include deferred maintenance, unpaid bills and a whistleblower’s report in 2022 that charted the mismanagement that led to threatened federal oversight of the agency.
”I’m surprised, in terms of your viewing area, why this isn’t more of an issue in the mayor’s race itself,” Rokita said. “The buck stops at the mayor’s desk, and what I’ve seen at Lugar Tower, and what I suspect I’m going to see at other IHA properties, is really a condemnation of where this city is in a lot of respects.”
Regarding the Lugar Tower AVC, IHA Chief Executive Marsha Lewis told FOX59/CBS4 that she was, “grateful for the Attorney General’s willingness to work with IHA.”
She added that, “the current IHA administration has worked with other stakeholders to develop and implement new management operation improvement plans.”
When asked for comment after Rokita said his staff would field and investigate complaints from other public housing properties, Lewis told FOX59/CBS4 that several management and operational improvements are already in the works.
“We are also integrating an ongoing evaluation process into these so we can track our progress, implement changes as needed, ensure accountability to the residents we serve and our funders,” Lewis added.
Rokita said his staff is waiting to hear from residents throughout the IHA system about their living conditions.
”If you have paid your rent, if you have done everything that you were obligated to do to be a tenant in one of these places,” Rokita said, “and you haven’t gotten your product, you haven’t gotten your service, you haven’t gotten a reasonable place, a livable place to live in, I will help.”
”You gotta go to my website, you gotta call my number, and you gotta make the report because there’s strength in numbers,” Rokita said. “The more people I have complaining, the more leverage I have in court and the more political leverage I have in in the mayor’s office and other places.”