Indy landlord tells tenants to prioritize rent over food


by Timi Aderinwale

Over the past weeks, the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana have come to a grinding halt. Businesses have shuttered, and those that remain open are either facilitating work from home, laying off workers, or reducing hours. Many in the service sector, especially the food business, have either lost their jobs or had their hours and pay significantly reduced.

 At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Holcomb stated that, just since Monday over some 21,000 Hoosiers have filed for unemployment.

Given that so many are in dire straits, Justin Leverton, Indianapolis based lawyer landlord took it upon himself to provide some financial advice to his residents in Woodruff Place. In an e-mail to his tenants originally shared on social media by Toni Moore, he acknowledged that times are hard for folks before proceeding to state that tenants who work in food service need to come up with creative ways to pay rent. Leverton said tenants should dip into their savings or their 401ks. If they don’t have savings, they should borrow money from relatives or sell their cars. He even helpfully suggested that they prioritize their rent over food because “it is better to go to a food bank than be homeless.”

Moore captioned a facebook post of the e-mail, saying “I have a 7 year old. I’m self-employed. I’m a contracted Personal Trainer whose gym just closed. And I also work in the service industry. So now I have no income. This is absolutely unacceptable!”

In response to public outrage over the condescending and heartless e-mail, Robert Simpson of RJR Maintenance and Management sent a follow-up email to tenants, saying that Leverton has “tendered his resignation” and will no longer be making day-to-day decisions at RJR.

Notably absent from the e-mail is any mention of rent freezes, reductions, or forgiveness. Nowhere in the apology does it mention that folks will not be kicked out and rendered homeless if they do not come up with rent. The tenants have not been reassured that they don’t have to put paying rent above paying for food. The apology, in other words, amounts to a superficial and meaningless form of accountability. While Simpson said he’s willing to work with tenants who are out of work due to COVID-19, Moore says she hasn’t yet received a response from him clarifying what measures they’re taking to assist residents.

The reality is that most working-class people have to provide for more than just themselves on their meager wages. A Federal Reserve study released last year found that 40 percent of people in the U.S. don’t even have $400 in savings to cover an emergency. That was before the recent rapid economic downturn.

No one, regardless of how much they have saved up or how well off their relatives are, should have to prioritize rent over food – or anything else for that matter. In fact, no one should be worrying about rent ever, and especially right now. This is why we at ANSWER Indiana have joined a collective of Indianapolis organizations, activists, and residents to demand the enactment of a total waiver on rent, mortgage, utility, debt, and loan payments–including but not limited to car payments and credit cards–for as long as the crisis lasts. We also demand that people experiencing homelessness and people in overcrowded households be housed in existing vacant housing units in good condition. Amongst other demands, we are asking Governor Eric Holcomb and Mayor Joe Hogsett to issue free food vouchers to residents of Indiana and end work requirements for SNAP benefits. 

These demands are entirely possible. There are 7,200 addresses listed as vacant or abandoned on the OpenIndy data portal. “Don’t let landlords bully you during a time like this,” Moore told ANSWER Indiana organizers. We completely agree. If the landlord who sent this email was driven by  panic and anxiety as the apology states, then imagine the panic and anxiety that his tenants and other working class-folks are faced with. We demand that people get relief!