Michigan’s evictions ban is set to expire Wednesday night, prompting concern among housing advocates that a rushed handoff to an aid program may leave many without help.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in late March issued an executive order to protect renters from being removed from their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic. She’s extended the order multiple times, but it’s expiring and will be replaced by an “eviction diversion program” to pay rental debts and provide legal help for low- and middle-income households that have been affected by COVID-19.
State officials have been “preparing frantically” to make the assistance program available beginning Thursday, said State Court Administrator Tom Boyd. But housing advocates say funding for the effort — $60 million of federal coronavirus relief money — won’t be available to organizations responsible for allocating it until early August, two weeks after courts can resume eviction proceedings.
Michigan officials have warned of a backlog of as many as 75,000 evictions statewide after the moratorium ends.
“It’s almost like the eviction diversion funds are seen as the answer to what’s going to happen down the road, and everybody’s forgotten about all the folks that are in the pipeline,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit housing advocacy group in Detroit that will likely be among the groups responsible for distributing funding for renters.
Statewide, thousands of people had eviction cases pending before courts when they shut down in mid-March due to the virus.
That includes around 2,600 households in Detroit alone who received eviction judgments in February and the first half of March; 463 notices of eviction; 99 pending orders of eviction and at least 720 cases that hadn’t yet been adjudicated when the courts closed.
Phillips said he fears tenants will go without financial help if eviction cases resume Thursday and money for help isn’t yet available.
“All of those things are a good indication that there is a strong potential for a lot of people to be evicted once the moratorium is lifted,” Phillips said.
Kelly Rose, the chief housing solutions officer for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, told Bridge that renters can access the aid program Thursday, and processing applications should take a week or two.
Renters are eligible for financial assistance under the program if they make up to the median income in their area. Half of the funds are reserved for households making less than half of the area’s median income. Which the state estimates will cover up to 25,000 households statewide.
Tiffany Brown, spokesperson for the governor, said she couldn’t say whether the Whitmer will extend the moratorium “but residents are encouraged to learn more about the [assistance] program.”
When courts resume evictions, they’re required by a state Supreme Court administrative order to prioritize evictions of tenants who are accused of “illegal activity,” may damage rentals and who haven’t paid rent for the longest period of time. Boyd said this is intended to systematically process a potential flood of evictions.
A federal eviction moratorium also protects residents of Federal Housing Administration from eviction housing through July 25.
“It’s safe to say that whenever the moratorium is lifted, there’s going to be trouble. There’s gonna be problems. [Courts] are administering a program that’s brand new and has never been tried before,” Boyd said, adding there is no perfect time to resume evictions.
He said landlords have argued there will be “a cataclysmic collapse of the housing market” and others who have argued that an influx of eviction cases is unlikely.
Aaron Cox, an Taylor attorney who represents landlords, wrote in an email to Bridge that the “government’s reactions to the purported ‘flood’ of evictions is unfounded in reality.”
“The vast majority of my clients’ tenants are paying rent where they are able and where they are not, the landlords are working with those tenants that are making efforts to pay,” he said.
“It’s clear to me that neither the Supreme Court nor the governor’s office has meaningfully discussed these issues with the actual landlords or their representatives.”
Boyd countered that, while there may be fewer eviction cases because of the federal government’s enhanced unemployment assistance payments of $600 per week, there still likely is a backlog of tens of thousands of cases.
The court’s order builds in a second chance for renters who miss a hearing after being notified (unless they’re served the notice in person) and requires the court to inform parties of legal and financial aid services.
State Supreme Court spokesperson John Nevin said the resource is an unprecedented effort aimed “at making courts a resource for the community rather than an enforcement mechanism.”
Whitmer’s order barring evictions also allows courts to extend deadlines and ignore other requirements to resolve cases for 30 days after the moratorium lapses. If courts choose to delay the proceedings, that may help provide more time for legal aid and funding services to get up and running.
But that will likely vary by court, and many courts are under pressure to move cases along when they can.
“One of the metrics that they are normally evaluated on is they’re not supposed to let cases linger around their dockets for too long, which creates an incentive to quickly enter judgment,” said Joe McGuire, an Detroit-based attorney with Michigan Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal help.
McGuire said skyrocketing statewide unemployment — 24 percent in April and 21 percent in May — means many renters will likely face instability in coming months.
“The normal support structure for housing security and income security for poor people is disarray because of the virus,” McGuire said. “It’s going to be a terrible year for a lot of people that are housing insecure, which is a whole lot of people.”
He, McGuire and Angela Tripp of Michigan Legal Help all said they hope the governor makes a last-minute decision to extend the moratorium on evictions — both so the programs can transition more smoothly and to protect those who are evicted for reasons other than rental debt.
“It’s money versus people’s lives. Taking two more weeks should be a no-brainer,” Tripp said. She suggested using the money to pay landlords while maintaining the ban on evictions.
“Any evictions during a public health crisis is horrible public policy and isn’t necessary,” Tripp said. “I don’t know what folks think is going to happen to homeless people during COVID-19, especially as the public health crisis gets even worse.”