The $1.1 billion COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program kept vulnerable Michigan renters housed during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say, but now, as it winds down, they worry that eviction filings will go up. (Shutterstock)

Nateeta Morris was unemployed most of last year, and although she worked some odd jobs, she fell behind on her rent payments.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

Morris lost her mother, sister and close friends to COVID-19. She worked as a home health aide and saw patients “come in by the ambulance and leave by the funeral home.” That time in her life caused her to slip into depression, she said, and she ultimately made the decision to leave work.

Morris worried about the roof over her head, despite knowing her landlord was understanding. Her landlord had bills to pay after all, she thought. Morris wondered whether she would see an eviction notice in the mail or whether she’d be asked to move. In the meantime, she paid what she could, but was still behind four months — about $3,800. 

“I was giving everything I had just to stay in my house,” said Morris, 50, who has been in her Redford home for more than a decade. Her anxiety level was very high, she said. 

Like tens of thousands of other Michigan renters, Morris applied to a statewide rent aid program launched last year to help her catch up but it took three months for her to get the assistance. Still, the $7,500 she received for back rent and forward bills was a “total relief.” It helped her regain her footing and she’s even in the process of buying her house through a land contract agreement

The $1.1 billion COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program kept vulnerable Michigan renters housed during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say, but now, as it winds down, they worry that eviction filings will go up. 

CERA, advocates say, was a “game changer.” At the same time, existing programs fall short and there’s already a short supply of affordable housing options, leaving low-income families vulnerable to housing instability if they face an eviction or sudden financial hardship, they say. 

The CERA program was meant to be a temporary Band-Aid to help tenants catch up on past rent and future bills, while also offering utility assistance. CERA stopped taking new applications last month but is still accepting active eviction cases — where a summons and complaint has already been issued by the district court — through Aug. 31, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). 

The pandemic ushered in a safety net for strapped renters, from eviction moratoriums to a massive infusion of aid. Detroit saw a right to counsel ordinance passed this year, providing free lawyers for low-income tenants in court. Now the question remains: What happens next? 

“Suddenly, we had something to work with, where we could help people get through a bad time in their life and get them on solid footing going forward,” said Ashley Lowe, CEO of Lakeshore Legal Aid. “So, knowing that that is near its end, we’re kind of back to where we were before — where we’re going to be looking to find solutions that are not going to solve the same level of problems that CERA dollars did.” 

A report last month from the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions initiative found that in 2020, when there were eviction moratoriums, eviction filings in Detroit fell compared with before the pandemic. In 2021, the filings began to rise and they are steadily going up this year. Since the start of the pandemic through March, landlords filed more than 25,500 new eviction cases. Termination of tenancy — where advocates say tenants have fewer rights — ticked up since the CERA program began last year, the report said. 

“Even with these unprecedented measures in place, evictions remained a persistent and pervasive threat in Detroit neighborhoods,” said Alexa Eisenberg, co-author of the U-M report and a postdoctoral research fellow at Poverty Solutions. The paper used data from the Eviction Machine, an advocacy and research tool that is part of the Urban Praxis Workshop

‘We can’t throw up our hands’ 

The state has spent more than $834 million on rent and utility aid out of $1.1 billion. More than 61,000 applications still need to be processed, as of Friday according to a MSHDA dashboard.

On average, it takes about 40 to 45 days to get the aid across the state and between 90 to 100 days in Wayne County. MSHDA has added staff to specifically process Detroit applications and brought on another nonprofit to get through the backlog of applications, said Kelly Rose, MSHDA chief housing solutions officer, earlier this month.

“We are concerned that we’re going to start to see evictions creeping back up to pretty much pre-pandemic levels without this amount of financial assistance. We have to assume that we’re going to start to see more evictions,” Rose said. 

Housing agencies, she said, are preparing for the likelihood of more people entering the homelessness system. 

“We do anticipate that there could be an uptick in people needing emergency shelter,” Rose said. 

Metro Detroit alone received $305 million in rental aid, including funds the city directly received. As of Monday, about $181 million has been spent for rent and utilities by Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck residents. About 21,500 applications have been approved.

Courtney Hierlihy, CERA department director for the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency — one of the agencies running the program in Wayne County — said the need for rental aid has been extremely high since the program began. 

“We’ve never seen funding for rental assistance like this before,” she said. Wayne County continues to account for the highest number of applications in Michigan. 

Ted Phillips, executive director of the Detroit-based United Community Housing Coalition, said the CERA program was the difference between being in the shelters, on the streets, in a car or in an abandoned building. 

The clients Phillips frequently works with owed large arrears they otherwise would not have been able to pay back on their own, because they may have been out of work. Three months of future rent, through CERA, helped people get their footing as they settled into new jobs. 

Phillips is worried about eviction cases going up as financial resources deplete. Attorneys are going to be more important than ever, he said, as they assert tenants’ rights and work out payment arrangements in court. 

“There’s a lot to do, but we can’t throw up our hands,” Phillips said. 

There’s no reason, he said, to go back to an environment where few tenants had legal representation in court. 

“We went from about 4.5% of the tenants being represented pre-COVID to getting it up to probably about 25% being represented at the height,” he said. 

Last month, the city of Detroit outlined a three-pronged plan for help available after CERA ends, including lawyers for Detroiters in court facing eviction, potential job placement through a city program and help getting into emergency shelter for those facing homelessness.

But advocates say that existing programs, like relocation help through housing agencies and the state emergency relief, aren’t enough to address the scale of need. 

“It feels like there’s nothing else behind this,” Lowe, of Lakeshore Legal Aid, said. 

Earlier this year, Detroit City Council passed an ordinance that provides free lawyers for low-income Detroiters facing eviction. Council President Mary Sheffield called the move historic. Detroit is now one of the 15 cities across the country to offer such legal representation to tenants. It is being funded by $6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, from a total pot of $18 million over three years. Most of those dollars will require approval either through a budget amendment or during next year’s budget process. The Gilbert Family Foundation contributed $12 million. 

Funding is an ongoing concern, tenant advocates say. In order to fully implement a Right to Counsel program in Detroit it will cost about $16.7 million annually, according to a report from the consulting firm Stout. 

“It’s going to be really critical that legal services continue to support residents and tenants that are in court facing eviction,” said Chelsea Neblett, a financial empowerment manager with the City of Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods. 

Termination of tenancy evictions on the rise 

Termination of tenancy cases increased 61% since the start of the CERA program last year, making up 17% of all cases before it began and 28% afterward, the U-M report found. 

These evictions may be because a lease ended, the landlord said a tenant violated a rental agreement or the unit is a month-to-month and the property owner wants the tenant to move out, according to the nonprofit Michigan Legal Help, funded by the Michigan Supreme Court and the Michigan State Bar Foundation.

Tenant advocates say these renters have fewer protections. For several months, they’ve noticed a trend in increasing termination of tenancy cases. 

“We’re seeing more and more instances of tenants who were assisted with CERA having their leases not renewed or the landlords, who had gotten CERA, filing termination of tenancy actions,” said Jim Schaafsma, a housing attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program. 

The 36th District Court in April added a fifth landlord tenant docket to specifically handle termination of tenancy cases. The move was meant to address the backlog of landlord tenant cases resulting from eviction moratoriums and relieve pressure off of the other four dockets. 

There may be two reasons for the uptick now: the CERA program preventing landlords from filing termination of tenancy cases and more demand in the rental housing market, according to Matthew Paletz, CEO of Paletz Law, a Troy-based firm representing landlords. 

“A landlord may make an election to say, you know what, I want to get off the CERA train, and I want to give a shot to another person who is desirous to live in my unit,” he said. 

When a landlord submits a CERA application, they agree to not start any eviction proceedings while the program dollars are paying for the rent, according to MSHDA.

It’s been a “mad scramble” trying to get residents with past balances into the CERA program as it winds down, said Douglas Marcum, former president of the Detroit Metropolitan Apartment Association and regional property manager for KMG Prestige. The program, he said, has been effective in getting tenants approved, though there have been delays in receiving funds. 

“We’ve got mortgages to pay, we’ve got taxes to pay, we’ve got utilities to pay, employees to pay, supplies for maintenance and all of that,” he said. 

There was overwhelming demand for the CERA program and agencies struggled to administer the program, Paletz said. 

“Landlords are not immune from higher labor costs,” he said. “Landlords are not immune from higher payroll costs.” 

Some landlords, he said, have worked alongside tenants to get the rent assistance. 

“The landlord will never be made whole due to the time that it took for those monies to be paid and the costs that have increased,” related to maintaining properties, wage increases and supply chain hiccups, Paletz said. 

Existing programs not enough 

Beyond temporary solutions like the CERA program, both tenant and landlord advocates agree there needs to be more affordable housing in the state. 

“We know that the lack of affordable housing is at the root of the eviction problem,” Schaafsma said. “There’s just not enough affordable or near affordable housing for low and increasingly moderate income renters.” 

Michigan needs more than 200,000 affordable rental units for extremely low income households, or a family of four earning $27,750, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The Detroit, Warren and Detroit area needs about 100,000 units.

Seventy-one percent of extremely low-income families have a “severe cost burden,” meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing costs. 

A person would need to work nearly two full-time jobs at minimum wage in Michigan to afford a two-bedroom home, the National Low Income Housing Coalition recently reported

“Even if there are programs available to help with rental assistance, and we connect households to legal aid resources, at the end of the day, we really need to start focusing on creating and sustaining more affordable housing for households,” Hierlihy, of Wayne Metro, said. 

Existing programs and services operate at a much smaller scale. 

The income-based State Emergency Relief program offers help for those in an urgent financial emergency, like an eviction, utility shutoff or burial. Housing agencies across the state will still offer assistance, despite having less funding after CERA wraps up. 

MSHDA plans to use $5 million in federal pandemic aid to help those in the eviction process with their back rent. That program is slated to launch later this year. Legal services will continue through 2023. 

This week, Wayne Metro received additional CERA funds to help clients with back rent before March 30 and that is expected to help another 5,000 to 7,000 households. 

“The resources were so massive (for CERA), I don’t see how we could possibly have anything that would match that and that’s not an indictment on anybody, but it’s just reality. I think we just have to make sure that we do what we can,” Phillips said. 

Although the statewide CERA program has stopped taking applications aside from eviction cases, a separate rental assistance program at Wayne County is still up and running. The county was earmarked to receive $32 million in federal pandemic rent aid.

When the county’s program launched in September, it was averaging 100 to 150 applications per week and after the statewide program closed, Wayne County received an average of about 460 applications a week during the beginning of the month, said Colton Dale, a business development manager at Wayne County. 

“There’s more people applying today than there were when we first launched so that’s how we know that the need is still out there,” he said.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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