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Michigan officials race deadline for $622 million in fed eviction relief

poster stating "no covid evictions"
More than $1 billion in federal eviction relief funding is expected to help renters struggling during the pandemic. (meandering images / Shutterstock.com)

With tens of thousands of Michigan rental households hoping to avoid eviction, housing officials say they’re on target to meet a crucial spending threshold to assure that more than $600 million in federal relief moves forward. It’s one of two federal pandemic programs that, combined, earmark more than $1 billion for rent relief to the state.

The funding is proving to be a critical safeguard against wholesale removals from rental properties after the Supreme Court recently struck down a federal eviction moratorium.

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Michigan was allocated $622 million in federal funds through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program, with a hitch: It had to spend or earmark 65 percent of those funds by Sept. 30 or risk losing the balance. State and local officials say they will meet that deadline.

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“We believe we are on track to make that; we’re going to exceed that 65 percent,” Kelly Rose of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority told Bridge Michigan.

According to MSHDA, nearly $225 million in rental relief had been approved for 34,751 households struggling during the pandemic as of Sunday. Rose said the “vast majority” of that had already been spent.

But with nearly 39,000 additional households in the pipeline for relief, Rose expects the state to exceed $405 million in spent or obligated funds ─ or 65 percent ─ by the end of the month.

All told, more than 80,000 Michigan households applied for rent relief as of Sunday. (About 7,000 applications were denied.) Landlords and tenants can seek CERA funds to cover back rent and utilities for tenants who earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income and meet other criteria like having a drop in income or qualifying for unemployment benefits.

The program became a critical lifeline when, in late August, the U.S. Supreme Court  blocked a Biden administration order that had extended a federal eviction moratorium to a large swath of the country.

The extended ban, a two-month order, had been issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It covered parts of the nation that had what the CDC called "substantial" and "high" spread of the coronavirus, which included most of Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer first ordered a moratorium on evictions in March 2020, to protect households as COVID swept through the state, triggering a steep rise in unemployment. In September 2020, the CDC issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions that was to expire at the end of the year but was extended five times. The CDC moratorium shielded renters from eviction for non-payment, unless they were found to have conducted criminal activity on the property, threatened other residents, damaged the property, or violated building codes.

The Supreme Court decision overturning the ban left protection against evictions largely to a pair of federal programs: CERA, and a second tranche of federal funding under the American Rescue Plan that earmarked another $423 million in rent relief for Michigan.

According to a national analysis earlier this year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington D.C.-based think tank, Black and Latino households are more vulnerable to evictions, as it found that 33 percent of Black adults and 20 percent of Latino adults were behind on rent, compared to 19 percent of all adults.

In southeast Michigan, officials at Wayne Metro Community Action Agency said the nonprofit is on track to approve more than 65 percent of $100 million in allotted CERA funds for outer Wayne County and Detroit by the Sept. 30 deadline. It’s among dozens of Michigan nonprofit and community organizations tasked with administering the program.

“We are definitely going to hit that target,” Wayne Metro spokesperson Mia Harnos told Bridge. As of Sunday, it said it approved $63 million in funding for 7,838 households.

Harnos noted that as a backlog of thousands of CERA applications piled up several months ago, Wayne Metro tapped into CERA funding to hire 200 more processors, including 50 to answer phone lines and 150 staff managers.

“We’re answering 30,000 calls a month,” she said.

Meanwhile, according to the State Court Administrative Office, the administrative arm of the Michigan Supreme Court, evictions are sharply down since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Those cases are decided by judges in the state’s 105 district courts.

In 2019, SCAO recorded 41,439 evictions across Michigan, a number that fell to 13,450 in 2020 and 7,235 for the first eight months of 2021.

Evictions fall in Michigan

During the pandemic, which began in early 2020, evictions fell sharply in the state. Here are the number of eviction cases filed and evictions in the past three years:

YEAR   |    CASES FILED   |   EVICTIONS 

2019         141,364                  41,439

2020          68,041                   13,450

2021*         56,498                   7,235

*Numbers through August

Source: State Court Administrative Office of the Michigan Supreme Court

In West Michigan, legal officials say that CERA appears to be forestalling — for now — a crush of evictions.

“There is not a cliff at this point; there is not a disaster looming,” said Karen Tjapkes of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, a nonprofit legal assistance program that serves 17 counties in southwest Michigan.

Tjakpes said she had no precise count of recent evictions in her region, though she noted that some eviction cases are proceeding despite the financial support available under CERA.

“We are hearing anecdotally about a rise in cases where no amount of money is going to save the tenant,” she said. “A lot of those are landlords saying they want the tenant out. With the tight housing market, they just want the tenant out so they can raise the rent considerably.

Karen Tjapkes
Karen Tjapkes of Legal Aid of Western Michigan said lack of affordable housing remains a critical barrier to household stability. (Courtesy photo)

“There are some landlords that want to sell the property because it’s such a hot real estate market.”

Tjapkes said a lack of affordable housing remains a critical barrier to stability for many families, even with the temporary federal support to limit eviction. 

According to a 2021 report from the Michigan Association of United Ways, 38 percent of Michigan households in 2019 — even before the pandemic — struggled to afford basic necessities including housing, food, child care and transportation. 

In cities including Detroit, Dearborn, Flint and Grand Rapids where housing was deemed least affordable, renters spent from 36 percent to 50 percent of their income on rent. In general terms, households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered “rent burdened,” with those spending 50 percent or more “severely rent burdened,” leaving tenants with not enough money for other expenses.

“If the rental rates get so high that even if we can get a tenant into a place they can’t afford long term, they may have a place for a couple months but then won’t be able to sustain it — and are more likely to become homeless,” Tjapkes said.

Michele Robinson
Michele Robinson of Wayne Metro Community Action Agency: “You still have families that are at risk of eviction.” (Courtesy photo)

Wayne Metro CAA is assisting 41 recently evicted homeless families from Detroit, now housed in motels across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, according to program director Michele Robinson. That support program is funded through CERA as well.

Robinson termed the majority of those cases “illegal evictions” ─ including cases where the landlord didn’t actually own the property, as well as a few evictions for nonpayment of rent or where the rental property was not habitable.

“You still have families that are at risk of eviction,” Robinson said. “There is still a lot of work to do.”

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