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Opinion | Legislature withholding COVID money endangers Michigan homeless

There are certain things we should all agree on. Everyone should be able to put food on their table. Families should have running water and heat during a Michigan winter. We should all have safe shelter during a global pandemic.

It shouldn’t matter to which political party you belong; these are basic human needs and currently too many Michiganders are struggling with them. So, when help arrives, you take it, and you use it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

That help arrived earlier this month. After months of partisan fighting in DC, Michigan finally received the federal funding we’ve desperately needed to provide security and peace of mind. Now, instead of appropriating that funding immediately, we’re dealing with partisan fighting in Lansing.

Over the past two weeks the Michigan Legislature has introduced two bills that appropriate only a portion of the millions of federal dollars sent to our state for basic needs like food and rent. The House version appropriates approximately a quarter of the funds; the Senate appropriates closer to a third. The balance is being held back as Republicans wrestle with the Democratic Governor over accountability and control. This means that, of the over $600 million that Congress sent us for rental and utility assistance, only a fraction will be going to our communities over the next few months.

It’s great that Michiganders are going to be getting help. But let’s break that down to understand why Lansing politics are again risking the health and security of Michigan families.

Michigan homeless service providers stepped up in a big way last fall when they had to spend $50 million on rental assistance in just five months. They built a statewide Eviction Diversion Program that kept thousands of Michiganders in their homes and paid landlords (who are equally hard-pressed) to pay their own bills. And the program worked – eviction filings across the state were down 40 percent from August to October when compared to the previous year. Kent County, alone, served 820 households.

But families have been kept on waiting lists since January when the original Eviction Diversion Program funding ran out. Communities are waiting, promising support to desperate families that has yet to arrive. In Detroit, more than 4,300 people are currently waiting. And it’s not just an urban problem – in largely rural St. Clair County there have been more than 100 calls for help just in the past three weeks.

Hidden within the Congressional language that provided the rental assistance dollars is a stipulation that the state has to spend 65 percent of its full federal funding by September 30. Any funding that is not obligated at that time can be reclaimed. Based on this deadline, we have to spend $50-$60 million a month to keep on that schedule. Any delay in getting the money out the door and into tenants’ and landlords’ pockets is potentially putting millions of dollars at risk at a time when we need every dollar that is available to us.

It also creates a bureaucratic nightmare for the providers who will be managing rental assistance programs. Each time new money is appropriated they will have to work with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority – the state agency responsible for administering the new COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program – to ask for an extension to their contract. They also have to hire and train new staff to build capacity to appropriately meet the needs in their community. Bringing new staff on without the promise of job security beyond the next few months makes this work needlessly harder.

Maybe our communities can spend this money quickly enough to meet the deadline with all these extra barriers. Maybe the process of renewing government contracts will be simple and seamless. Maybe staff will be flexible and understanding when they have their own concerns about job security and personal finances. But that’s a lot of “maybe’s,” especially when there’s a straightforward solution that eliminates all these uncertainties and just lets people do their jobs and help their neighbors.

The full funding should be appropriated immediately and put into our communities so that Michigan families don’t have to go to sleep tonight worrying that they’re not going to be able to pay rent.

Housing shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s time our Michigan lawmakers stop treating it like one.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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