Capital News Service

LANSING — Half a million Michigan families could risk eviction by the end of the year without financial help from the federal government, housing advocates say. 

[The analysis was published in Hillsdale Daily News]

One in every five Michigan rental households has fallen behind on their payments because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy. And 242,000 Michigan children are in families that haven’t been able to keep up with rent or get enough to eat.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently ordered a ban on evicting low-income tenants who cannot pay their rent because of COVID-19. The order is effective until the end of the year, but it doesn’t relieve tenants from paying back rent that they owe landlords.

“The action by the CDC is certainly necessary and a welcome measure to keep vulnerable families in their homes during the pandemic,” said Alex Rossman, the Michigan League for Public Policy’s communications director. “If it’s not paired with some rent payment assistance or other policies, half a million renter family households in Michigan might be at the high risk of eviction.”

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, which included $100 billion for nationwide rent payment assistance. Senate Republicans introduced a counterproposal called HEALS Act. Neither was signed into law.

“We are kind of in-between federal relief packages,” Rossman said. “We continue to advocate for Congress to enact some robust federal rent relief program that enables us to support renters and property owners.”

The federal moratorium doesn’t erase the rent that is due, Rossman said.

“It’s not currently due, but it’s still stacking up. Whenever that moratorium lifts, renters will owe all the back rent that they haven’t paid,” Rossman said.

The Michigan State Housing Development Authority administered in July the Eviction Diversion Program to help tenants avoid evictions and landlords keep up with their businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. The state program was funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act. Financial aid will be used to pay some or all back rent that tenants owe since March 1st, 2020.

The Michigan Supreme Court has implemented a new way of connecting tenants to assistance through the courts.

“To go to a court is not a horrible thing. It connects landlords and tenants with the financial assistance that the state has,” said John Nevin, the court’s communications director. “The big problem is actually to make sure that people are aware of this assistance.

“When they appear in a court, both sides will be connected to legal aid lawyers through the Zoom breakout rooms to get help on this financial assistance.”

Evictions are down compared with last year.

There were 15,000 eviction cases filed in August 2019 in the courts statewide, Nevin said. Last August only 7,000 cases appeared in courts.

John Knappmann, a landlord-tenant lawyer from Taylor, said that he hasn’t received any cases on landlord-tenant issues since March 2020 after a separate state moratorium on evictions.

But there was a gap in August between when the state eviction ban expired and the federal one started.

“I have just started working on several landlord cases as the statewide moratorium was lifted,” Knappmann said. “I have been receiving phone calls from both sides almost at the same rate compared with the previous year.”

Kenyon Cavender, a volunteer at the tenant rights organization called Lansing Tenant Union, said his organization has received two to three calls daily asking for help to avoid eviction.

“We assist tenants in anything that might be helpful to avoid eviction,” he said. “Some tenants need electronic devices or internet access to attend court hearings. We collaborate with various organizations, to help tenants find legal aid lawyers and to apply for rent relief programs.”

Another reason for the low number of landlord-tenant court cases this year is a long wait for the court hearings.  Sometimes landlords have to wait for several weeks to present issues in courts, said Angela Tripp, a director of Michigan Legal Help, a nonprofit organization, funded by the Michigan Supreme Court, to assist people with legal issues in its self-help centers and through its website, by offering accurate and trustworthy information.

“Most of the tenant-landlord issues are being resolved with the help of the Eviction Diversion Program before the cases are filed to the court,” Tripp said. Another reason for fewer court filings is that local courts were authorized by the governor to only work with cases where the renters owe for 120 days, she said.

Michigan Legal Help advises that if a tenant proves that he or she earns less than an area median income, the landlord has to forgive 10% of the rent and any late fees since March 1. The other 90% will be covered by a state eviction diversion program.

“If the tenant’s income goes up, the amount that is forgiven by the landlord has to be paid,” Tripp said.

The easiest way for people to be informed about state rental assistance aid programs is the Eviction Resource page in Michigan Legal Help’s website, where they can find phone numbers of the county legal aid offices, Tripp said

“Even if tenants are not eligible and do not meet requirements by CDC, they still can get some aid by contacting local legal aid offices,” she said. “At least, legal aid offices will help tenants to fight evictions in court.