How To Handle The Unfolding Eviction Crisis

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One of the long term consequences of the economic convulsions that have accompanied the Coronavirus pandemic is the looming homelessness crisis. President Joe Biden extended an eviction moratorium started by former President Trump and attempted to extend it until October. But now that the Supreme Court has ruled that extension unconstitutional on August 27, millions of people across the country, through no fault of their own, are now facing eviction right before winter starts, and as the Delta variant – which is much more deadly, much more transmissible and effects much younger people than the previous variants – still ravages the country.

But just how bad is the situation in Washtenaw County? And if you are in trouble with back rent, how can you access federal funds the Eviction Rental Assistance to stay in your home?

“The clients that we work with are mostly low income. They’re mostly aware of the opportunities to get financial help. I would say that some of them are back to work or have been back to work for a few months and they’re saying ‘I have all this back rent. I can afford to pay my current rent, but I’m still struggling with this back rent’,” Laura Seyfried, the Director of the Community Resource Center in Manchester, said.

The National Equity Atlas
estimates that about 6,034 rental households in Washtenaw County owe about $17,118,000 in back rent, averaging $2,800 per household. Sadly, while the non-profit that tracks racial and economic inequality in the United States, provides data for larger communities like Ann Arbor and Detroit, it does not for smaller ones like Saline, Dexter, Manchester, or Chelsea.

The truth is that individual city governments don’t seem to know exactly how bad it is. Local municipalities do not track how many of their residents are renters or owners; and even if they did, subletting and the owning of multiple units to rent complicates matters.

Only about $123,419,000 of the $660,907,000 of relief funds allocated for Michigan have actually been distributed, according to the NEA Rent Debt In America Relief Map.

Theresa Gillotti, the Director Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, told the Sun Times News that only about $2.5 million of the $18 million in Covid Emergency Rental Assistance funds that the distributed to help renters and landlords in Washtenaw County has actually been dispersed so far. This bottleneck is in keeping with a nationwide issue with the complicated nature of the distribution of relief funds because of the nature of how the legislation was written.

“Part of the difficulty is just the fact that in many jurisdictions they’ve never run a rental assistance program ever, and this is not a simple assistance program to run,” John Pollock, from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that advocates legal counsel in civil cases, said. “And even if they have run one before, they’ve never run one at this scale because of the amount that was appropriated. Even if they don’t have the expertise in the past, or even if they do, they don’t have the staffing to handle the vast number of applications they’re getting.”

American renters nationwide currently owe $16,847,300,000 in back rent according to the NEA. The NEA found that the 6,170,000 American households behind on rent include about 6.9 million children. The NEA has also found that most people who are in trouble with their rental situations saw their employment be affected by the pandemic and that Americans of Color have been disproportionately affected.

According to the NEA, nationwide “26 percent of Black renters, 19 percent of Latinx renters and multiracial renters and 17 percent of Asian American or Pacific Islander renters are behind on rent, compared to 10 percent of White renters.”

This graph was cited from the website of the National Equity Atlas.

According to a user guide created by Washtenaw County, applicants need photo ID, paystubs, tax returns, or other proof of income or benefits from the last 30 days and as much paperwork as possible about your current rental agreement, how much you owe, and to who. Once the process is started, the State of Michigan says landlords will also need to provide their own application, a copy of the lease, a W-9 and the verification of court costs.

“We will be getting more money for 2022,” Gillotti said. “So, while there is an enormous concern of folks not being able to pay their rent, we do have a substantial fund and online portal that people can access from their homes. So, there is a mean for people to access those funds for 12 to 15 months. It should help until people are able to transition back to increased employment levels.”

Gillotti added that it is possible that that 15 month limitation could be expanded in the future, but it is not a certainty that it will.

Gillotti said that the courts have been generally understanding in the evictions done so far. This help only applies to renters whose inability to pay was caused due to the pandemic and not for other reasons. But if you are housing insecure because of the Coronavirus’ effect on your livelihood, Gillotti said that the important thing is to begin the process to apply for relief money as soon as possible, as the courts allow a 45 day stay on any active eviction process to allow you time to navigate the bureaucracy.

There are two primary non-profits working to prevent homelessness in Washtenaw County; the SOS Community Services
in Ypsilanti, and the Salvation Army-sponsored Housing Access of Washtenaw County. They are both available to help anyone who is in danger of losing their housing to process their application for federal relief and can help both landlords and renters by guiding you through the paperwork.

“The idea is to help people who are way behind in their rent to pay that back rent and when they return to work, they should be able to keep paying their rent, stay housed, avoid eviction and potential homelessness,” Barbra Cecil, of the SOS Center, said. “The CERA fund applications are high. There are hundreds of people applying there’s a lot of paperwork to file to disperse the funds.”

Even if everyone does get rental assistance from the government, there are still more challenges to tackle before getting back to normal, even assuming that everyone returns to work at their pre-pandemic income level. Long-term debt, increasing costs because of supply chain issues caused by global national shutdowns, a massive disruption to the availability of childcare options and students being forced to learn from home all make the return to normal more difficult; and make it more likely that people who struggle to make rent can keep making rent consistently.

The State of Michigan also has its own Mi Bridges program, which among other things, provides resources like emergency housing, affordable housing and home repair.

“Regardless of the moratorium status, we encourage all renters who are experiencing a pandemic-related hardship and have household incomes at 80 percent of area median income or less to apply for COVID Emergency Rental Assistance. Details about the program and who qualifies can be found at Michigan.gov/CERA,” Katie Bach, a Communications Director for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, told the Sun Times News in an email. “Either the renter or the landlord can initiate the application process and have the opportunity to maintain their housing stability or ensure their financial security.”

And then there are the landlords. Far from being the villains that they are often portrayed as in the news media and fiction, they have to pay bills too – mortgages, repairs, taxes and insurance. Small scale renters often rely on the extra income from their extra space to make ends meet, meaning they are just as much victims as their tenants are.

Corporate landlords are much more likely to try to evict their tenants than small scale, mom and pop landlords, according to Pollock. Landlords are also much more likely to have an attorney than their tenants.

“Even before Covid, in eviction proceedings in America, we don’t have national statistics, but roughly about half of the tenants, when they get an eviction notice, haven’t answered it or gone to court. The reason why they haven’t done that is because the process is not set up to help them,” Pollock said. “The vast majority of landlords will have counsel and the vast majority of tenants won’t. Right now, just about three percent of tenants have counsel and over 80 percent of landlords do have access to representation. It’s a real imbalance of power and the courts are not well suited to deal with the litigants who show up.”

Cecil added that even if you are housing insecure and find new accommodation elsewhere, the back rent debt will still follow you to wherever you move to until it is paid. Getting out from under that debt with CERA funding is doable through services like SOS, the Salvation Army and HAWC. Tenants also tend to not even seek out legal counsel because they think they have no case to stand on.

“That is a mistake,” Pollock said. “There’s always something the attorney can do.”

Pollock said that if the landlord failed to repair building damage properly, if a mistake was made in the eviction paperwork or if the landlord engaged in harassment of any kind, a case can be made. As long as you have filled the paperwork, both Pollock and Gillotti emphasized the importance of appearing in court, every time.

“If you have an application, please show up,” Gillotti said.

The NEA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The SOS Community Services is located at 114 North River Street, in Ypsilanti. They can be contacted at 734.485.8730.

Housing Access for Washtenaw County can be contacted at 734.961.1999. They are located alongside the local Salvation Army at 3020 Packard Road in Ypsilanti and at 100 Arbana Drive in Ann Arbor. The Office of Community and Economic Development can be contacted at 734.544.6748

“The sooner you get your application in, the sooner you’re going to get help,” Cecil said.

Image Credit: City of Saline Twitter Account.

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