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Detroit — A housing justice group is calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to extend a state order barring evictions and expand its reach by prohibiting foreclosures and suspending rent payments to allow struggling homeowners to recover from the financial impacts of COVID-19.

Detroit Eviction Defense convened a caravan protest Wednesday through downtown Detroit in anticipation of the governor's order expiring at the end of the week, warning that "massive amounts of people are losing their jobs and income" as a result of the pandemic and "at a rate of speed not seen since the Great Depression."

Drivers of more than 50 vehicles lined up to participate, most with signs affixed to car windows or painted on that declared "housing is a human right, cancel rent" and "cancel the rent, no eviction." The group members honked and held out signs as their cars, trucks and bicycles circled the state government offices on West Grand Boulevard.

"We need attention paid to the fact that there's going to be a tidal wave of back rent and mortgage debt that's going to come due and that we do not want a tidal wave of evictions that follow on that," said east-side resident Steve Babson. "We don't want the health care crisis turned into a housing crisis."

The grassroots coalition of homeowners, union members and activists is advocating for an extension of the eviction ban until at least 60 days beyond the end of the current state of emergency in Michigan. The eviction defense group also wants Whitmer to expand her directive to prohibit mortgage foreclosures and to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the crisis to prevent distressed tenants and property owners from accruing delinquencies. 

Nancy Brigham, an East English Village resident and Babson's wife, said the couple has an across-the-street neighbor in the health care field who recently spent time on a ventilator for COVID-19. She's recovering but facing eviction from the house she's renting. 

"People need relief. Something has to be done," Brigham said. "This is no time to be throwing people out into the street."

The effort is the newest from the group in recent months to drive home the need for more protections for vulnerable residents. 

Early on, the group and several others signed letters sent to the governor's office and the Michigan Supreme Court, seeking many of the same guarantees, said Joe McGuire, an organizer for the eviction defense coalition. The group has yet to receive any formal responses. 

"Right from the get-go we've been advocating for a moratorium beyond the state of emergency," he said. "The problem is, the short-term moratorium doesn't provide a whole lot of security to people."

Organizers assembled outside Old St. John's Church on Russell Street before traveling to Cadillac Place in Detroit's New Center. 

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, told The News in an email Wednesday that the state had no immediate update on the governor's current eviction order. 

Whitmer suspended evictions on March 20, allowing tenants and mobile home owners to remain in their homes even if they can't pay rent. The order was extended the following month to run through May 15.

In late April, the governor, in extending the order, said the most effective tool to stem spread of the virus was to stay home and suspending evictions allowed people to focus on that.  

Housing advocates had hoped Whitmer would expand the directive and add provisions for a phased-in payback of rent. Landlords report that the ban has discouraged many from paying and say more help is needed to avoid a foreclosure crisis. 

Detroit's 36th District Court has extended an eviction freeze put in place during the crisis for the duration of the governor's stay-at-home order, which expires May 28. 

Kathryn Nowinski, a city resident who works for Avalon Cafe and Bakery and as an adjunct professor for the College of Creative Studies, said changes are needed from the top down.

"Measures can be put in place to make a change," said Nowinski, 29. 

The federal CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package, halts evictions for properties with federally backed mortgages for 120 days. The Urban Institute estimates that's about 28% of the nation's 43.8 million rental units.

The act also allows owners of multi-family properties with federally backed mortgages to apply for loan forbearance. 

The Wayne County Treasurer's Office has said it will not foreclose on any properties for unpaid taxes this year. Oakland County has said no owners affected by the coronavirus outbreak will lose their properties. 

McGuire said the defense group wants Michigan to model an eviction prevention policy similar to what's being done in Pennsylvania to ensure residents don't lose homes. 

The coalition was created in response to the 2008 housing crisis and has since been arguing for systematic changes to prevent eviction in general, he said. 

"A lot of what we're trying to do now is help people prepare for what is going to happen," McGuire said. "We've already lived through the 2008 housing crisis. It's still in people's memories. What we need to do as people on the ground is advocate very loudly for the kinds of reforms that will prevent the next housing crisis, and to support each other."

cferretti@detroitnews.com

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