Detroit council to vote on $31M in federal COVID aid for renter relief, homeless services

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a plan to direct millions in pandemic relief funding toward covering back rent, staving off evictions and housing Detroit's homeless.

The Duggan administration has laid out a $31 million spending plan for federal recovery dollars awarded under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, to support Detroiters most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Detroit is among the hard-hit cities nationwide sharing in a portion of $1 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that is earmarked for communities with high public health risks.

Detroit's Housing & Revitalization Department is proposing its CARES dollars be used to reduce housing disruptions caused by COVID-19, which officials say threaten to put even more residents at risk of contracting the deadly disease. 

Pending council approval, the city will get $20.8 million in block-grant dollars for housing counseling, tax-filing aid for about 3,500 people, and eviction defense and rental assistance for landlords and tenants. Another $10.5 million in emergency solutions grants would expand outreach for people who are homeless and help supply permanent housing for up to 24 months. 

"Our low-income Detroiters need this assistance," said Donald Rencher, the city's housing department director. "These are programs that we were never able to fund at a high level. But now that we have this money, we can, and it directly relates to our ability to keep people healthy during this pandemic."

City Council's Planning and Economic Development subcommittee unanimously voted Thursday to send the request to the full council, with a recommendation for approval, along with a measure that would reprogram $6 million in unused city funds for housing stability.

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson, who sits on the committee, said the funding is "going where it needs to go."

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson, right, and Mayor Mike Duggan

"With the loss of jobs and the level of unemployment, there's going to be a huge need for rental assistance," he said. "Poverty is already a huge issue in the city of Detroit. We need to be as proactive as we possibly can to protect vulnerable residents."

As of Sunday, the city's Health Department reported 11,224 confirmed cases of the virus and 1,399 deaths.  

If the allocations are approved, Rencher anticipates contracts for the services will be awarded and the efforts will be funded by the first week of July. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer barred evictions during her statewide stay home, stay safe order. Detroit's 36th District Court, in turn, issued an eviction moratorium. But city officials are expecting a spike in cases once the order expires on June 12 and said they are looking to get ahead of it by providing legal counseling, help with money owed in rent and housing placement services.

The CARES funding, through Detroit's nonprofit partners, will provide one-time back rental payments to households at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, or an income of $52,400 a year for a family of four.

United Community Housing Coalition works to help low-income renters facing eviction with Lakeshore Legal Aid and Michigan Legal Services. The federal funding would increase their capacity by about 400%, enabling them to help about 5,000 households a year, up from 1,500, said Ted Phillips, housing coalition executive director.

"It's very significant," Phillips said. "It's not nearly enough, but a substantial amount of money to address rent arrearages, principally for people facing an eviction."

Phillips said his group recently sent mailings to 2,600 households with judgments from Feb. 3 to March 15. They've already received 300 calls for help in response, he said. 

Whitmer said during a Friday news conference that the moratorium on evictions was important.     

"We’re continuing to review what potential next steps may look like," she said. 

Beyond help for tenants, the city intends to direct dollars toward permanent supportive housing development projects. There also will be meal and prescription delivery for seniors who have tested positive for the virus, and about $2.5 million in senior home repair funding to replace general fund reductions resulting from pandemic-related budget cuts, officials said. 

Duggan in mid-April laid out a plan to tap the city's surplus funding, lay off part-timers and reduce pay and hours of some other city employees to cope with a $348 million deficit in the current and next fiscal year due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

The mayor, in a statement, said the CARES funding is "just the beginning." The city, he said, has requested additional dollars "to ensure that lives are saved and Detroit’s recovery will not be undone by the virus’ devastating consequences on the economy.”

Rencher said the city will be asking HUD to provide the city with a "substantial amount" to build upon the work already being done.

"A part of that is being able to create more healthy living conditions," he said. 

Rencher said the city typically is limited to direct no more than $5 million, or 15%, of its annual $35 million federal block grant allocation toward public service activities. But under the CARES Act, there's no cap.

There are about 2,000 chronically homeless individuals in the city and Detroit receives about $2.5 million in federal emergency shelter grant funding per year. With the CARES money, they'll get $10.5 million.

"We're often trying to divide up a small pot," he said. "Now, with this money, we have the ability to put more money into these services badly needed for our Detroiters."