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Protesters demand relief as Detroit's eviction ban ends

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Detroit — As Detroit's temporary ban on evictions expired Monday, protesters gathered outside 36th District Court to demand aid for tenants struggling to pay their bills amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city's eviction ban expired a month after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's four-month moratorium was lifted, which originally led to courts outside Detroit to accept cases from landlords seeking to oust tenants for nonpayment of rent. The Detroit court ordered the moratorium extension to give eviction assistance programs a chance to get started and allow tenants to access legal counsel. 

Anna Elsbernd, 27, of Detroit holds her sign during the rally at the 36th District Court to protest evictions, Monday, August 17, 2020.

There were no new eviction filings Monday, according to court officials. Any eviction cases filed before the moratorium need to be refiled or they will be dismissed, said the court's chief judge, William McConico, who joined the protesters. 

Of the 900 filings that needed to be updated, 200 have been refiled, and pretrial hearings for those cases will begin next week via Zoom, McConico said.

Protest organizers said the end of the eviction ban has tenants scared and unsure what to do.

"There's confusion and people are not understanding and knowing where they can go and (they're) feeling like the government has let them down, the court has let them down," said Marie Sims, an organizer with Detroit Eviction Defense, which partnered with Detroit Renter City on Monday's protest.

Protesters rally in front of the 36th District Court to protest home evictions at 36th District Court, Monday, August 17, 2020.

About 60 marchers carrying signs formed a circle in front of the court on Madison Street and Brush and yelled out chants. 

Organizers passed out fliers with information on eviction assistance.

"We want to make sure that the people who stayed home because of this pandemic and they lost their jobs and weren't working for three or four months, we want to make sure they don't get evicted because they stayed home," said Jim Dwight, a 44-year-city resident who is an organizer with Detroit Eviction Defense. 

In July, the state implemented a $50 million Eviction Diversion Program to help landlords receive payments for back rent and allow tenants to stay in their homes.

In exchange for allowing tenants to remain in their homes, landlords who participate in the program can receive a lump sum payment of up to 90% of owed rent. Participating landlords will have to forgive any late fees and dismiss up to 10% of the owed rent. 

Eviction filings will be resolved by a conditional dismissal instead of a final judgment to protect a tenant's credit history. Tenants whose back rent is not covered fully by the program will be able to opt into "manageable payment plans."

McConico said the eviction moratorium can't be in place if tenants want to receive help with their back rent. 

"It has to be a pending case ... to access the CARES Act money or to access the money the city has," he said. "If I had extended the moratorium, they wouldn't have access to the resources that are out there."

Heather Mahoney of Ferndale marches with a small group to protest home evictions at 36th District Court on Aug. 17.

However, while the Eviction Diversion Program offers a middle ground for landlords and tenants, many landlords will not participate.  

Katie Bach, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, said last week that they wouldn't have data on the numbers of landlords who declined to participate for several weeks.

Jim Schaafsma, an attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, said it's frustrating that the state didn't require landlords to comply with the diversion initiative. Other states have mandated a six-month repayment period or implemented longer eviction moratoriums, he said.

 "If you would have told most businesses who have been affected by the virus that you are going to get 90 cents on the dollar, they’d jump on it," he said. "It’s a voluntary program. It is good as it goes, but it’s not good enough."

Attorney Sidney Katz, who represents landlords, said some of his clients aren't participating because it gives residents 12 months to pay any owed rent that isn't covered by the program, and because landlords will have to forfeit 10% of the rent owed. 

Protesters rally in front of the 36th District Court to protest home evictions at 36th District Court, Monday, August 17, 2020.

"Landlords have the ability to make choices and decisions as far as their property is concerned and I get it, everybody's losing money," said Sims. "But they're not alone, they're not the only ones losing money ... this is going to put so many people homeless and on the street."