Michigan steps in to help with backlogged eviction aid

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Applications for Michigan's pandemic rental aid are so backlogged in several counties that the state announced it will start taking applications directly starting Monday to "speed up the process." 

Local agencies are handling distribution of rental aid through Michigan's Eviction Diversion Program, but state officials acknowledged last month that some groups had backlogs of hundreds of open cases as they worked to help landlords and renters who qualify.

On Monday, landlords in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Ingham and Kent counties with three or more tenants behind on rent, on whom they haven't filed an eviction case yet, can apply to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority for the EDP aid in addition to the local agencies

Detroit Eviction Defense supporters rally outside of 36th District Court in Detroit on Friday for an end to new eviction cases.

"MSHDA will process these applications internally in support of the local service organizations so that tenants and landlords can be served at a quicker pace," Katie Bach, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority wrote in an email on Friday.

As of Sept 30, Michigan has paid out 16%, or $8 million, of the $50 million it set aside in July to keep renters in their homes after lifting its pandemic eviction ban. The goal: to process up to 17,000 applications and spend the money by the end of 2020.  

Housing advocates worry that might not happen if more isn't done to speed up the process. 

The $8 million spent so far has helped 2,400 households, although state officials say that number could be slightly higher because of a reporting lag. 

The program is optional for landlords, who have to agree to certain stipulations, including forgiving up to 10% of the overdue rent accumulated during the pandemic. Renters must have an eviction case filed against them or a notice from a landlord demanding possession, which is typically sent before a case is filed.

The aid is capped at $3,500 per household for back rent and another $1,200 for future rent. Renters and landlords can apply. But the state is only taking applications from landlords.

The average payout is $3,300 per household and tenants are behind on rent by four months on average, state officials said.

Overall evictions are down in Michigan. Statewide filings in August were about half what they were in August 2019, according to the State Court Administrative Office. 

And last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide order that stops evictions for some renters through the rest of the year. 

On Friday, housing advocates protested in front of Detroit's 36th District Court, demanding Chief Judge William McConico stop accepting new eviction cases because of the CDC order. 

Joe McGuire of Detroit Eviction Defense walks during the rally outside of 36th District Court on Friday.

Khalifa McZeal, with Detroit Eviction Defense, said not enough renters know they can use the CDC order to stop the process, which requires sending a declaration to the landlord. 

Renters covered through the executive order must give the statement to their landlord that they meet several criteria, including that they can't pay because of a COVID-related hardship and that they have tried to get government help.

"They have not been publicizing this," McZeal said. "Everyday there should be a (public service announcement)."

"McConico has the power to put a halt to all of this."

McConico said he plans to meet with the activists this week but said the eviction court process has to continue. 

The CDC issued "Frequently Asked Questions" last week, stating the order doesn't stop landlords from starting the eviction process and doesn't suspend court  operations. Landlords are challenging the CDC order in courts across the country.

Landlord attorney David Fantera said just shutting down the eviction process is not a solution and that the focus should be making sure tenants know they can apply for state aid. 

As of mid-September, more than 27% of Michigan residents reported that eviction or foreclosure in the next two months is either very likely or somewhat likely, according to a survey by the U.S Census Bureau.