Here's how Detroit tenants can apply for $50M in new rental assistance

Detroit — The city is ramping up efforts to keep thousands of renters housed amid the COVID-19 crisis with $50 million in federal relief aid. 

State lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agreed on a plan to distribute $282 million in federal funding to aid struggling renters and landlords in the state. The $50 million earmarked for Detroit is a tenfold increase from what the city was awarded last year, said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who is urging residents who have fallen behind on rent or utility payments to act. 

"The number of people who we have to reach is significant," the mayor said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. "This is for people whose financial situation deteriorated because of COVID."

Michigan spared tens of thousands of residents from eviction last year with $52 million in federal COVID relief funding under the Eviction Diversion Program that expired on Dec. 31. The federal government released a second wave of $622 million to the state in December under the new COVID Emergency Rental Assistance, or CERA, program. Lawmakers and Whitmer have not agreed on how to distribute the remaining $340 million.

The program, designed to cover rent and utility payments, was held up as state lawmakers wrangled over how and when to dole it out. 

State officials have estimated that CERA will serve between 50,000 to 55,000 households and as many as 150,000 residents. In Detroit, the program could aid 15,000 to 16,000 households, officials noted Wednesday.

Duggan said the program is for individuals who lost their jobs due to COVID-19, collected unemployment, kept their jobs but endured a 10% reduction in household income or are facing homelessness or housing instability due to the pandemic. 

Under the program, renters can get help with past-due rent and utilities. To qualify, they must be below 80% of the area median income, which for a two-person household in Detroit is $50,240 a year. They also must demonstrate they are unemployed, have experienced a significant income reduction or incurred significant costs or financial hardships during the pandemic.

Duggan was joined Wednesday by Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition and Tasha Gray, executive director of Homeless Action Network of Detroit to share how tenants who are behind on their rent due to the pandemic can take advantage of the funding.

The housing coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid are working with renters in court on eviction cases as well as the Detroit Justice Center and Legal Aid Defenders Office. 

Gray said there's great need. Last year, they helped over 1,500 households. This time, they expect to help as many as 16,000.

"We just want to make sure Detroiters are taking advantage of this," she said. 

► More: Michigan lawmakers' feud over $622M in COVID-19 aid leaves renters, landlords in limbo

The Eviction Diversion Program paid out an average of $3,300 per household. CERA will provide a longer period of assistance, covering up to 12 months of arrears, and up to $8,000 to $10,000 per household between rent and utility payments, officials have said. 

The program also is designed to help landlords, but Duggan said beyond allowing landlords to get back rent, the city wants to ensure they have certificates of compliance and that properties they rent are up to code. As part of the settlement, depending on the conditions of their properties, landlords might have to use a portion of the funding toward needed repairs. 

"One of the things we're going to be looking for is for you to address the issues in the house as part of this," he said. "We're not simply going to give the money away to landlords who are non-compliant and allow this to continue. We want to get you paid fairly, but we also want the properties that our tenants are living in to be in good quality." 

So far, the Michigan Legislature has sent $50 million out of $96 million appropriated for Detroit as part of the relief bill that Congress passed in December. Deadlines require that the state distribute the rental aid by this fall or risk having to return it to the federal government. Once Detroit receives the remainder, it will be funneled into the existing program, officials said.

The Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which oversees CERA, has until Sept. 30 to spend or obligate 65% of the money — about $405 million — or the U.S. Treasury can redirect the money. 

“The City of Detroit and our nonprofit partners are standing by and ready to help Detroiters get through this crisis,” said Julie Schneider, acting director of the city's Housing and Revitalization Department. “Because most Detroit households will qualify, even residents who are unsure whether they meet the income threshold are encouraged to apply. We’d rather them be safe than sorry by missing out on the financial assistance available.”

Louis Piszker, CEO of the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, said his organization is taking the lead on rental assistance cases that haven't yet made their way to court.

The application process opened up on Monday. As of Wednesday, about 800 Detroiters have filled out applications and the agency has 140 staff members available daily and 60 more individuals are manning the call center. They've expanded those hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. 

Under the effort, Piszker said, rent payment checks or wire transfers can be completed in as little as two weeks. 

"We want to get the money to the landlords as soon as possible to make sure you are current on your rent," he said. "You can get this anxiety, get this debt lifted off your shoulders and we can all move forward together."

Renters who need help can visit detroitevictionhelp.com or call (866) 313-2520. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com