Courts in Detroit, Wayne County halt evictions as more counties have higher virus risk

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Evictions in the city of Detroit as well as in Wayne County have been halted as virus risk levels rise, officials announced Wednesday.

Evictions will be put on hold as a result of a ban by the Centers for Disease Control that went into effect late Tuesday, three days after a federal moratorium on evictions expired in Michigan, which has hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent rental assistance grants.

On Wednesday afternoon, officials at 36th District Court in Detroit initially announced that evictions would go forward because the city of Detroit's COVID-19 transmission rate was not high enough to meet the CDC's requirement of “substantial" and "high" levels of virus transmissions in the new eviction moratorium that expected to last until Oct. 3.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., speaks to crowds that attended a sit-in at Capitol Hill after it was announced that the Biden administration will enact a targeted nationwide eviction moratorium outside of Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. One day later, evictions in the City of Detroit as well as in Wayne County have been halted, officials announced Wednesday.

But hours later, 36th District Court officials reversed course, with CDC data Wednesday showing the seven-day case average in Wayne County had pushed Michigan's largest county from "moderate" spread to "substantial." The CDC uses four categories, "low," "moderate," "substantial" and "high" to measure transmission in counties.

"Late this afternoon, the 36th District Court was informed that the CDC has re-classified Wayne County as an area under threat of 'substantial' community transmission of COVID-19. As a result, both Wayne County and the city of Detroit now fall under the umbrella of the CDC’s eviction moratorium.

"Effective immediately, no residential evictions will proceed for nonpayment of rent in the city of Detroit, " said Chief Judge William McConico on Wednesday.

"While there has been some confusion regarding transmission levels and whether the eviction moratorium applied to Wayne County, it is clear that the new eviction moratorium was intended to protect the citizens of Detroit and Wayne County." 

McConico thanked Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, in his statement, saying conflicting guidance created confusion about whether Detroit qualified for the moratorium.

"Absent her efforts, it is unclear how many Detroit families would be facing imminent eviction from their homes at this moment," McConico said.

More than 40 of Michigan's 83 counties are now included in the eviction ban due to "substantial" or "high" transmission rates. Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Monroe counties have "substantial" transmission rates while a few northern counties such as Alpena, Iosco and Huron are ranked as "high," according to CDC data Wednesday.

On Tuesday, officials said the moratorium covered areas where 90% of the U.S. population lives but Wayne County was not initially included. Because the CDC uses a rolling seven-day average a county's category can change daily.

Both tenant and housing activists had expressed concern Wednesday about whether the latest eviction ban would include Detroit.

"I think the court has been very good in terms of working with landlords and tenants, and in minimizing the damages because both sides get hurt," said Ted Phillips of the United Community Housing Coalition in Detroit.

Phillips said his organization has identified 550 eviction cases and the average tenant facing eviction owes an average of $8,000 in back rent. About 110 of those cases could qualify for COVID funds to help with back rent.

"The amounts owed are really, really large," said Phillips. "Hopefully landlords will see taking the money instead of evicting is a better idea."

The Michigan State Housing and Development Authority is administering $622 million through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program, or CERA. About $110 million has been distributed to households so far.

Officials said $404 million needs to be committed in the next two months. The state's 32,000 outstanding applications represent $200 million in requests, Bach said. That's still $94 million short of the 65% threshold.

More than half of the backlog is tied to 17,664 still-processing applications in Wayne County. That's 83% of what's been submitted.

The program covers up to 15 months of back rent, along with utility assistance and an internet stipend for those who qualify. Applicants must earn below 80% of the area median income, which for a two-person household in Detroit is $50,240 a year, and claim a COVID-19-related hardship.

Tlaib said Wednesday that the new federal moratorium allows more time for federal funds, $47 billion, to reach tenants and landlords needing assistance.

"We need more time to get the money out to families who need the protection," said Tlaib. "Now landlords and tenants can come together and apply for the money. This was the right decision to make."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, added that local and federal officials need to work at getting federal aid into the hands of tenants and their landlords quickly and "make this a less complex process."

Dingell said evicting people will only add to the public health crisis Americans are already facing due to the pandemic.

Dingell added: "We want to protect the public safety and health, and get the dollars to the people who need it."

Real estate attorney Dominic Silvestri of Farmington Hills told The Detroit News last week that while mortgage holders can get foreclosure forbearance on their homes, no such option exists for rental properties.

"Landlords remain obligated, even if there are no funds coming in," Silvestri said. "We've unfairly shifted all the financial responsibility to landlords, while the rest of the country was getting assistance."

While landlords can initiate the CERA application process, the tenant still must participate, said Katie Bach, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

And that can take some convincing, landlords say.

Judges at 36th District Court signed more than 10,000 writs of eviction in 2019, Chief Judge William McConico said in a statement. It fell to a small fraction of that,  2,428, in 2020, and it has fallen lower still. This year, 549 eviction orders have been signed, he said. 

Things will change, McConico said.

"Given that the eviction moratorium has served as a barrier to evictions for non-payment of rent, the court expects that the number of evictions could return to pre-pandemic levels such as those seen in 2019," the chief judge wrote.

McConico urged landlords and tenants to  still continue to seek financial assistance from the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program despite the new eviction moratorium. Tenants facing possible eviction should contact the Detroit Eviction Helpline at 866-313-2520 or www.DetroitEvictionHelp.com, said the judge.

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and James David Dickson contributed.