Michigan courts prepare for influx of eviction cases, urge renters to seek federal aid

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Judges, attorneys and activists in Metro Detroit are gearing up for a deluge of eviction proceedings following a Thursday ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that lifted a temporary ban. 

The decision by the majority conservative court essentially ends federal protections for roughly 3.5 million renters in the United States who feared they would face eviction in the next two months, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released this month.

William McConico, chief judge of Detroit's 36th District Court, said Friday that the district court is lifting its moratorium on evictions in keeping with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"The court remains committed to following the law on this issue and it will not institute its own eviction moratorium. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, evictions for termination of tenancy, commercial evictions, and emergency evictions have continued to proceed," he noted. "The only evictions that were halted were evictions for non-payment of rent where a tenant produced a CDC declaration. But given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the CDC declaration is no longer valid and evictions for nonpayment of rent will resume immediately."

36th District Court Chief  Judge William McConico said Friday that Detroit court remains committed to following the law and will not institute its own eviction moratorium. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday put an end to a temporary ban on evictions for non-payment of rent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the moratorium in September. In May, a federal judge struck it down, ruling the CDC did not have the authority to issue an eviction ban.

In June, the Supreme Court upheld the moratorium through July 31. It lapsed, but the CDC issued a new moratorium days later amid pressure from lawmakers and others to help renters. The moratorium had been scheduled to expire Oct. 3.

Despite the end to the moratorium, a multitude of resources are being made available for tenants and landlords in an effort to resolve cases outside of an eviction, the judge said. 

McConico urged landlords and tenants to continue to seek financial assistance from the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program. Those facing possible eviction, he said, should contact the Detroit Eviction Helpline at (866) 313-2520 visit DetroitEvictionHelp.com.

"It is imperative that all litigants attend any and all court hearings for which they are scheduled. Please be advised that the court hearings are being conducted virtually," said McConico. "The 36th District Court is prepared to handle the anticipated influx of cases efficiently and expeditiously."

Meanwhile housing advocate Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, who also is a lawyer, called the Supreme Court ruling "a very scary proposition."

Phillips said since Jan. 1 there have been 10,000 landlord/tenant cases filed in Detroit and 650 cases since April in which landlords sought eviction. 

Detroit Eviction Defense organizers and supporters rally outside of 36th District Court for the end of tenants facing evictions, October 9, 2020.

Phillips said those number could rise to 1,000 as landlords ponder whether the Supreme Court ruling applies to their case.

Phillips said he hopes more landlords will apply for federal funds to pay back rent and keep tenants in their homes. He said it's difficult for tenants to find other housing during the COVID-19 pandemic as people are wary of in-person contact with prospective tenants or landlords.

The Michigan State Housing and Development Authority is administering $622 million through the CERA program. In late July, nearly $500 million in rental assistance grants was unspent. 

Phillips said the average amount of back rent for Detroiters facing eviction is $8,000. He added that 110 households have applied to have the federal government pay landlords the rent arrears.

"That's a pretty hefty amount to lose if you're a landlord," said Phillips who is hoping landlords will participate in the program.

The CERA 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.

The federal government has earmarked $47 billion in federal funding overall for COVID-related rental assistance nationally. 

The State Court Administrative Office said Friday that Michigan Supreme Court officials had anticipated the end of the federal moratorium on evictions and prepared for it.

"District courts statewide have been working very hard to get renters connected with representation and resources and that effort is paying off. An estimated 26,000 families have received more than $160 million in assistance, with more to come," spokesman John Nevin said Friday. 

Nevin added: "The key element of the new procedure is giving renters time to access resources, and we know that eligible applicants in 80% of counties statewide are receiving assistance within the 45-day time frame provided in the order. Moreover, where renters are at risk of eviction, especially in areas where processing times are slower, cases are being prioritized to get assistance faster." 

For attorneys who represent landlords, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is welcome news.

"It finally brings to a close the issue that has been argued in various courts throughout the country, many of which siding with the landlords," said Mark Wasvary, who along with attorney Kevin Callahan, filed a class action lawsuit this month in federal court in Detroit on behalf of two Detroit landlords seeking the have tenants evicted.

"The CDC moratorium in one form or another has been in place now for almost a year," he noted. "In light of the multiple lawsuits and rulings, landlords, tenants and courts had to struggle with how it is applied." 

The high court, he said, noted that conditions related to the pandemic have improved, while harm to landlords "continued to increase."

Callahan said some of his clients are applying for the federal funds to get back payment of rent because they want to help tenants "keep a roof over their heads."

"I push all of my clients to apply for the CERA funds," said Callahan, whose office is in Royal Oak. Callahan added however that some landlords welcomed the high court's ruling, especially in cases that involves abuse, violence and other issues outside of the CDC order earlier this month that had extended the federal eviction moratorium. 

Callahan said his goal is to "ensure that landlords are protected."

Callahan and Wasvary, a Troy-based attorney, filed a lawsuit against 36th District Court in Detroit and the court's chief judge for halting evictions until Oct. 3.

The lawyers' clients, JPA Holdings LLC and Sandeep Gosal, sought the lawsuit against the court and McConico for the evictions ban in the city, calling the move unconstitutional and the "taking of private property."

McConico said the lawsuit was baseless and said that he and the court would be "vigorously" defended against it.

In Detroit, officials have enacted a program seeking lawyers to help represent residents in eviction proceedings.

"Landlord-Tenant judges at 36th District Court will hear 40-70 cases per day in the coming months," the city said in a Friday letter soliciting attorneys to aid in the Detroit Landlord-Tenant Legal Counsel Program. 

The letter notes that the initial hearing in each case is a pre-trial Zoom conference. During that hearing, cases are set for a second court appearance, generally at least 30 days out, so tenant-defendants can arrange for arrears (as applicable).

"This counsel will work with the tenant to favorably resolve their case, which may include coordinating rental arrear payments with the CERA program, reducing excessive fines and delinquent rent charges ... enforcing housing quality standards for necessary repairs, minimizing evictions entered on someone’s record, retaining subsidized housing benefits, extending relocation periods, and so on," it reads. 

Matthew Paletz, who represents landlords in Michigan and Ohio, said the ruling is "a step in the right direction." Landlords, he said, don't want to evict tenants as a whole, but want to get them "back on track" and collect rent that's owed. 

"Landlords are not in the business of evictions but in the business of renting out their properties," said Paletz.

The Associated Press contributed