Advocates want Whitmer to extend Michigan's eviction ban

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Housing advocates said Thursday they want Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to extend and expand the statewide eviction ban set to expire Friday.

Whitmer signed an order March 20 suspending evictions until April 17, allowing tenants and mobile home owners to remain in their homes even if they can't pay rent.  

"There is a fear of what is going to happen," said Mary Carmen Munoz, the director of LA SED, a southwest Detroit nonprofit. "People are still not going to be in any better position tomorrow."

Today, Governor Gretchen Whitmer provided an update on COVID-19 in Michigan.

On Thursday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a cease-and-desist letter to the operators of the Jeffersonian Apartments, 9000 E. Jefferson in Detroit, after her office alleged they sent letters threatening to evict tenants behind on rent during the ban.

The building houses 80 tenants, many elderly, according to Nessel's office.

“People cannot be evicted from their homes during this public emergency except under extreme  circumstances as outlined in the governor’s executive orders,” Nessel said in a statement. 

Arie Leibovitz, a principal owner at Jeffersonian, said Friday that the operators sent "standard forms" to preserve their rights to the property. 

"We never intended, one, to violate the … order and, two, to create any hardship on those tenants that cannot pay," Leibovitz said.

In Detroit, 36th District Court already extended its eviction freeze until April 30, the end date of Whitmer's current stay-at-home order. But advocates say many other courts haven't issued similar orders. 

The federal CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package, halts evictions for properties with federally backed mortgages for 120 days. The Urban Institute estimates that's about 28% of the United State's 43.8 million rental units.

Munoz said she hopes Whitmer outlines a plan where tenants can gradually pay their back rent. Many people are nervous that they will have to pay the full amount immediately after the ban lifts, she said. 

Whitmer should extend the order beyond April 30 and include a ban on mortgage foreclosures like New York and California have done, said Joe McGuire, staff attorney with the Detroit Justice Center. 

"It's unclear when this emergency will end, but it's clear that it won't be over in two weeks," McGuire wrote in an email. "Every day the governor's office fails to extend the eviction moratorium creates more uncertainty and strain on Michigan residents."

Hotels and motels aren't covered under the ban and Whitmer should consider protecting their longer term residents as well, said Joon Sung, systemic advocacy director at Lakeshore Legal Aid.

"There are no protections for them," Sung said.

Munoz said she had to intervene with one landlord so far who wanted to evict a client despite the ban. She said she successfully kept the tenant in the home by talking with the landlord and reminding him of Whitmer's order. 

Landlords are being hit hard by the crisis, said attorney Aaron Cox. He said he has a client with single family homes in Michigan who had 60% of rents paid this month. Normally it's 93%.

"This same thing is happening to my commercial clients, where retailers have been repeatedly issuing letters stating that they will not be paying rent until the pandemic passes," Cox wrote in an email. 

Renters who are still employed are skipping out on paying, even though the state order doesn't change their obligation to pay rent, he said. 

"They are obviously not reading the details of the governor’s orders, but the message a lot of these tenants have received from the government is that they don’t have to pay rent again until this is over," Cox said. 

He predicted that unless more is done to help landlords, the coming foreclosure crisis could eclipse 2008's. 

"2008 was limited to residential real estate. This could potentially have ripple effects through every type of real property holding," Cox said. 

The federal CARES Act allows owners of multi-family properties with federally backed mortgages to apply for loan forbearance. 

And the Wayne County Treasurer's Office has said it will not foreclose on any properties for unpaid taxes this year. Oakland County has said no one affected by the coronavirus outbreak will lose their properties. 

Several housing and legal nonprofits are trying to work on protections once the courts reopen. 

Sung said his attorneys will urge judges to use their discretion and allow tenants more than the typical 10 days after a judgment to produce back rent or leave a properties. 

And the United Community Housing Coalition is working to help renters who had eviction cases filed right before the state shutdown. 

The group is combing through an estimated 4,100 cases filed in Detroit since early February and sending letters offering help to renters who have judgments or eviction orders pending. The group is paying for the effort in part through a $250,000 grant from the Gilbert Family Foundation.