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Eviction risk ramps up for tenants in arrears outside Detroit

A little more than two weeks after the state lifted its eviction ban, the legal process has ramped back up with landlords sending notices threatening to take renters to court if they don't pay their debt and some tenants already have been called before judges to answer for rent they owe.

The eviction process is rebooting statewide — except for Detroit, which extended its ban until Aug. 17 — after a four-month moratorium. It was instituted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, designed to keep people in their homes amid the pandemic that has left more than 6,200 dead and 82,000 confirmed cases in Michigan. 

Officials hope aid offered through city and state programs, including Michigan's new $50 million Eviction Diversion Program, will be enough to help landlords and renters stave off a potential flood of upcoming evictions. One study using U.S. Census data estimates that nearly 43% of Michigan tenants can't pay rent and are at risk.

That includes Unjanai Thomas, a 26-year-old single mom of three from Westland, who owes $2,300 in back rent. She said she lost her job at a grocery store this summer after struggling to find care for her kids when her day care closed and her mom was recovering from COVID-19.

She got her landlord's notice July 16 — the day the state ban expired — that the apartment complex plans to take her court if she doesn't pay, although it hasn't filed a case yet after she paid a portion of the debt.

“It’s just me with three babies,” said Thomas, who has gotten limited unemployment so far. “I didn’t have any control over the day care getting shut down. I didn’t have control over my mom getting sick.”

There isn't much available data yet on how many new eviction cases have been filed in Michigan and just how deep the backlog of cases are that were in the works before the shutdown. Tom Boyd, state court administrator, said officials hope to have more numbers this week. 

Nearly 17,000 cases are filed a month normally and state officials have estimated that more than 75,000 cases could be filed once the ban is lifted, although some landlords attorneys predict far fewer.

Stout, a New York consulting firm, used U.S. Census weekly household survey data to estimate potential evictions across the country and say as of the end of July about 457,000 or 43% of Michigan renter households are at risk of losing their homes. That's slightly higher than the national rate. 

The analysis also found a higher rate of Black renters, 39%, who report "no or slight confidence" they can pay next month's rent, compared to 25% of whites. 

"We already know COVID itself is doing the same thing," said John Pollock, coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which was involved with the analysis.

"COVID has this dramatic disparate impact (on Black people). We know housing court historically has a disparate impact on people of color. You put all those things together and it’s just an epic disaster."

Unjanai Thomas, 26, of Westland, with her children Da-Vion, 4, and twins Kay’Viona and Ka’Vion, 10-months, said she lost her job at a grocery store this summer and owes $2,300 in back rent.

Uncertain impact

Housing advocates say they are expecting demand on rent relief to be intense. Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency CEO Louis Piszker said that as of the end of June, they've had more than 8,300 inquires about rental aid. Typically during a year, they only get 12,000 applications for all their services. 

“We are anticipating a really big onslaught ... of people coming to us for need in the next 30-60 days once courts start to get moving again,” said Piszker, whose group serves residents in Wayne County excluding Detroit. "That's what we are ramping up for."

Lakeshore Legal Aid officials said there were 3,600 calls to the Detroit eviction helpline since mid-July, which is (866) 313-2520. 

But others, such as landlord attorney Sidney Katz, say caseloads are significantly down and they don't expect immediate mass evictions. 

"The number of people who owe money is less than normal," Katz said. "The avalanche of cases ultimately are not going to happen until unemployment stops." 

The supplemental $600 in weekly federal unemployment benefits expired toward the end of July. 

David Fantera, another landlord attorney, agreed, saying predictions are too high and he expects numbers will go back to normal in August. Still, he said many small landlords are hurting. 

"That money they are not getting is not a retirement fund," he said. 

Independent landlord Emmett Foster, who owns properties in Detroit, Eastpointe and Ecorse, said he's applied for state aid. He said it's been frustrating for landlords who rely on rents to keep their businesses going. 

“Some of these landlords have mortgages and loans on their properties," said Foster, who has been a landlord for seven years. "And they can’t put them into forbearances.”

Shantinique Coleman, 28, of Detroit says her biggest fear is having to move during the pandemic.

Hearings via Zoom

In Clinton Township, 41-B District Court heard its first 31 routine landlord-tenant cases since the ban lifted on Thursday via Zoom. 

Of the 31 cases, eight renters appeared, either using their camera phones to call in from their cars, living rooms or front porches. At least one opted to call in with a phone number, rather than use Zoom. One woman just owed June and July rent. 

Magistrate James McGrail told each they had a right to an attorney and that there were several from Lakeshore Legal Aid waiting in private online "breakout rooms" in Zoom to help. 

Lakeshore has similar agreements to have lawyers on hand for initial Zoom eviction hearings in a majority of Metro Detroit's district courts, said Emily Calabrese, the group's chief advocacy officer. 

McGrail also briefed each renter on the new state aid that is available and, that if they successfully apply with their landlord's consent, they can get a "conditional dismissal" so there's no eviction judgment on their record, a part of new state court requirements. 

"I am not sure if you are aware, but things have changed with all the coronavirus stuff going on, OK?" McGrail told the first two renters who logged in. 

Magistrate James McGrail hears eviction cases Thursday for the first time via Zoom since the state ban lifted, including Harrison Township resident Gerald Bethea's case. Hearings for all eight renters who appeared were rescheduled for this week and most said they planned to apply for state aid to pay back debt.

Gerald Bethea, 57, who used Zoom on Thursday to appear after falling behind in rent on his Harrison Township apartment, said he didn't mind using the technology.

“I was more worried about them looking inside my house,” Bethea said. “It was much better than going down there. They guided me through the process.”  

Bethea's case and the other seven renters were rescheduled for hearings this week, with the majority planning on applying for the state rental assistance. Another seven cases were dismissed by landlords Thursday and 16 other renters didn't show.

The no-shows were automatically rescheduled for an in-person hearing, according to new state rules. Cases in which tenants don't show for their first hearing can only be considered in default if they were personally served with notice of the hearing. 

These new state requirements, including adding the additional time for renters to get nonprofit lawyers, are designed to protect renters' rights, state officials say. 

Attorney Vanessa Fluker, who represents tenants, still is concerned for people who don't have smartphones. Most courts are encouraging Zoom hearings but renters have a right to an in-person hearing. 

"I could see how it could definitely be a very serious problem for people who don’t have access," Fluker said. 

Nationally, the CARES Act eviction ban for landlords with federally backed mortgages lifted July 24 and evictions can restart at the end of August unless Congress extends the protection. 

Renter advocates say Michigan should have kept a moratorium in place while distributing aid, such as other states like New York and Connecticut.

"It is undeniable that the pandemic is still raging," wrote Joe McGuire, staff attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, in an email. He and other activists wanted the ban to go at least 60 days after Michigan ends the state of emergency. 

Troublesome is that Michigan has a .58 out of rating of 5 on a policy scorecard from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks what states are doing to prevent homelessness amid the pandemic. Connecticut leads the nation with a score of 4.28.

Michigan State Housing Development Authority's Chief Housing Solutions Officer Kelly Rose said in a statement in response to the rating: "We and our partners — our extensive network of housing assessment resource agencies and the local courts — are committed to helping preserve housing for as many individuals and families as possible while creating fair and structured repayment agreements with landlords." 

Diversion program

Some renters The Detroit News talked with report aid has been difficult to access. 

The state announced last week which organizations would help dole out the $50 million in diversion funds to landlords and renters, who can both apply. 

Under the diversion program, landlords can receive lump-sum payments in exchange for allowing tenants to remain in their homes, forgiving late fees and forfeiting 10% of the amount due. Tenants earning up to 100% of their area's median income are eligible for assistance. In Wayne County, that is $55,000 for an individual and $78,500 for a family of four.

For more information on how to apply, go to michigan.gov/edp

Thomas of Westland said she was told by Wayne Metro that rental aid was all spent when she applied a few days before the ban lifted. Here to Help, a private charity in Royal Oak, agreed to help pay a portion of her rent on Saturday.

Wayne Metro's Piszker said that was an initial $2 million in federal funding that ran out by June, but they now have another $9 million, including $5.4 million through the state's diversion program. 

Bob Schwartz, CEO of Here to Help, said he's seen many people worried about the loss of the extra $600 in unemployment and confusion about where to go for aid. He had a renter contact him who is living in Farmington Hills who was turned away from Oakland County's assistance programs because the city receives federal funds directly. 

Farmington Hills has opted to spend the $200,000 in federal CARES Act money on food bank and low-income child care assistance instead of rent relief, said the city's Community Development Coordinator Charmain Kettler-Schmult. 

"We didn't have sufficient staff to start a new program," she said.

Another renter who contacted Schwartz from Melvindale can't apply for state aid yet because his landlord hasn't sent him a notice demanding for possession of the home or began an eviction case yet, which is needed for diversion program application.

"We’ve not had one person come back to us saying we’ve gotten help," Schwartz said last week. 

Detroit extension

In Detroit, the ban was extended by the court until Aug. 15 to give renters like Shantinique Coleman more time. 

Coleman, who is pregnant, fell behind on three months' worth of rent — $3,300 — after she had to quit her job at a nursing home. Her pregnancy is high-risk, and she felt it was her only choice when the pandemic hit.  

Her family is surviving on her husband's income for food and utilities. 

“I want to be able to pay the rent, but it’s hard,” said the 28-year-old mother of four.

Coleman said her biggest fear is having to move during the pandemic.

“I really can’t afford mentally to try to pack up and move," she said. "I want to stay here because I don’t want to take my kids through that, trying to move again. We just moved here in March.” 

Detroit's 36th District Court, the state's largest with nearly 32,000 cases last year, extended its ban in part so that renters would be able to apply for newly allocated aid, and because of the city's high poverty and eviction rates, said Chief Judge William McConico. 

"This will help society, and it will help landlords that they can get rent paid, and it will help people not be homeless during a pandemic," McConico said. 

Ted Phillips, executive director with United Community Housing Coalition, said they are still waiting for funding from the state so they can begin hiring staff to distribute diversion funds to Detroiters after the ban expires. 

That ban extension has been controversial with landlords.

Landlord attorney Aaron Cox called Detroit's extension a "gross abuse of the court’s position."

"The court’s role in our government is to administer and enforce laws; it is neither a legislative body or an executive body with the authority to issue the kind of 'order' that it thinks it did," Cox wrote in an email.

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2396

jbarmore@detriotnews.com