Mich. chief justice touts state eviction diversion effort at White House summit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack joined a virtual White House summit Wednesday to highlight the state's eviction diversion initiative as a nationwide ban on evictions during the pandemic is set to expire next month.

The discussion, alongside representatives from Philadelphia and Houston, centered on national best practices for preventing evictions by providing tenants access to lawyers and social workers and through the development of housing stability task forces.

Jurisdictions able to set up successful eviction diversion programs have an opportunity for a "win-win-win solution," McCormack said, "but you need leadership, collaboration and representation."

"What's important to emphasize is that leaders can bring people together to make those effective programs," she said. 

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack speaks on a virtual White House summit on the state's diversion programs on June 30, 2021.

The White House summit comes as the Biden administration works to inform tenants of their rights and options for relief in partnership with the legal and nonprofit community to promote eviction prevention programs that keep people in their homes. 

In Michigan, eviction diversion efforts were modeled after local programs and expanded statewide in the fall. The program brings together community partners and housing authorities and all three branches of government to manage American Rescue Plan funding, McCormack said. 

"Representation is important. Tenants need help. In Detroit in particular, only 4% of tenants had legal help in eviction processes before our diversion program," she said.

Michigan, she said, has had 40,000 applications and 9,400 cases that have resulted in $55 million in payments already, and more are in the pipeline. 

The state suspended evictions from mid-March to mid-July of 2020. To help renters catch up and landlords recover missed payments, the state last summer used federal virus relief aid to create an eviction diversion program, which helped 16,000 households, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Michigan this March replaced the former program with the $282 million COVID Emergency Rental Assistance, or CERA, program. State housing officials have estimated it will reach 50,000 to 50,000 individuals and as many as 150,000 households.

In Detroit, the program could aid 15,000 to 16,000 households, officials have said. 

The state Legislature could allocate another $340 million to the program, which would bring the total to $622 million. To qualify, households or landlords must be below 80% of the area median income. 

Biden administration policy advisor Susan Rice said Wednesday that about $46 million in emergency rental aid must be distributed nationally before the eviction moratorium expires at the end of July. 

Rice noted that a "one-size-fits-all approach will not suffice" and that the response, as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, must be equitable.

"Black and Latino households are at higher risk for evictions even before the pandemic," she said. 

Even before COVID-19, there was a national average of 3.6 million evictions per year for tenants missing as little as $500 in rent. 

"While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation, have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions," said Gene Sperling, senior advisor to the president who also served under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Researcher Matthew Desmond found that housing instability increases the risk of job loss by as much as 22%. For children, studies show lower educational attainment effects that can compound over time to reinforce inequity. Most renting families below the poverty line, he said, were spending at least half of their income on housing costs before the pandemic and evictions are linked to America's overall health crisis.

"About one in seven American renters still report being behind in rent," he said. "We know that the moratorium prevented over 2 million evictions that probably would have happened from historical trends."

Desmond touted courts with established programs that intervene early. At the top of the list was the 55th District Court Eviction Diversion Program in Ingham County, which from 2012-2017, helped decreased eviction case filings by 10% and increased dismissals by 36% with legal aid help at the court and social service agencies to evaluate whether tenants were eligible for grants to clear rental arrears. 

The ban on evictions continues after the Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a plea by landlords to end the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evicting millions of tenants who aren’t paying rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, Michigan was among 22 states urging the high court to uphold the CDC order.

Last week, the Biden administration extended the moratorium by a month, until the end of July. Federal officials said they do not expect another extension.

U.S. Judge Dabney Friedrich in Washington had struck down the moratorium as exceeding the CDC’s authority, but put her ruling on hold. The high court voted 5-4 to keep the ban in place.

The Associated Press contributed