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Opinion: Simply extending the eviction moratorium is not enough

Joshua Akers

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended Michigan’s eviction moratorium to May 15. This was a necessary step, but it is not enough. The governor has taken bold and decisive action dealing with this public health crisis. Now is the time for more bold and decisive action to flatten the curve of the housing crisis that will follow. 

Under the current order, and with no further action, the scenario we face is a wave of evictions followed by foreclosures. Landlords are preparing for the end of the moratorium. They are filing eviction cases and waiting for the courts to hear them.

Last week, the state’s attorney general issued a cease and desist letter to one southeast Michigan landlord threatening tenants behind on their rent with seven-day notices, despite the moratorium. After evictions, a wave of foreclosures will follow as landlords default on loans and mortgages. After one month, the current unemployment and rent delinquency rates make the foreclosure and financial crisis over a decade ago look like a minor event. An event that Michigan has struggled to recover from. 

Current unemployment and rent delinquency rates make the foreclosure and financial crisis over a decade ago look like a minor event, writes Akers.

As a researcher, I spent much of the last decade understanding the full impact of the last crisis on housing and real estate markets. In the years that followed the foreclosure crisis speculators and bulk buyers purchased tens of thousands of properties, pushing up rents and evictions and in the worst cases providing substandard housing. Just as the impact of the coronavirus is uneven, affecting marginalized and low-income communities in greater numbers, so too was the foreclosure crisis, and so will the eviction and foreclosure crisis that is coming next. 

The good news is that examples are emerging from other states and in Congress. In Washington state, the eviction moratorium was extended to June 4. It prohibits raising rents, late fees and intimidation during this period.

When the moratorium is lifted landlords can only collect unpaid rent by offering a reasonable payment plan, or if the tenant fails to comply or refuses that plan. In Los Angeles, the eviction moratorium extends for six months beyond the end of the crisis. In Washington D.C., U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar recently introduced a bill that would cancel all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, set up a fund to make lenders and landlords whole, and provide money for governments and nonprofits to purchase private rental properties and convert them to social or public housing. 

These are bold and necessary steps. In Michigan, protecting the health and safety of our residents should go beyond measures currently in place. We must recognize that many Michiganians will lose their homes as a result of this crisis if we do not act to assist them.

One place to start is for the state to create an emergency assistance fund for landlords. This fund would cancel a tenant’s rent and assist the landlord in covering their costs. The state could use the nearly $38 million it received in the federal stimulus for community development block grants. In addition, the state must increase protections for current tenants behind on their rent. Extending the moratorium six months beyond the end of the crisis provides additional time to flatten the curve of evictions that is now less than a month away. 

We have been here before but not like this. Let’s not make the same mistakes we did a decade ago. What we need now are bold actions that keep people in their homes.   

Joshua Akers is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the director of the Urban Praxis Workshop. His research is on the intersection of markets and policy and their effect on urban neighborhoods and everyday life.