Opinion: Eviction protections help people stay home during pandemic

Melinda Clemons and Evelyn Zwiebach

Michigan’s low-income families and communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 are on the brink of catastrophe. With the expiration of our state’s eviction moratorium on July 15 and the $600 boost to unemployment from the federal government ending late last month, Michigan is headed for a wave of evictions, despite the coronavirus pandemic continuing to rage around us.

Detroit’s 36th District Court understands the urgency of this moment, which is why it extended Detroit’s moratorium until Aug. 15, but renters outside the city have no such protections. Time is running out and the state must act now to prevent disaster.

Since the onslaught of the coronavirus, about 1 in 6 Black and Hispanic workers have lost their jobs nationally, compared to about 1 in 8 white workers. This widening economic gulf, divided along racial lines, has exacerbated existing housing and financial challenges already facing Michigan’s communities of color.

Michigan should reinstate the eviction moratorium and divert money to eviction prevention, the Clemons and Zwiebach write.

Even before the pandemic, nearly 32% of Black households in Michigan were severely rent burdened — spending more than 50% of their income on rent — compared to about 22% of white households. Now, as the virus continues to decimate lives, jobs and homes, these households are threatened with eviction and financial ruin. Fifty-five percent of Black renters report experiencing cost burdens (spending more than 30 of their income on rent), which is more than any other racial or ethnic group; over 25% of Black renters report having missed their last rent payment and over 40% have low confidence they’ll be able to pay next month.

Michigan must ensure that the communities on the front lines of the pandemic receive the relief they need. The most impactful action the state can take right now is to reinstate the eviction moratorium and allocate significantly more resources to eviction prevention.

The Legislature acted wisely in allocating $60 million for rental assistance and eviction diversion efforts, but unfortunately, the need far exceeds the existing resources. Jim Schaafsma of the Michigan Legal Poverty Law Program has estimated that at current funding levels, Michigan’s Eviction Diversion Program “would run out of money after helping just 20% of the neediest renters in the state cover rent for only one month.”

Additionally, eviction protection measures need to be more comprehensive, including prohibiting landlords from reporting late payments to credit bureaus and eliminating late fees. As it stands, Michigan does not earn even one star (out of five) in Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard

The need for housing stabilization extends beyond rent. Utilities, including gas, water and electricity — the building blocks of a safe home — must be kept on regardless of a family’s ability to pay during an unprecedented crisis. Before the pandemic hit, thousands of homes in Detroit were without water; since 2014, over 140,000 Detroit homes have had their water service disconnected as part of a debt-payment program.

Promisingly, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has extended its Coronavirus Water Restart Plan for the remainder of the year to help cover the cost of water for eligible customers for the first 30-days, but more funding and resources are needed.

Finally, Michigan must invest in bridging the digital divide so that the communities most in need of relief are able to access it. “First come, first serve” does not work when up to 40% of Detroit residents don’t have access to broadband internet.

Safe, affordable housing has never been more important. Michigan needs to do everything it can to keep people in their homes. This crisis has demonstrated we can muster the political will to instate critical safety net policies — including water reconnections and eviction moratoria. Let’s double down on these efforts, extending, expanding and resourcing them so we can fully meet the needs of our impacted communities. Unless we do, the racial inequities in our state will only become more entrenched.

Melinda Clemons is vice president and Detroit market leader and Evelyn Zwiebach is state and local policy director for Detroit at Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit.