Eviction, homelessness threatens many in Michigan

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Brooke Kansier, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
·4 min read
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Feb. 21—TRAVERSE CITY — The end of a federal eviction moratorium looms, and the aftermath could land thousands of Michiganders out of their homes.

A federal moratorium on evictions is set to end on March 31. It leaves many in fear of April 1 — even before COVID-19, more than 1.5 million Michigan households struggled with basic needs, according to a 2019 Michigan Association of United Ways report.

It's a major stress, said Networks Northwest CEO Matt McCauley.

"There really is a worry that, once the moratorium goes away or is expired, there would be truly a tsunami of evictions," he said. "That would have very real implications on housing markets, on social service programs, nonprofits — the trickle-down effect would be severe."

Until Dec. 31, many unpaid landlords and anxiety-riddled tenants were made whole through a state Eviction Diversion Program pushed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — provided they didn't mind a few strings.

Locally, the Community Action Agency dispersed that funding.

Sarah Hughes — homeless programs manager for the CAA's Homeless Prevention Coalition — said the organization went through initial funding, soon following up with a request for an additional $175,000. It paid up about 250 landlords and eased stress for just as many tenants, she said.

Landlord Vincent Hansen rents out seven properties in Traverse City and Garfield Township — he's a longtime local since relocated to San Francisco.

"Everybody's paying — a lot of 'em are late, but I'm trying to understand that," Hansen said.

Beyond falling a bit behind, he's not much hurt by the pandemic. Still, as Hansen tries to fill a new rental, he finds himself particularly choosy.

Evictions are a hassle as is — under the moratorium, the process threatens even more of a headache, especially if a would-be tenant aims to play the system. That would allow for eviction, moratorium or not, but Hansen's not keen to try it.

His only tenant falling notably behind is a man who works in the restaurant industry. COVID-19 restrictions and evolving policy have made his income less than consistent.

"His work was open, it closed, now he's got unemployment," Hansen said. "Now he's back to work again. This has happened a couple times over the past year.

"But I'm not evicting him. I'm not doing anything like that to any one of my people."

In-limbo federal funding would provide easier access to assistance in such situations — unlike the lapsed state program that fell to tenants, both landlords and tenants can initiate the process when the federal aid rolls out, Hughes said.

Meanwhile, CAA can help few — the agency has a default eviction diversion program, but it's less easy to access: only those who make 30 percent of a region's median household income qualify.

Using Grand Traverse County's 2019 census data, those bringing in $9,244 or less would receive help.

It means unless something changes, many tenants' hopes rest on legislative compromise.

In December, Congress OK'd massive federal aid for states, allotting Michigan about $5 billion, according to a Bridge Michigan report.

To access the pot, states need to present a pandemic response plan approved by their individual legislatures.

Yet, the state's Republican lawmakers have held up a massive chunk of that funding for schools and vaccine distribution, according to Bridge reporting. In limbo with it is a majority of the more-than $600 million allotted to eviction diversion, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

MSHDA is prepared to get money into communities within days of a plan approval, said Communications Director Katie Bach — who added that the cash available is 10 times as much as the lapsed state aid program.

Before releasing held-up federal funds, Republican lawmakers have demanded Whitmer's administration forfeit authority to ban in-person school or sports because of the COVID-19 emergency.

Neither side has done much budging.

So, for Michiganders stressing about yet another rent payment, it's a waiting game.

"I don't want to understate this — we're talking about people, we're talking about families, we're talking about children that're feeling insecure with regards to their housing, to having a roof over their heads," McCauley said. "That looms very large on them, first and foremost, but certainly on decision-makers and property owners and communities and nonprofits all across the region."

See updates at www.record-eagle.com.