Evictions make it harder for Michigan families to find safe, affordable housing

All the belongings of a home sit on the curb for trash pickup after a possible eviction in the neighborhood. Volunteers from Eastside Community Network (ECN) go door to door to let people know they are in danger of losing their homes to property tax foreclosure on March 19, 2022.
All the belongings of a home sit on the curb for trash pickup after a possible eviction in the neighborhood. Volunteers from Eastside Community Network (ECN) go door to door to let people know they are in danger of losing their homes to property tax foreclosure on March 19, 2022.

Eviction moratoriums and millions of dollars in federal rent aid helped keep people housed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as those temporary protections end, advocates worry about increasing eviction filings. An eviction can leave long lasting scars, they say.

An eviction case — which is a public filing — can make it harder for tenants to find future housing and can catapult them into a cycle of living in substandard units especially in the midst of an affordable housing crunch.

That's something Deanna Jordan worries about as she plans to embark on her own housing search. Jordan, 46, and currently living in Ypsilanti, was evicted twice — one eviction involved a termination of tenancy and another for nonpayment — in the last decade while struggling with a past drug addiction and mental health issues that left her in and out of shelters, she said.

Jordan — who has been clean for three years — feels like her past follows her around and hinders her ability to move forward, especially when it comes to finding a safe and stable home.

For now, Jordan is living with her daughter and splitting costs. But eventually, she plans to move out and find a home close to work, in Livonia, Dearborn or Westland. But looking for housing in the past hasn't been easy. She has felt that no one would give her a break and she fears that her only options may be shoddy apartments, she said.

"I'm very, very scared that they're just going to deny me. They're going to say you have an eviction," she said. There are other reasons why a person may be denied.

Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Michigan introduced a bill to seal certain eviction records. The bill — referred to a Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety — would allow a judge to seal eviction records with judgments older than five years. It also includes instances where a judgment wasn't entered, the tenant moved out of a foreclosed home, the landlord received federal emergency rent aid or the case was filed during Michigan's COVID-19 state of emergency.

More: A new proposal would offer legal representation for Detroiters facing eviction

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Michigan State Senator Winnie Brinks
Michigan State Senator Winnie Brinks

“It's never been more obvious than after going through the pandemic in the last couple of years, how important it is to have safe affordable housing and how that is just a cornerstone for health,” state Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, who sponsored the legislation, told the Free Press.

'A grim picture for the future'

There is "incredible stress on our housing stock," Brinks said, and people at various income levels are having trouble finding units they can afford, adding that an eviction can stand in the way of finding housing that is close to work and school.

In Michigan, 73% of extremely low income families — those with annual incomes of $25,750 or less for a family of four — spend more than half of their income on housing, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition analysis last year. The state needs roughly 200,000 units for those households. Metro Detroit alone needs about 100,000 units.

Federal funding during the pandemic injected millions of dollars to stabilize housing for Michigan renters. But advocates worry about what happens when that money runs out.

Rent remains one of the three top pandemic-related reasons people call the United Way's 211 service, according to a statewide dashboard. The service connects people with food, housing and bill payment assistance.

"Exhaustion of the emergency rental assistance money, coupled with steadily increasing rents, paints a bit of a grim picture for the future for low-income and ... more so moderate income renters," said Jim Schaafsma, a housing attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program.

Flyers were left on a door as volunteers hand out literature about federal rent aid at Martin Luther King I & II homes in Detroit on Sept. 24, 2021.
Flyers were left on a door as volunteers hand out literature about federal rent aid at Martin Luther King I & II homes in Detroit on Sept. 24, 2021.

Michigan has so far spent $644.2 million in federal rent and utilities aid as of Tuesday. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which is administering the funds, said it tentatively expects to stop taking new applications for assistance in June.

Statewide landlord-tenant filings were below pre-pandemic numbers last year, according to data from the state court administrative office, which does not include all courts across Michigan.

However, the same renters who struggled to stay housed before and during the pandemic will continue to struggle afterward because of the "severe shortage" of affordable housing in the country, said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, despite a massive infusion of aid.

"Emergency rental assistance and eviction moratoriums were a temporary patch to those holes but do nothing to address the deep structural flaws in our country’s housing system," Yentel said in a statement to the Free Press.

The Scarlet E

Eviction cases — sometimes referred to as a “Scarlet E” — can make it harder for a person to find future housing, advocates say.

"Even the mere filing of an eviction can have permanent consequences on a tenant's ability to secure housing in the future," said Emily Coffey, a housing justice attorney at the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

In recent years, more landlords have been using tenant screening reports — which typically include information like rental history, credit reports, criminal background checks and eviction or debt collection cases — to consider applicants, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law notes.

Landlords can purchase these tenant screening reports but one of the issues is that they may lack important details, like whether a case was resolved. What's more, these screenings aren't as regulated and have fewer consumer protections when compared with credit reporting, and contain frequent errors, a recent ProPublica investigation and reporting from The Markup has found.

"It's not predictive of whether someone will be a good tenant," said Ariel Nelson, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Better options are looking at a tenant'scurrent ability to pay bills, including incomes, pay stubs and W-2 tax forms, she said.

Eviction records can prevent people from finding units that are safe and in desirable locations, near work or school. They instead settle for whatever they can find, said Nora Mahlberg, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Michigan Legal Help, funded by the Michigan Supreme Court and the Michigan State Bar Foundation.

Jordan — whose two eviction cases that are more than five years old could potentially be sealed if Brinks' bill passes — worries about ending up in unstable housing. Beyond past evictions, there are other reasons why people can get denied.

"I'm just scared that they're going to keep denying me and I'm going to keep having to pay these application fees and I'm going to be losing a lot of money in trying to find an apartment, and the only options for someone that can't get an apartment are the sketchy apartments," she said.

Still, she's hopeful that prospective landlords will see the "strides" she has made, and consider the full picture behind her evictions. Landlords could rely on other ways to determine a tenant's eligibility, like letters of recommendation, work history, security deposits and looking to see if a person paid off back rent owed in past eviction cases, she said.

"People can see physical trauma, they can see when you have a broken leg or a broken arm, but they can't really see mental health issues or emotional traumas that people go through," she said.

Eviction records — regardless of outcome, context or how long ago the case was filed — are one of the biggest determining factors behind acceptances and denials, Nelson said. But other reasons for denials may be rental debt, credit scores and criminal records.

Nelson said it's hard to determine how factors are weighed when it comes to tenant screening companies and the scores they give tenants. A landlord relying just on these scores, for example, may not even know why they denied an application, she said.

Proposed bill could 'protect' tenants

Brinks' proposed bill, if passed, would ease the burden of having an eviction record, advocates say. If a bankruptcy can be wiped away after seven years under certain circumstances, why can't an eviction be treated similarly, Brinks asked.

The concept of sealing past evictions isn't new. Seven states had eviction sealing laws in place as of last year, according to the nonprofit Legal Services Corporation.

The proposed Michigan bill — which is at the early stages of legislative consideration and hasn't had a committee hearing yet — is a "really encouraging step and it would offer some protection for tenants," said Schaafsma, with the Michigan Poverty Law Program.

However, there would have to be robust education efforts to let renters know about their rights if the bill were to pass, tenant advocates said.

"Generally, it's good policy to ensure that eviction court filings are not considered when a tenant is applying to rental housing," said Coffey, of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and "sealing eviction court records is one of the most critical things that jurisdictions can do."

The bill sounds like "commonsense legislation," especially for cases involving foreclosures, those filed during the state of emergency and nonpayment cases involving federal rent aid, said Douglas Marcum, vice president and incoming president of the Property Management Association of Michigan, which advocates on behalf of rental companies.

"On face value, the bill makes a lot of sense to us," he said. The only concern would be sealing cases "for cause," where there was violence or criminal activity, he said.

Eviction judgments do impact renters, he said, because landlords typically use a web-based background approval process that pulls credit, housing and criminal records across the country. Previous eviction cases can make it harder to find housing, but it's not impossible, Marcum said. Applicants who are denied at his company, KMG Prestige, can appeal.

Jordan actually applied for housing through KMG Prestige in early 2020 before the pandemic and was denied. Her appeal was also denied, she said. Marcum on Monday could not disclose the reason behind her denial but said that it "was not related to any evictions she may have had on her record."

A denial letter from January 2020 lists an "unsatisfactory" rental and credit history. Jordan maintains that she was told her past evictions were also behind the denial.

Eviction reinforces poverty

One of the immediate risks of eviction is homelessness, said Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel, a group seeking to guarantee legal representation for low-income renters facing eviction. There's also the mental health and economic consequences that can follow.

"Housing is the foundation of everything," Phillips said.

Evictions are a particularly pressing concern in the city of Detroit, where there was an average of more than 29,000 eviction filings a year between 2014 and 2018, according to one University of Michigan analysis.

In 2019, more than 10,000 writs of eviction were signed in 36th District Court and in 2020, that number dropped to 2,428, the court said last summer. A writ, or order of eviction, is signed by a judge and allows a court officer to remove a tenant and their personal belongings from a rental property.

One of the flyers being handed out on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, to people at risk of being evicted in Detroit.
One of the flyers being handed out on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, to people at risk of being evicted in Detroit.

That's one of reasons why Phillips' group is pushing for a "right to counsel" ordinance that would provide lawyers for low-income Detroiters at risk of eviction.

Relocating tenants after an eviction is a "huge uphill battle," said Ashley Lowe, CEO of Lakeshore Legal Aid.

"In the city of Detroit, there is a lack of affordable housing and so that lack of affordable housing means that when somebody is evicted, they don't have a lot of choices. Even if they don't have a judgment on their record, it's hard," she said.

Evictions have a destabilizing effect on families, experts say. Children may have to move to different schools, disrupting their education. Jobs may be inaccessible because of distance.

“Poverty causes eviction, but eviction also causes poverty, and the people who go through eviction tend to have poverty reinforced for them,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Detroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA.

Contact Nushrat: nrahman@freepress.com; 313-348-7558. Follow her on Twitter: @NushratR. Sign up for Bridge Detroit's newsletter. Become a Free Press subscriber.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Evictions can make it harder for Michigan families to find future housing