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First up for rental aid payments, the people closest to being evicted

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A federally funded program providing rental assistance to Michiganders is focusing on getting payments to people at the highest-risk of being evicted, first. A national eviction moratorium expires next week. If it’s not extended, a backlog of stalled eviction cases could proceed.

“The worst case scenario is that [the national eviction moratorium] does end and there could be many orders of eviction happening in early April,” said Kelly Rose, chief housing solutions officer at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).

Last week MSHDA announced a program, funded by the federal stimulus package passed last December, which provides rental assistance to Michigan tenants and landlords suffering income losses tied to the coronavirus pandemic. Either landlords or tenants can initiate the application process and renters making up to 80% of area median income are eligible for up to 10 or 12 months of rental assistance.

Rose says a thousand of more pending eviction cases could result in court-ordered evictions by the end of April without the protection of the Centers for Disease Control-ordered eviction moratorium. These cases have already progressed through court proceedings to the point where an eviction could happen relatively quickly once the moratorium expires.

“We’re trying to avoid that as much as possible,” Rose said. “[We’re] working with landlords and tenants that are in those cases to try to get those judgements satisfied and cases paid upon so people can preserve their housing,”

Last year the state ran an Eviction Diversion Program (EDP) that offered rental assistance to landlords and tenants. The New COVID Emergency Rental Assistance Program (CERA) has a lot more funding, and can offer a lot more assistance to struggling tenants and landlords.

Doug Benson is a landlord with 81 rental units and president of the Rental Property Owners Association of Mid-Michigan, a group he says has about 150 members. He said the EDP program was easy to use and helpful both for him and his tenants. He’s working on a CERA application with one of his tenants now, to get paid for past-due rent.

“I think it’s a great thing. I think it works well,” Benson said. “The people that we used it with before were in some serious trouble, and the only issues I had with them, at all, were that they simply hadn’t paid their rent. They were good people.”

MSHDA expects the new rental assistance program to deliver payments to 50-55 thousand Michigan families. CERA is expected to pay out up to $10,000 in rental assistance per household, a significant boost from the $3,300 maximum available under last year’s state-run EDP. 

Benson does hope the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow the current national eviction moratorium to expire without an extension next Wednesday. State officials say they don’t know whether the moratorium will be extended or not. It’s for this reason officials administering CERA are targeting the people with eviction cases already pending, to get rental assistance payments in their hands first.

The moratoriums put in place by state and the federal government through the pandemic have resulted in greatly reduced numbers of eviction case filings, according to both Rose and Margaret Dewar, Professor emeritus of Urban Regional Planning at the University of Michigan. Even with the moratorium in place, courts have started to hear eviction cases again, though most cases are supposed to be put on hold before an eviction is carried out due to the moratorium.

There’s a total of $622 million in funding available for CERA, though the state Legislature hasn’t appropriated all the money. The rental assistance program currently has $282 million in approved funding.

“It’s going to help a lot because it will help landlords and tenants get to an agreement about payment schedules,” Dewar said. “It’ll help make landlords whole. It’ll help tenants get back on their feet as the economy improves.”

Rose expects CERA will lead to a decline in Michigan homelessness. The 2019 report on homelessness in Michigan rom the Michigan Campaign to end homelessness reports there were more than 61,000 people in Michigan who experienced homelessness in 2019, the most recent year data is available for.   

“We’re definitely anticipating that this should show results in our homelessness data for 2021,” Rose said.  “With this amount of funding being able to preserve people’s housing, we absolutely would expect that we’ll have less people entering homeless shelters.”

James Cunningham, Deputy Regional Administrator for the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Midwest office, says programs that existed before the pandemic have led to significant declines in homelessness in Michigan over the past decade or more, but for now the focus is recovering from the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s why we have CARES Act funding, that’s why we had the American Rescue Plan; to make short term gains (fighting homelessness) as we go into the economic recovery, as we come out of COVID.”

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