This pandemic year has been tough for lawyers who work with people facing eviction.
The need for their services is greater than ever. Support programs have helped, but they’ve been a patchwork that often leave attorneys scrambling to help clients.
Ted Phillips said 2020 has been the hardest of his thirty-plus year career. He’s the head of Detroit’s United Community Housing Coalition.
Phillips said the calendar year may be ending, but this period of greater need is not. “Hopefully there’s some end in sight, with the vaccine and what have you,” he said. “But at the moment, it’s hard to still see the tunnel, much less the light at the end of it.”
Eviction proceedings begin again in Detroit’s 36th District Court the Monday after New Year’s. Phillips said there are more than 4,000 eviction cases in the pipeline there, and there simply need to be more funds to pay landlords to keep tenants in place to prevent a tide of evictions. “We certainly represent tenants, but we recognize that we can’t expect landlords to bear the total brunt of this,” he said.
The state’s eviction diversion program was meant to fulfill at least part of that need. That program, which allocated $50 million in federal CARES Act funds for that purpose, actually worked pretty well, according to Washtenaw County Office of Legal Services managing attorney Tish Lee. But the program expired on December 30.
Lee said the eviction diversion program also allowed legal aid attorneys to connect directly with people in need in courtrooms, even if those court hearings happened virtually. Lee said state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control temporary eviction moratoriums also helped avoid mass evictions, but that was only a temporary fix.
“Moratoriums are great, but moratoriums are not effective unless they’re combined with rental assistance,” Lee said. “Because they’re just kicking the can down the road.” Lee added that the CDC moratorium had “a lot of gaps in coverage,” meaning there were loopholes that allowed landlords to evict some tenants anyway.
The federal stimulus bill that President Donald Trump just signed extends that moratorium for another month, something that lawyers like Lee had advocated for. That bill also contains $25 billion in housing assistance. But it remains to be seen whether those measures are enough to prevent an eventual wave of evictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic's economic damage.
But Lee emphasized that aid is only there for tenants who reach out for it. “People who are getting eviction notices and being called into court should not try to ignore them, and not try to deny that this is happening,” she said. “They should go to court because the help is there in the courtroom.”