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Anti-homeless groups fear rent help from CARES Act could run out

Kelly Sikkema

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's executive order that placed a statewide moratorium on evictions lapsed on July 16th.  

A week later, federal unemployment payments of $600 a week ran out, after members of Congress failed to renew the benefits.

That has renters who lost their jobs in the pandemic worried about becoming homeless, according to Eric Hufnagel, Executive Director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.

He says calls to one social service agency in Oakland County, for example, have risen ten-fold.

"So there's on the ground a lot of people who have uncertainty, who now are at a point where actually the evictions are starting to move forward," says Hufnagel.

Michigan has set aside $50 million in federal CARES Act funds for an eviction diversion program.  But Hufnagel says that money could run out long before it helps everyone who needs help, especially if Congress fails to restore federal unempl0yment benefits.

He says anti-homeless organizations have been preparing for what could be a humanitarian disaster in Michigan since March.  He hopes the federal unemployment checks start flowing again.

"Because we know that it's cheaper to work with individuals to keep them housed than it is to have a family experience homelessness and then try to get re-housed," he says.  "It's significantly more costly."

In addition, many homeless organizations do not have the physical space available to handle large numbers of homeless individuals and families who should not be placed in close quarters with each other due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff at these organizations, too, would be at greater risk, Hufnagel says, if large numbers of people suddenly need to be housed.

In the meantime, however, funds from the eviction diversion program could help thousands of tenants remain in their homes.  

Kelly Rose is the Chief Housing Solutions Officer for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which oversees the eviction diversion program.

"The program requires judges in the first hearing with the tenant and the landlord to refer them to the program and let them know that it exists," she says, "and then do a one-week adjournment."

That will give tenants time to contact a local agency that is helping to disperse payments for rent.

Rose says the program is voluntary.  Landlords who agree to participate must forgo ten percent of the past due rent. 

Families are eligible for payments towards past due rent of $3,000 if their income is above 50% of the median income in their area; $3,500 if their income is below 50% of the median income in their area.

Rose says half of the funds in the eviction diversion program are being set aside for those under the 50% median income level, to make sure the neediest families get the most help.

All of the money in the program must be spent by the end of the year.

There is still a moratorium on evictions in the city of Detroit until August 15th, pursuant to a directive from the 36th District Court.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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