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U of M paper: Protections needed to prevent COVID-19 housing crisis in Detroit

University of Michigan Poverty Solutions

University of Michigan researchers say Detroiters will need many more protections to protect people from losing their homes in the wake of COVID-19.

The U of M Poverty Solutions paper examines existing housing instability in Detroit, also finding that there’s a shortage of affordable housing in the city, when taking into account blighted and uninhabitable units.

“New research from Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan highlights the need for more robust eviction protections in Detroit in light of the number of people who have lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic, existing instability in the city's housing market, and a shortage of livable housing units,” according to a summary.

Once an existing statewide moratorium on evictions is lifted, many people will likely find themselves unable to pay rent, and unable to find other adequate housing, said lead author Jennifer Erb-Downward. Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s order is set to expire May 15. And that could set up a second spike in COVID-19 infections.

“If you don't have a stable place to live, you're not going to have the ability to effectively socially distance if you lose your housing,” Erb-Downward said.  “Most likely, you're going to be temporarily doubling up with another family or friend, or you're going to be relying on the shelter system in the city at the very best. You're going to be moving from one place to another into new housing. All of these things force people to interact with other people that they would not have been interacting with before.”

“So it's very, very possible that unless immediate actions are taken to keep people stable in their homes, that we are going to see a very large second spike of infection.”

Some of those actions should include extending Detroit’s moratorium on evictions, and an extended grace period for renters to catch up on back rent, Erb-Downward said. Federal stimulus dollars can and should be used to support housing payments. And longer term, the city of Detroit should invest in more affordable housing units.

Erb-Downward said their research showed that housing instability in Detroit is a pre-existing problem. They says that in 2017, 13% of Detroit residents reported being evicted or losing their housing in the past year. That is the equivalent of roughly 88,382 Detroiters losing their home in just one year.

Erb-Downward said even though the pandemic has worsened the situation, it actually represents a chance to get things right. “While the crisis that is going on now is turning everything upside down, we actually might have a chance to change this,” she said.

On Wednesday, housing activists planned a car caravan protest through the streets of Detroit, calling for more relief for tenants and mortgage borrowers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Protesters said the public health crisis could soon evolve into a new housing crisis.

“Massive amounts of people are losing their jobs and income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, at a rate and speed not seen since the Great Depression” the group Detroit Eviction Defense said in a statement. “This is leading to thousands of people not being able to pay their rent and mortgage payments. Governor Whitmer signed an executive order prohibiting evictions, but that order expires Friday, May 15. We cannot let evictions resume and we must do whatever we can to pressure Michigan to protect people's homes and prevent the next housing crisis.”

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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