Housing nonprofits are scrambling to distribute unprecedented amounts of federal funding to renters at risk of becoming homeless as a scaled-back national eviction moratorium is temporarily extended.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium was put into place on Sept. 4, 2020 to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and as many people lost their jobs during the pandemic. The moratorium expired July 31 but was extended by the CDC on Aug. 3.
The new eviction moratorium is in effect through Oct. 3, but it only protects households in U.S. counties that are experiencing what the CDC classifies as “substantial and high levels of community transmission levels” of COVID-19. According to Aug. 12 CDC data, 91 percent of counties across the country are currently classified as having “high” or “substantial” community transmission rates. Sixty-one of Michigan’s 83 counties, or about 73 percent, meet the CDC’s community transmission rate benchmark.
The moratorium would end in these counties if COVID-19 case counts decrease from a “high” threshold for 14 consecutive days. The moratorium could go back into place if cases increase before Oct. 3.
“This creates a lot of confusion on whether or not the moratorium is in place or not, and just fosters so much fear within renters,” said Drew Peirce, executive director of Holland-based Good Samaritan Ministries. “Unless your county is covered in the most recent extension, you’re likely to see a floodgate of evictions moving forward.”
According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey from early July, more than 1.4 million Americans — or 19 percent of respondents — said they expected to be evicted in the next two months.
Both Kent and Ottawa counties would be covered under the 60-day moratorium extension if transmission stays for two weeks in the “moderate” to “substantial” risk level for COVID-19 spread, which both counties moved into on Aug. 9.
The CDC defines a “substantial” transmission threat as 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 people, or a test positivity rate between 8 and 9.9 percent in the last seven days.
Amid the growing confusion about whether renters are covered under eviction protections, housing organizations are helping to distribute billions of dollars in relief to help renters pay — and landlords collect — back rent. Landlords, particularly small business owners, have struggled over the past year to collect rent while the eviction moratorium was in place.
Michigan’s federal renter relief funding is allocated through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program that’s administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. As of Aug. 2, Michigan had spent about $110 million of the $622 million allocated to the state, according to media reports.
Housing organizations were directed by the federal government to aim to spend down 65 percent of their funding by Sept. 30, which Peirce called challenging considering the funds were delayed in getting to counties in the first place. Ottawa County received about $9.1 million in CERA funding, and had spent about $2.7 million by the end of July.
“We haven’t had trouble getting the word out,” Peirce said. “The challenge is processing the applications coming in. It’s a long and detailed process to go from application to the allocation of the funding.”
The application process is designed to be online and requires loading and submitting various documents. However, many renters who need the funding lack a computer and a scanner, Peirce said. Good Samaritan Ministries has provided hard copies and worked with families without the needed technology to apply, which has also slowed the process. The whole application process could take 30 days before funding is delivered, Peirce said.
The looming deadline on the partial 60-day moratorium extension, which might still face legal challenges at the U.S. Supreme Court, puts more pressure on organizations to reach as many households as possible to distribute funding and prevent evictions, Peirce said.
“The big fear with the moratorium lifting is how much that will speed up the urgency, and I think Ottawa County and others across Michigan are in a similar boat in hiring more staff to add more volume,” Peirce said. “The capacity to do that has to stay ahead of the evictions. We just don’t know for sure to what extent we’ll be able to do that.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling upheld the CDC’s eviction moratorium in late June, but largely because it was set to expire on July 31. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the deciding fifth vote, said at the time that Congress would likely have to extend the moratorium beyond July 31.
Gustavo Perez, CERA program manager for Kent County at the Heart of West Michigan United Way, hopes to see more applications for relief funding even though the eviction moratorium was extended by 60 days.
“We have just been urging people to apply either way because we don’t know if we will get more time after this,” Perez said. “Don’t wait until you get an eviction notice from your landlord. If you are behind on payments you need to call and email us.”
Kent County has seen an average of about 200 CERA applications filed each week, Perez said. The goal is to process at least 6,000 funding applications — about half of that target has been achieved, he said.
Housing organization leaders told MiBiz that they are prioritizing eviction cases, especially those with a seven-day notice. Perez said local housing groups have prevented more than 700 evictions through CERA funding.
Housing supply, landlord options
Despite some of its pitfalls involving timing and access, CERA has made it easier for renters to avoid eviction compared to other aid programs, said Michelle Davis, executive director at Kalamazoo-based Housing Resources Inc.
Landlords can apply for funding on behalf of tenants, and tenants can also apply and receive funding directly if their landlord is not involved in the application process, Davis said.
Through CERA, qualified tenants can receive funding for up to 12 months of back rent owed, three months of future rent payments, utilities and other fees..
“It’s super important for people to apply. If a landlord evicts you at this point, there is nowhere for you to go,” Davis said, referring to a lack of available housing units.
Housing Resources Inc.’s yearly budget is typically around $1.4 million. The organization distributed $1.6 million in CERA funding to renters last month, Davis said.
Despite the available relief funding, the lack of housing supply has made it difficult to place people experiencing homelessness into housing units, Davis added.
“We have nowhere to place people,” she said. “This is an emergency of catastrophic proportions.”
Though the amended eviction moratorium is scheduled to end on Oct. 3, Peirce is hopeful that landlords pursue CERA aid to collect back rent from their tenants instead of pursuing eviction proceedings.
“It’s phenomenal for the renter and also critical support that finally makes its way to the landlord,” Peirce said. “We have so many landlords that have been willing to work with us throughout this pandemic.”