Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan was struggling with high eviction rates. In 2018, more than 191,000 eviction cases were filed in Michigan, a rate of 17% or about one for every six rental housing units in the state.1 Eviction rates in urban areas and southeast Michigan were significantly higher including Detroit at 21.9%, Pontiac at 31.2%, and Southfield at 32.8%.2 While landlords were represented by legal counsel in more than 83% of eviction cases filed between 2014 and 2018, tenants were represented in fewer than 5% of eviction cases during the same period.3
For renters who are evicted, the consequences can have substantial long-term effects, often prolonging residential instability that leads to economic instability and educational disparities. Evictions often cause households to move into lower-quality housing in neighborhoods with higher crime rates, more concentrated poverty, and fewer educational and employment opportunities.4 Recent studies indicate that the likelihood of losing employment is significantly higher for those who experienced a preceding forced move,5 and studies have also found an increased likelihood of eviction when there are children in the household. Further, children who experience high rates of residential instability tend to perform worse on standardized tests, have lower school achievement and delayed literacy skills, and are more likely to be truant and drop out of school.6
Additionally, studies have shown that eviction has significant negative impacts on the health of families. Mothers who have been evicted are more likely to experience parenting stress and depression and report worse health for themselves and their children.7 Evictions also disproportionately harm racial minorities, women, and families with children.8
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused historically high unemployment rates and financial instability for many Michigan families, housing experts feared a wave of evictions resulting in an unprecedented number of families being homeless. A team of stakeholders, including representatives from the Michigan Supreme Court, the Michigan Poverty Law Program, the Michigan State Bar Foundation, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office, and other state agencies came together to plan and deploy a statewide response to the anticipated increase in eviction filings, building on eviction diversion program models already successfully piloted in several Michigan courts.
EVICTION DIVERSION PROGRAMS BEFORE THE PANDEMIC
Legal services programs, recognizing the importance of homelessness prevention, have prioritized representing tenants facing eviction. Michigan legal aid programs have led the nation in creating eviction diversion programs (EDP) where courts, landlords, tenants, legal services programs, housing agencies, and financial assistance partners collaborate to prevent evictions due to non-payment of rent. The programs seek to keep tenants in their homes while ensuring landlords receive the money owed to them.
In 2010, the city of Kalamazoo launched one of the first EDPs in the state. The program brought together Housing Resources Inc. of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo branch of the state Department of Health and Human Services, the 8th District Court, Legal Aid of Western Michigan, landlords, and tenants. The program sought to coordinate legal and social services to prevent homelessness by offering tenants access to appropriate agencies onsite at the courthouse. In a report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided funding for the program, the partners said 97% of tenants it helped had stabilized their housing.9 Based upon the success of the Kalamazoo program, more Michigan district courts replicated the model, including the 54-A and 55th courts in Ingham County, the 12th District Court in Jackson County, and the 10th District Court in Calhoun County. A 2017 study evaluating the 54-A District Court program found a marked decrease in evictions, a lower default rate in eviction diversion cases, and more than 40% of tenants in non-default cases accepting an offer of free legal assistance.10 While these successful programs became a model duplicated in other parts of the country,11 eviction diversion programs were not available to tenants in most Michigan courts.
MICHIGAN’S RESPONSE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC AND IMPENDING EVICTION CRISIS
Under the federal CARES Act passed in March 2020 to address needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan received substantial funding for rental assistance and eviction prevention. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), in collaboration with the Michigan Supreme Court, legal aid programs, and the Michigan State Bar Foundation, used the funds to develop a statewide eviction diversion program model. Of the $60 million in CARES Act funds, $50 million was dedicated rental assistance and $10 million was allocated to cover case management, legal services for tenants, and administrative costs.12
Tenant assistance funds were administered by housing assessment and resource agencies (HARAs) in each county, private agencies already selected and tasked by each community to administer other housing assistance programs. The $4 million in legal services was directed to the Michigan State Bar Foundation, which granted the funds to regional programs including Lakeshore Legal Aid, Legal Aid of Western Michigan, Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, Legal Services of Northern Michigan, Michigan Advocacy Program/ Legal Services of South Central Michigan, and Michigan Legal Services and statewide programs including the Counsel and Advocacy Law Line and the Michigan Poverty Law Program.13
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Whitmer suspended evictions to protect public health14 and in June 2020, she signed an executive order extending Michigan’s eviction moratorium through July 15, 2020, while further defining the EDP.15
As the end of the eviction moratorium grew closer, the Michigan Supreme Court and the State Court Administrator’s Office adopted Administrative Order 2020-17 establishing special processing rules for eviction cases to address the backlogs created by the pandemic moratorium and directives for implementation of the new EDP. This order provided for remote hearings, automatic adjournments, and notification to tenants about the right to be represented by counsel and resources available under the program.16
As the MSHDA and the Michigan Supreme Court established the structure and procedures for large-scale eviction diversion processing, stakeholders in each community built local service delivery programs. In most districts, HARAs, legal services programs, district courts, state Department of Health and Human Services offices, and other interested groups began meeting weekly to develop local EDP procedures.17 This included creating educational materials for landlords and tenants, arranging for HARAs and legal services staff to be virtually present for eviction dockets at district courts (often via Zoom) and creating lines of communication among stakeholders.18 With the infusion of CARES Act money, legal services organizations began intensive hiring campaigns to increase staff to provide legal representation to tenants participating in the EDPs.19
LESSONS LEARNED FROM COVID-19 EVICTION DIVERSION PROGRAMS
Preliminary studies of EDPs developed in response to the pandemic have been overwhelmingly positive.20 An evaluation of Michigan’s EDP found that the program dramatically increased the number of tenants receiving legal assistance in eviction cases and in cases where legal services provided extended representation, 97% of tenants avoided eviction.21
Moreover, partners in Michigan’s EDP learned important lessons about the program including:
The importance of collaborative partnerships: The most successful EDPs brought together partners from the courts, legal services, HARAs, and other agencies. Having all partners present and involved in planning allowed each organization to better understand the process, resources, and barriers that each partner faced in its own service delivery, allowing them to work together more effectively to prevent evictions. COVID-19 conditions and EDP requirements have continued to change. Close collaboration has enabled partners to shift resources, update processes, and make ongoing improvements in response to changes.
A better understanding of the resources necessary to implement a right-to-counsel model for eviction cases: While significant funding allowed legal services programs to hire substantial numbers of new graduates, attorneys, and support staff, it also highlighted the need for additional resources. These programs involve high levels of community engagement, coordination, and cooperation.
Michigan’s EDP successfully distributed $50 million to tenants unable to pay their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while $10 million was allocated to cover case management, legal services for tenants, and administrative costs. Legal aid programs helped more than 15,000 households in the last six months of 2020. In a matter of months, the state created a coordinated program with delivery systems responsive to the needs of local communities. Based on the success of the program in 2020, EDP continued into 2021 with additional funding. The state’s EDP partners continue to work together to provide stability by helping landlords receive the rent they are owed while helping tenants avoid homelessness.