Preventing Evictions in Grand Rapids
*The Salvation Army of Kent County’s Eviction Diversion Program is featured in the summer 2021 issue of Evidence Matters. Evidence Matters is the Office of Policy Development and Research’s quarterly publication that demonstrates the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s commitment to evidence-based policymaking. This issue of Evidence Matters examines the nation’s eviction crisis. The Salvation Army’s portion in the publication can be found below. To view the entire publication, click here.*
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was already facing an affordable housing shortage. In 2019, an estimated 33,615 households — 44.6 percent of all Grand Rapids households — were renters, and 52 percent of them were cost burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located, rates of homelessness among African-Americans are disproportionally high because of increasing housing prices and a history of discriminatory housing policies. In 2019, nearly 1 out of 6 African-American children in the county accessed the homeless system compared with only 1 in 130 White children. From January 2018 through December 2020, 9,679 eviction cases were filed in the 61st District Court in Grand Rapids. The quickening pace of eviction filings is an indication of rising rents and stagnant wages, a longstanding concern among residents. A court pilot program to prevent evictions was one of the recommendations put forth by a 2015 citizen work group formed to discuss the future of the city’s housing and develop policy solutions.
Connie Bohatch, managing director of community services in the city of Grand Rapids, met with colleagues at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), The Salvation Army, and the 61st District Court to determine the feasibility of creating an eviction prevention program. With the full support of partners, Grand Rapids’ Eviction Prevention Program (EPP) launched in January 2018 as a 3-year pilot offering rental assistance and legal services to tenants at risk of eviction. A total of $300,000 from the Steelcase Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation funded a caseworker at The Salvation Army and half the cost of a full-time eligibility specialist with the Kent County office of MDHHS. MDHHS matched the remaining cost of its EPP staff. The city allocated additional Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) funds in 2019 to support increased The Salvation Army staffing and case management. Foundation funding also supported an annual program evaluation. With funding for the pilot exhausted, the city now draws from its general operating fund to support the local share of the MDHHS staff and sustain the program.
EPP provides one-time rental assistance to eligible tenants facing eviction because of nonpayment of rent by allocating funds from the State Emergency Relief (SER) Program and other sources. Along with the eviction notice and court summons, tenants also receive a multilingual flyer from the 61st District Court describing rental assistance available through EPP and instructions for enrolling in the program. Tenants typically reach out to The Salvation Army — Kent County’s coordinated entry agency — to determine rental assistance options; however, because The Salvation Army has developed a rapport with landlords, many landlords direct their tenants to contact The Salvation Army. In some cases, landlords will contact The Salvation Army and request that a case manager speak with their tenants to explain the process, noted Todd Furlong, social services manager for housing services at The Salvation Army in Kent County.
The largest source of EPP funding is MDHHS, which administers SER, Emergency Services, and Kent County Discretionary funds. Jana Kuiper, the eviction prevention specialist at MDHHS, reviews SER applications, crossreferences the docket and explores tenants’ eligibility for other funding options at the state and city level. Over the course of the pilot, EPP secured $575,357 from several sources in addition to MDHHS, including city ESG funds, churches, and other local agencies. Staff coordinate the various financial resources to fulfill a tenant’s particular needs based on eligibility; tenants often receive rental assistance from several sources. The average amount allocated per household for each pilot year was $1,412, $1,764, and $2,654, respectively. According to Bohatch, the average amount allocated per household since the pilot ended (during the pandemic) has increased to approximately $4,000.56 In April 2021, Kent County received about $38.5 million from the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act for the state’s COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. CERA offers tenants another source of rental assistance. In addition to paying between 10 and 12 months of back rent depending on income level, CERA allows tenants to request assistance with utility payments and up to 3 months of forward rent. To qualify for CERA funding, a tenant’s household income must not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, and assistance is limited to no more than 150 percent of the HUD Fair Market Rent for the county of residence and household size.
Before the pandemic, The Salvation Army and MDHHS staff members were stationed at the courthouse for only two docket dates per month to initiate eligibility screenings for eviction prevention services and emergency financial assistance before a case appeared before the judge. Arlene DeKryger, eviction prevention coordinator at The Salvation Army in Kent County, said that during the pandemic, she and the MDHHS partner take turns attending hearings virtually so that they can screen interested tenants for eligibility every week. Prospective EPP participants must meet the income thresholds appropriate for one or more funding sources and live in an apartment that is affordable at that income. State funding sources require tenants to demonstrate an ability to pay the following month’s rent; however, if a tenant is unable to pay future rent, The Salvation Army and MDHHS can access other funding sources to assist. In addition, tenants must have a landlord willing to keep them as a tenant and enroll in the state electronic SIGMA Vendor Self-Service and MDHHS MI Bridges systems to receive payments.
A major component of the program is the requirement that the tenant, landlord, and judge sign a conditional dismissal or stipulation agreement, “a solution that would avoid essentially having an eviction on someone’s record,” said Judge Jennifer Faber, of the 61st District Court. A conditional dismissal gives tenants time to repay past-due rent with program funds and protects landlords from having to restart the process if the tenant violates the agreement. If the landlord receives payment in full, then the eviction suit is dismissed and the tenant’s credit report is unaffected. Under state law, the stipulation agreements must grant tenants at least 10 days to pay the past-due rent. In some cases, the parties may agree to a longer repayment period, recognizing that the funds may take time to access. Judge Michael Distel of the 61st District Court observed that the key to accessing the funds is for the tenant to follow through with completing the necessary paperwork to ensure eligibility.
When the program began, Faber and Distel were the only judges running the landlord-tenant hearings, but as the program developed, more judges understood it and would sign the conditional dismissals. Two landlord-tenant hearings per case are now required under the recently amended Michigan Supreme Court Administrative Order No. 2020-17. In the pretrial hearing, judges are obligated under state law to advise tenants of available services and their right to counsel. Following the first hearing, the court adjourns the case for 7 days, allowing tenants time to consult with their legal aid attorney. At any point before, during, or after the hearings, judges can sign a conditional dismissal with the consent of both parties, noted Faber. The judge’s main role is to ensure that the parties are aware of the obligations stated in the agreement and the consequences for failing to comply. EPP often requires a tenant contribution or “copay,” which can come from different agencies, family members, or out of pocket. On average, the tenant copay from January 2018 through December 2020 was $623. MDHHS, the city, and local agencies determine available funds to help program recipients satisfy their copayments. For example, an adjustment in MDHHS policies to allocate more state emergency services monies and a partnership with Kent County Community Action have increased the amount of funds available to help tenants meet their obligation without putting their next month’s rent at risk. Tenants who fail to comply with the agreement face the penalty of eviction; landlords who are not paid in full can reinstate the eviction by filing an affidavit of default.
Positive Results Through Community Outreach
From January 2018 to December 2020, EPP served 324 households totaling 981 residents, which included 456 adults and 525 children. During that period, the 61st District Court entered a total of 445 stipulations representing 4.6 percent of all landlord-tenant cases coming through the court. Note that a stipulation agreement does not necessarily guarantee a tenant’s receipt of, or eligibility for, EPP funds. In fact, 199 cases that secured a stipulation agreement did not secure EPP funding. Cases that do secure funding are more likely to avoid an eviction judgment. In 2020, nearly 80 percent of EPP cases avoided an eviction judgment compared with 49.3 percent of non-EPP cases.
Building awareness of the program has been vital to its success. In the pilot’s early stages, Judges Distel and Faber, along with 61st District Court staff, attended meetings with the Rental Property Owners Association (RPOA) to discuss the program and its benefits for landlords and tenants. In addition, Bohatch presents information on EPP and answers questions from landlords and tenants at community and rental property owner events. Before the pandemic, tenant education occurred mostly within the courthouse itself, both through signs posted at check-in and through onsite staff who explained the program to those needing rental assistance. In-person meetings for clients and representatives from MDHHS and The Salvation Army took place in courthouse conference rooms. Although some were concerned that parties would not be able to attend remote hearings, turnout has been higher than expected. In addition, Distel indicated that because attorneys from legal aid organizations attend the remote sessions, the shift to remote hearings during the pandemic has increased the accessibility of legal representation. Funded through the Community Development Block Grant – Coronavirus CARES Act monies allocated by the city, legal aid attorneys who attend the hearings can schedule appointments with tenants to help them navigate the process and access information. Virtual quarterly meetings composed of stakeholders including the city, MDHHS, judges, court administrators, and legal aid attorneys help to monitor the program, collect feedback, and adjust the program as needed. Moreover, the 61st District Court administrative team has been flexible and willing to adapt to programmatic changes, which, Bohatch emphasized, has helped EPP run smoothly.
The final pilot evaluation determined that the lack of a stipulation agreement was the primary reason why an eviction case might be deemed ineligible for EPP. Early on, some landlords were hesitant to register on Michigan’s electronic SIGMA Vendor Self-Service and MDHHS MI Bridges systems to receive EPP payments because they did not fully understand or trust the process. Ongoing outreach to landlords has been key to expanding the program and overcoming these perceptions. The community outreach groundwork paid off during the pandemic; many staffers report that landlords are more willing to enter stipulated agreements. The share of all eviction cases (regardless of EPP participation) that adopted stipulation agreements rose from 3.4 percent in 2018 to 7 percent in 2020. As Distel stated, “it’s not just a one-way street” in which only tenants benefit. EPP allows landlords to continue to meet their business obligations, and many understand the challenges that tenants are facing and are willing to work to reach an agreement.
Opportunities for Growth
A common reason why tenants failed to qualify for EPP was that they were facing eviction from a unit that was not considered affordable at their income level. Although EPP’s assistance can avert a short-term housing crisis, the program does not resolve the underlying causes of evictions: income instability, increased housing costs, and a shortage of affordable housing units. The city is continuing the discussions that followed the 2015 citizen work group’s findings, with a focus on mixed-income housing and ensuring that at least 30 percent of the housing stock is affordable to low-income households. Increasing racial equity remains a challenge as the city investigates policies to address eviction disparities. Most tenants who received EPP assistance were female-headed African-American households with minor children. From 2018 to 2020, 68.5 percent of EPP participants were African-American, 82.4 percent were women, and 43.2 percent were single with minor children. Bohatch also pointed to the overrepresentation of African-American families experiencing homelessness in Kent County and the need to determine “access points” for assistance “to get ahead of the curve” so that families do not have to endure financial hardship for extended periods or navigate the court system.
Another continuing challenge that first emerged during the early stages of the pilot is the need to reach tenants before they receive a court summons or before a landlord files for eviction, explained Tanya Todd, clerk of the 61st District Court. Twice a week, the 61st District Court sends its docket of tenants with scheduled hearings to both The Salvation Army and MDHHS to alert staff of those facing eviction. Although these tenants have already received a court summons, The Salvation Army and MDHHS can contact them before their hearings to begin the paperwork, positioning tenants further along in the process by their hearing date. This practice does not catch tenants before eviction the way a prefiling program does, but it serves as one remedy to help tenants start their eligibility paperwork and access funds so that they enter their court hearing better prepared, noted Todd. She also observed that data on tenants’ longterm housing stability after receiving EPP assistance would help stakeholders better understand the impacts of the program. Program partners determined that the need exists for improved education and outreach to help tenants understand the process, as well as holistic case management and wraparound services to mitigate tenants’ future vulnerability to eviction.
Discussions are ongoing about future funding for the EPP program. Beyond screening for eligibility and processing applications, EPP caseworkers also fulfill program advocacy and community education goals crucial to the program’s success. Program partners are currently examining opportunities for stakeholders such as RPOA to support the program financially. In addition, partners are examining ways to streamline the program and improve its cost efficiency.
Program partners have also sought to learn from other eviction prevention initiatives locally and nationwide. Meetings with officials operating the Kalamazoo County Eviction Diversion Program led the Grand Rapids team to adopt strategies such as having onsite staff at the courthouse available to assist those needing rental assistance. Bohatch noted that participation in the NLC Eviction Prevention Cohort was also an avenue for the Grand Rapids team to learn from other cities with similar goals by discussing policy solutions, sharing resources, and examining strategies for community engagement.