Eviction data needed to help tenants facing eviction, study says

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Capital News Service

LANSING More information is needed to protect renters in communities with high eviction rates, according to a new study. 

There is minimal data on the demographics of those communities in Michigan, and additional information could help the state address the problem of insufficient affordable housing, tenant rights advocates say. 

The study by professors from the University of Michigan analyzed nearly all eviction cases filed in courts from 2014 to 2018 to identify characteristics of neighborhoods with high eviction rates, said Robert Goodspeed, an assistant professor at U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. 

“This is valuable for legal aid or housing advocacy groups to see where they should focus their efforts,” Goodspeed said. 

The study published in Housing Policy Debate identified relationships between the number of eviction cases and such factors as single-mother households, percentage of the population under 18, job accessibility, homeownership rates, mortgage foreclosures and mobile homes as a percentage of housing units. 

With the exception of the homeownership rate, all those factors correlated with high eviction rates, the study said. 

Michigan had an annual average eviction filing rate of 17% from 2013 to 2018, the study said. Several cities had rates higher than the average: Southfield (32%), Pontiac (31%) Flint (26%), Lansing (23%) and Detroit (22%). 

“The highest rates are in Michigan’s larger cities,” Goodspeed said.

But less-populated parts of the state can be hit hard too. 

“What we found in our analysis is there are pockets of rural areas, especially where there are a lot of mobile homes, that can have very high filing rates,” he said. “There’s a variety of things that could be done to help them enforce their existing legal rights and provide emergency funding for families that are in crisis so that they’re not evicted.”

A national eviction moratorium is in effect until June 30. 

Landlords and property owners are continuing to work to provide renters with rental assistance programs, said Duy Vu, the marketing director at the Associated Management Co. in Livonia.

Vu is the president of the Property Management Association of Michigan, based in Okemos. 

Because of the moratorium, “any kind of rent-related eviction was stopped,” Vu said. “There were still some channels for specific, dangerous evictions. Or harm that was happening — those would still occur.” 

“There’s not a single property manager or owner that I know of that wants to evict anyone,” he said. “We want to keep our residents in the homes. But there are going to be times where you have to evict someone if they are causing a danger to residents. If they are causing a danger to homes and the property, those are the times you have to act.” 

The pandemic has hurt landlords’ operations, Vu said. 

“Right now, landlords and property managers and owners, they’re the ones tackling the burden,” he said. “Our operational costs are still there.,” including payroll. 

Additional rental assistance and more housing development are needed to better protect renters from evictions, Vu said.

The newU-M study recommends expansion of eviction diversion programs. 

Goodspreed said diversion programs not only can assist tenants with their rents, but also can help them secure legal representation, something he says tenants rarely have access to. Only 4.8% of renters in the study data had a lawyer. 

“Plenty of eviction cases, unless there’s an attorney for the tenant, there’s no guarantee that the legal rights of the tenants are being followed,” he said.

Robert Gillett of Ann Arbor, the former executive director of the Michigan Advocacy Program, said tenants in eviction cases often don’t get adequate legal representation. 

The Ypsilanti-based nonprofit program provides free civil legal aid to low-income people. 

“At the risk of being blunt, most district courts are eviction mills,” Gillett said. “The average time of a landlord-tenant case, on the record in court, is often minutes. Many courts funnel tenants into hallway settlement conferences with the landlord’s attorneys, where they have no understanding of their legal rights.” 

“It’s a system that’s really skewed in favor of landlords and against tenants,” he said. 

Michigan has a record of evicting a large number of tenants, in part because courts kept minimal data on how many were evicted each year, or any demographic data, Gillett said. 

Jim Schaafsma, a housing attorney for the Michigan Poverty Law Program in Ypsilanti, said the state’s lack of affordable housing contributes to high eviction rates. 

The study confirms much of what housing advocates have known about the problem, Schaasfsma said. 

 “(Michigan has) an eviction filing of (17%), meaning that for every five tenants, one tenant is getting an eviction filing, which is a fairly late step in the eviction process.”

The federal government recently launched the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program, which provides $25 billion nationwide for rental assistance and legal aid, including about $600 million for Michigan.

However, the Legislature has appropriated only $283 million of that, said Laurel Burchfield, the associate director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. 

Burchfield said. “We want to see the rest of those emergency rental assistance dollars appropriated. It is crucial that we get those into communities quickly.”

Advocates said they hope programs to help tenants during the pandemic will continue when the pandemic ends. 

Schaafsma said, “There’s just too many people who have unaffordable rents. It’s only a matter of time before something bad happens to them economically that’s going to make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to pay their rent.

And that reflects a mismatch between the supply of affordable housing and demand for it, he said.

Gillett said he hopes rental assistance programs will encourage further efforts to provide affordable housing. 

“As a result of the pandemic, there were pretty radical changes to the landlord-tenant process in Michigan,” he said. 

He said the question is how many will become permanent and “structurally change the world of evictions, and how many are just Band-Aids that will go away as soon as the pandemic is declared over.” 

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