Time is running out for Tanesha Junior to avoid homelessness. A patchwork of state programs made possible by money flowing to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 have kept her in a hotel after she was evicted last year. But those programs are phasing out, and finding permanent housing has been a challenge.
Junior, 39, said she was evicted from her home in northwest Detroit after what she described as a cash deal gone bad.
For people who couldn’t make their rent payments because their income took a hit in the pandemic, Michigan set up the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program. In Wayne County alone, the state has dolled out $244.4 million in those federal funds since March 2021.
For people like Junior — who would be homeless after an eviction — the state has also been paying for hotel and motel stays as a temporary stopgap until the renters find more permanent housing. Since the start of the pandemic, around 280 people in Wayne County have been put in hotels. Michigan said it doesn’t know how many are in hotels statewide.
Junior moved into the Baymont by Wyndham on 8 Mile Road in Ferndale on Christmas Eve last year. She’s been there ever since, unable to find permanent housing.
And she’s not alone. Dozens of Detroiters like her have been stuck at these hotels for months, thwarted by a rental market with a shrinking inventory and rising prices. Tenants with an eviction on their records are also less attractive to landlords.
“The housing market has become very difficult,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), which is administering the CERA program in Detroit. “It’s hard for people to find housing, especially for folks who were evicted or on the verge of being evicted. The rental amounts are going up, and there’s not a lot of Section 8 housing.”
The state has paid out an unprecedented amount on rental assistance during the pandemic — $742.7 million to date. But the state expects to soon spend all of the $1.1 billion it had available from the federal government, and will likely stop accepting CERA applications by the end of June.
At a recent City Council meeting that addressed the hoteling issue, Julie Schneider, director of Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department, said funding is running out.
“We will continue to provide rental assistance through the CERA program until it’s gone,” she said. “But we will not have this level of funding going forward.”
For the 80 or so Wayne County households still in hotels, time is running out. Michigan’s Legislature didn’t allocate additional funding for temporary hoteling, meaning everyone living in hotels though this program will have to leave by June 30 or pay. Undiscounted rates at the Baymont by Wyndham, where Junior is, are around $85 a day.
Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, which provides housing and utility support in Wayne County, said it has found a way to keep the 47 households it’s currently supporting in hotels until Sept. 30, using funds from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is separate from the CERA program.
“It allows us to wind down the program at a pace that is personalized to each household we are working with,” Michael Centi, director of the integration team for Wayne Metro, told Outlier by email.
That still leaves around 35 households with an unknown future.
Detroit’s rental market has gotten much more competitive during the pandemic. Over the last decade, vacancy of rental units has declined from 13% to 5%. Online rental site Zumper calculated that a one-bedroom apartment now rents for $1,095 a month, compared to $900 prior to the pandemic. The median household income in Detroit is just over $32,000 a year.
“This is the toughest rental market I’ve seen in the Detroit area ever,” said Joe McGuire, an attorney who works with low-income tenants, including many of those now living in hotels through the CERA program.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area has an affordable housing deficit of more than 100,000 units.
A lack of basic services for people with limited incomes was an issue in Detroit before the pandemic. Around 35% of residents live without access to a car and 21% report challenges to buying food, accessing healthcare or housing. For those in hotels, it is this combination of individual and systemic issues that leave people with no good options.
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Junior, who has until today, June 1, to leave the Baymont, said she collects a little over $750 a month from disability. She has a variety of health problems, including herniated discs, a pinched nerve and diabetes. She also suffers from frequent seizures. Her truck no longer runs either.
She’s inquired and applied to more than a dozen apartments. But the few places she can afford require an application fee of $25 or $50, something she’s reluctant to pay when it’s likely to result in a denial.
“It costs too much to fill out these applications,” Junior said. “I don’t have $300 a month to pay for 10 applications.”
If she can’t find a new place by her move-out deadline, she plans to live out of her truck.
The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), responsible for administering the CERA program statewide, said the hotel guests have been getting support to help get them rehoused.
“Individuals and families in hotels are provided case management and at least weekly contact from the service agencies to discuss where they have applied for housing and to give them suggestions of properties to consider,” Kelly Rose, chief housing solutions officer for MSHDA, told Outlier by email.
Junior said until recently she last heard from UCHC, which handles cases in Detroit, three months ago. They told her that she should reach out to CAM Detroit, which would place her in a shelter.
“We have a lot of cases,” Phillips at UCHC said. “With this group, we try to get in touch with them on a regular basis and help in their housing search. Weekly is the goal, but we don’t always get there.
“Frankly, we probably need twice the staff that we have,” he added.
All the tenants staying in hotels who spoke to Outlier reported a similar lack of communication.
Brenda Sheard, 72, has been staying at the Best Western in Allen Park for three months after her landlord filed for an eviction. She said she never got the notice because the landlord removed her mailbox.
Sheard said she “appreciates what [UCHC] has done already” by temporarily saving her from homelessness. But she hasn’t gotten much support since.
“Nobody’s tried to help me do anything,” Sheard said. “It’s been up to me to find a new place.”
Sheard, who has until June 30 to leave the hotel, said she has reached out to a number of places with units reserved for seniors, but all have long waiting lists. She’s on a fixed income and collects $800 a month from social security. All her kids live out of state and are unable to help her pay rent.
“I’m just stressed out,” Sheard said. “I don’t know what to do or how to do it. I’ve never been in this situation before.”
While staving off homelessness, the lengthy stays at hotels have had their own challenges. The rooms are small and don’t come with a kitchen. They’re also not ideal places for families.
“There’s a lot of illegal activity,” said Valerie Davis, a front-desk clerk at the Baymont by Wyndham from September to December 2021. “From prostitution to drug using to drug selling to fights.”
Davis added that there were regular outbreaks of bed bugs.
For many of those reasons, Junior’s two children, 12 and 11 years old, have been staying with her mother.
“I don’t want them to see this,” she said. “It’s hard and it’s stressful. They call me like 1,000 times a day and ask, ‘Where is our house?’”
Pressure to keep hoteling program
McGuire, the housing lawyer, is also an organizer with Detroit Eviction Defense, which has been in contact with several of those remaining in hotels. His group is asking for the city and state to continue the hoteling program until the households find permanent housing.
“These people don’t want to live in hotels. They’ve been diligently looking for housing,” McGuire said. “Many of them were wrongfully evicted by landlords not following the law and now they’re facing being put on the street.”
State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-District 1) said these households shouldn’t be forced out of their hotels before they secure housing.
“There’s no lack of funding right now,” she said. “We should see if there’s some money that we can set aside to help these people for a few more months.”
In the near- and long-term, she said, the state desperately needs more affordable housing. In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a $5 billion bill that includes $100 million increasing housing supply, including subsidizing affordable housing developments. The administration also released a Statewide Housing Plan to create or preserve 75,000 housing units.
“We’re hoping to spend a large amount of money in the coming months on affordable housing. We need to make it a priority,” Chang said. “Places that might have been affordable five or even two years ago simply aren’t anymore.”
Reach AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.