Marilyn Griffin has lived at Gardenview Estates, a townhome development on the city’s northwest side, with her three children for 10 years. After her employer, Chrysler, put her on temporary leave at the start of the pandemic, she started having trouble paying her subsidized rent, set at $451 per month.

Fortunately, the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program stepped in for Griffin. The program gave her $9,000 to pay 19 months of rent. 

But the money wasn’t enough to keep her landlord happy. Seven months after she was paid up with her landlord, Gardenview Estates filed to evict her anyway. Griffin says it’s because she had been complaining the unit needed repairs, including mold growing on the walls, faulty plumbing and loose floor tiles.

“They said they were evicting me because there’s been wear and tear,” she said. “We’ve been here for 10 years.” 

Gardenview Estates has been one of the city’s top evictors during the pandemic.

Outlier left multiple messages with Gardenview Estates but did not get a reply. The Detroit Housing Commission, which owns the property, did not respond in time for publication. 

Gardenview filed for “termination of tenancy,” also called a “no-cause” eviction, which gives tenants one month to vacate and doesn’t require justification. This form of eviction gives wide latitude to landlords who want to evict their tenants.

Detroit tenants are in a much more precarious place than they were a year ago. While evictions overall are still below where they were prior to the pandemic, housing advocates are beginning to sound alarms as federal emergency rental assistance in Michigan dries up and landlords continue to file termination of tenancy cases. And the 36th District Court seems to be obliging landlords — this year, the court added a docket that only sees termination cases. 

A legal aid attorney told Griffin at her hearing at the 36th District Court that she would have no choice but to leave. 

“The attorney told me the judge is on the landlord’s side, and the landlord can do what they want,” she said. “They don’t need to have a reason to put me out.”

Her eviction date was June 30, but she’s keeping her family there until they’re forced to leave. The landlord could show up with a bailiff any day to evict her. 

Evictions on the rise

The number of eviction filings issued in Detroit have steadily risen since the start of 2021. Landlords are on pace to file 4,000 more evictions this year than the previous year. A new project called The Eviction Machine is now tracking evictions at the 36th District Court. The number of judgments is still well below pre-pandemic levels. 

Landlords have also begun filing more termination of tenancy cases. In April 2021, the Eviction Machine recorded 21% of all cases at the 36th District Court were no-cause evictions. In April 2022, no-cause evictions were one-third of all filings. 

“Termination of tenancy became an increasingly popular loophole for landlords who were basically seeking to evict tenants as soon as possible,” said Alexa Eisenberg, a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions Initiative and developer of The Eviction Machine.

Eisenberg suspects that landlords are looking to cash in on an improved housing market.

Griffin’s unit had numerous issues, but the court has said landlords don’t need a Certificate of Compliance to evict tenants in no-cause cases

Mold growing on the bathroom ceiling of Marilyn Griffin’s home. Photo credit: Aaron Mondry

The rise in termination cases is so significant the 36th District Court has added a new docket that deals exclusively with these kinds of cases. It has not been accommodating to renters.

“That docket has been particularly troublesome,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), a nonprofit housing services organization that provides legal aid to low-income renters. “[Judge Michael Wagner] is not very amenable to any kind of an argument that someone is sick or elderly and needs more time.”

The 36th District Court did not respond in time for publication despite multiple requests for comment. 

Lifeline ending

Renters struggling during the pandemic at least had a significant safety net. The CERA program, the one that helped out Griffin and her family, provided an unprecedented influx of rental assistance with few strings attached. So far, it’s disbursed $273.7 million to more than 94,000 households in Wayne County alone. 

But the program stopped taking applications June 30 and will likely run out of funds near the end of September, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which administers the program. 

“I’m very worried,” Phillips said. “There’s gonna be more evictions — there’s no way around that — unless some other pot of money that can also be brought to bear to help out, and it won’t be anything as substantial as there was with CERA.

“In many cases, it was the difference between a family staying in their home and being in a shelter or in their car,” he added. 

The City of Detroit told Outlier on June 20 that there were just under 10,000 applications pending for Detroit renters on the eve of the portal’s closure. 

RELATED LINKS:
Wayne lags behind all Michigan counties in processing emergency rent requests
Put in hotels after evictions, these Detroiters now have nowhere to go

The city has responded to the end of the CERA program with a three-part “Immediate Intervention Plan.” It said that people facing eviction can get free representation at their hearing thanks to the passage of the Right to Counsel ordinance and get connected to jobs through the city’s Rapid Jobs program. 

“If individuals are needing to gain employment or maybe increase their employment, the city is really ensuring that we’re connecting those residents to the supportive services for employment,” said Chelsea Neblett, financial empowerment manager with the City of Detroit. 

The city said those unable to avoid an eviction should call the Coordinated Assistance Model (CAM Detroit), which will try to place them in a shelter or locate housing assistance. 

Housing advocates are unimpressed with the plan. 

“The ‘plan’ that Duggan announced is no different than in fall 2021, except it replaces a $250 million program with shelter referrals and housing relocation assistance,” Eisenberg said. “This is not a plan.”

The new Right to Counsel ordinance, passed by City Council in May, hasn’t received much support or any funding from the city. The Right to Counsel program still has a more than $6 million annual shortfall

Phillps said UCHC and other legal aid nonprofits actually have received less funding now to expand legal representation of tenants than during the pandemic, even after the Gilbert Family Foundation committed $13 million and City Council earmarked $6 million over three years. 

“It’s a great ordinance and will one day be fantastic, but we have no more money than we had before it passed,” Phillips said. “Nothing’s really changed that much in terms of our being able to represent, other than the expectations.”

Few options for renters

Renters are facing a more difficult market than prior to the pandemic. Median rents in Detroit increased 14% since March 2020, from $825 to $960 for a two-bedroom apartment. While that isn’t as sharp an increase as some other markets, Detroiters will struggle to afford any increase since 33% of residents are below the poverty line and one-third are severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs. 

There’s also a severe shortage of affordable housing in Detroit. A University of Michigan report from 2020 found that the 22,700 units in the city renting for $500 or below covered just 30% of the rental households that needed affordable housing. 

Alternative options to CERA for rental assistance are limited. Wayne County continues to run its Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Like the CERA program, it pays owed back rent and three months of future rent. County officials expect to have enough money to fund the program through the end of the year. 

But those who received money from CERA aren’t eligible for ERAP. 

“Since the program started in September last year, we’ve seen a steady number of applications,” said Colton Dale, business development manager with Wayne County. “So we know the need is still out there.”

Dale added that the program saw a spike in applications over the last few weeks. 

Michigan runs a State Emergency Relief program that can help with rental arrears, but recipients don’t get as much assistance as those approved for CERA and ERAP. A four-family household is only eligible for $740 annually. 

Griffin, the renter at Gardenview Estates, has done some initial searching for a new home but hasn’t found anything nearly as affordable as her current place. She said every rent-subsidized housing complex has long wait lists, and the most affordable market-rate rental she could find that was big enough for her family was $1,200 a month — more than she can afford.

“When you ask about apartments, they say they might have something available in a few months,” Griffin said. “I don’t know where we’re going to go. It’s so hard to find a place.”

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.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.