Mary Hamilton stands outside her cousin’s home in northwest Detroit. She’s been staying there since she was evicted in November. Photo credit: Aaron Mondry

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Mary Hamilton was laid off from her job as a nurse assistant. Health complications related to kidney disease made it hard to find work and she was having trouble paying for rent. So on May 15, she applied for COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA).

Her situation is precisely the kind of case the anti-eviction program is  meant to address. The pandemic was the catalyst for Hamilton, 48, falling behind on her rent and utilities, which would have qualified her for CERA.

But Hamilton’s landlord evicted her. She, her daughter and one-month-old grandson had to leave their home on Harlow Avenue in northwest Detroit on Nov. 22. Meanwhile, her application for CERA funds languished at the county level, bouncing between two agencies without getting approved. She said her landlord didn’t want to wait any longer for the owed back rent to be repaid. Outlier Media reached out to the home’s owners, but they didn’t respond in time for publication.

Officials at Wayne County’s housing service agencies said they struggle to process CERA applications fast enough to prevent evictions. The volume of applications—52,775 since the program began in March—has overwhelmed the nonprofit agencies tasked with evaluating and processing applications and getting the money to landlords.

Wayne County is lagging behind every other county in the state in processing the emergency rent assistance applications. The county accounts for one-third of all applications in the state, and as of Dec. 14, it has processed just 41% of them. Neighboring Oakland County, which has gotten about one-quarter the number of applications as Wayne, has processed nearly 70% of its applications.

“They are doing their best to increase processing rates, but are still not where they should be,” said Katie Bach, spokesperson for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), the state agency that receives and disburses federal CERA funds. 

Bach said MSHDA has hired staff to help manage Wayne County cases and is working with the agencies to “help identify modifications they can make to speed up their process.”

Michael Centi, who heads the CERA program at Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, said collecting and verifying documentation takes time. He added that, since the program’s launch, Wayne Metro has more than doubled its staff working on CERA and has doubled the rate of approvals over the last three months. 

Since the federal eviction moratorium ended in August, the CERA program has been the only broad-scale effort to keep COVID-19 from threatening people’s housing stability.

Though there is no publicly available data available that shows how many landlords have evicted tenants instead of taking eviction diversion assistance, stories like Hamilton’s are popping up across the country

By the time Hamilton messaged Outlier’s text service to say she was being evicted after waiting months for her CERA application to be processed, she was already in need of a place where her family could live. A cousin is letting them live with her while they search for a new home, but it’s crowded. Hamilton’s aunt is temporarily living there, too, and Hamilton has to share a bedroom with her cousin.

Michigan has spent a higher than average percentage of its CERA funding compared to other states. But housing experts say the state should take additional measures to prevent processing delays from affecting renters, like barring evictions once an application has been filed.

“Some states like New York have a really robust set of tenant protections which go into effect after they apply,” said Rebecca Yae. Yae is a senior research analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has been tracking COVID rental assistance spending nationally. “There’s quite a gap between what they’ve obligated and what’s been spent, but it hasn’t really affected renters.”

Michigan has tried to speed up processing by reducing paperwork. People can self-report their income and COVID hardship, rather than providing proof they can’t afford their rent. 

Hamilton applied online and her case was sent to the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), one of two local service agencies that manage the CERA program in Wayne County. But, according to UCHC spokesperson Dave Mesrey, it was “mistakenly transferred” to Wayne Metro, the other local CERA service agency processing applications. 

“It’s been going back and forth for a couple of months,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know how long this situation is going to last.”

UCHC said it’s fixed the mix-up, but Hamilton is still waiting for her application to be approved. Even though she has been evicted, she hopes she can grab hold of the last bit of social safety net before it’s spent. In cases where a landlord refuses to take CERA funds, MSHDA will give the money directly to the tenant, so they can use it to secure a new rental. Bach said this has happened in about 15% of applications in Michigan. 

Hamilton is hoping the help will reach her before Christmas. She returned to work in October, but without help, she wouldn’t be able to cover a security deposit to start a lease. She would also need CERA funds to help her pay a deposit to get utility service turned on again because she has already racked up more than $2,000 in DTE bills.

Homeless and still left out

MSHDA’s additional support may help speed up application processing for people like Hamilton. But the agency’s inaction is holding back help for others left homeless by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kenise Lorraine Heath, 54, has lived in her car, mostly parking in or around Pontiac, after losing her job at United Wholesale Mortgage at the start of the pandemic. Heath has been trying to access CERA funds to help her get into a home or at least put her in temporary housing while she searches for a long-term solution.

But the CERA service agency in Oakland County, the Community Housing Network (CHN), has told her she’s not eligible for those funds because she’s homeless. Instead, CHN put her on a waiting list for a housing choice voucher, which would pay a portion of her rent. But she’s still waiting. 

“I don’t know what else to do,” Heath told Outlier earlier this month. “I have to wait until [a voucher] becomes available, so only God knows when that’ll be.”

Heath “does know how to contact us and we have been working with her,” Karen Bertram, senior director of quality and organizational development at CHN, wrote to Outlier by email. She declined to provide more details about Heath’s case. 

Heath said when she’s called CHN, either nobody picks up or she’s told to contact a shelter. She also said the shelter—HOPE Warming Center in Pontiac—has been full every time she’s called. 

MSHDA says being homeless in Michigan can qualify people for CERA funds. But the agency hasn’t made it easy for people who don’t already have a lease and can put that address on their application. 

In October, MSHDA told Outlier that its online application portal would be updated to allow for non-leaseholders to apply within two weeks. The application had not been updated by publication time. Bach said she expects MSHDA to have it ready this week. 

Without being able to go directly to MSHDA to apply for help, people experiencing homelessness have to rely on local agencies. But even some homeless experts aren’t aware that homeless individuals are eligible for CERA funds. Dion Thompson-Davoli is a housing navigation specialist for Community and Home Supports, which works with Detroit’s coordinated entry system to determine the best way to get a homeless person housed. He said he hadn’t even heard of CERA before Outlier’s October article was published. 

“It’s come up a couple of times in my work since,” he said. “I have a client currently whose housing is paid for by CERA—but only one.”

In October, less than 100 homeless households had been able to access the program’s funds. 

Since then, MSHDA said it’s stopped tracking that statistic altogether—the state no longer knows how many homeless households have been helped with CERA. 

Heath has all but given up hope after trying to contact multiple housing agencies organizations.

“I’m tired of getting my hopes up,” she said. “I’m used to disappointment and things not going my way. I just do what I do, and deal with it.”

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.

“Get quality info and insights on neighborhoods in Detroit every week. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter The Dig.”