Column: Michiganders need rent relief now

Lansing Tenants Union protest at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's residence, May 1, 2020 |Audrey Matusz

It’s been six months since COVID-19 emerged in Michigan, and to say that a lot has happened since then would be an understatement. 

More than 105,000 Michiganders have been diagnosed with coronavirus and more than 6,500 have lost their lives. Mass business closures and layoffs have affected every county in the state, making it even harder for families to pay the rent in the midst of an affordable housing shortage that had already reached crisis level in many communities before the pandemic. 

Although the state has begun to reopen at a safe pace and people are getting back to work, unemployment remains high and the economic setback of COVID-19 will continue to distress families for some time. 

With regard to public health and the economy, the next few weeks are crucial to Michigan’s continued recovery. Our state Legislature is in negotiations to finalize a spending plan for the 2021 budget year, which begins on Oct. 1, and Congress also will consider another COVID-19 relief package. 

It’s imperative that our elected officials at both the state and federal levels hear from their constituents that appropriations must include rent relief for the hundreds of thousands of Michigan families that are struggling to make ends meet right now, as well as the landlords who rely on that income to provide safe housing, support jobs and contribute to the tax base.

A state executive order prohibited evictions for nonpayment of rent through July 15, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently instituted a national moratorium that protects some renters from eviction through Dec. 31.

Whitmer suspends evictions until July 15, creates rent assistance program

This is a necessary and welcome measure to keep vulnerable families housed during the pandemic.

But unless it’s paired with rent payment assistance, it’s not enough.

Under the CDC’s moratorium, tenants are still obligated to pay rent, meaning those who can’t keep up will accumulate large arrearages and face eviction when the moratorium expires this winter or have to go without other basic needs like food and utilities to avoid losing their homes. 

About one in every five Michigan renter households has fallen behind on rent during the pandemic, and 242,000 children in the state are in families that haven’t been able to keep up with rent or get enough to eat.

More than 430,000 Michigan renter families are expected to experience unaffordable housing costs during this recession, facing a rent shortfall that could reach a collective $2 billion annually.

Michigan recently allocated part of its federal CARES Act funding to establish an Eviction Diversion Program (EDP), with $50 million available for landlords to help cover the rent that their tenants have been unable to pay. While we applaud the Michigan Legislature for prioritizing the EDP given the state’s overwhelming budget woes, $50 million will assist only a fraction of families in need — and for only a few months. The EDP needs more funding if the eviction moratorium is to work as intended.

White House orders suspension of residential evictions

A partisan stalemate in Washington has held up additional federal funding for housing and other needs. The HEROES Act passed by the U.S. House in May includes $100 billion for nationwide rent payment assistance. The COVID-19 package proposed by Senate Republicans, however, includes nothing to help renters or landlords weather this unprecedented crisis.

The CDC’s eviction moratorium buys us some time. We cannot squander it. Investing in stable housing is arguably the single most important thing our policymakers can do with incredibly scarce resources right now. If we’re to have any hope that our families, communities and economy will recover and thrive, we must support the rental housing industry and the families it serves. 

Here are three things you can do right now to advocate for rent payment assistance for Michigan families:

  • Share your personal COVID-19 housing story with the Michigan League for Public Policy, especially if you’ve had experience with the new Eviction Diversion Program.
  • Tell your state representatives and senators to use any available state and federal dollars to expand the Eviction Diversion Program.
  • Urge Congress to enact a robust federal rent relief program to enable states to support renters and rental property owners until the economy fully recovers.