Chief justice highlights Michigan’s eviction diversion plan at White House

Michigan Supreme Court | Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON — With a national moratorium on evictions set to expire at the end of next month and delays in federal assistance for struggling renters, the Biden administration says it wants to help state and local officials aid Americans on the brink of eviction.

To that end, the administration on Wednesday highlighted efforts in Michigan and Philadelphia to prevent evictions through legal assistance for tenants who often lack an attorney and diversionary programs that can prevent renters from needing to leave their homes.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack | Laina G. Stebbins

During a virtual plenary session that was part of a broader summit bringing local officials together to develop strategies for evictions, Bridget Mary McCormack, chief justice of Michigan’s Supreme Court, described eviction diversion programs as a “unicorn” of the legal system in which every party involved gets a win.

When those programs are successful, tenants can stay in their apartments, landlords can pay their bills, and the court system can reduce a growing backlog of eviction cases, McCormack said, adding that those programs may look different from the statewide eviction diversion program launched in Michigan.

“You don’t have to do what Michigan did,” she said. “You have to do what works in your jurisdiction.”

The Biden administration last week extended a national moratorium on evictions through July 31, offering what officials said will be a final respite for those still scrambling to cover their rent.  Housing advocates fear a wave of evictions may follow once the legal protection does expire.

That moratorium could have come to an end sooner if a legal challenge had gone the other way. The U.S. Supreme Court declined in a 5-to-4 vote Tuesday to end the moratorium.

The deciding vote, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said that while he believed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “exceeded its existing statutory authority,” extending the order to the July 31 end date “will allow for additional and more orderly distribution” of existing rental assistance dollars.

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The attempt to get aid to tenants has underscored how in too many jurisdictions, rental assistance and eviction diversion programs have long been underfunded or non-existent.

While the federal coronavirus relief legislation early in the pandemic did not include specific funding to help renters, state and local governments did set aside discretionary federal aid dollars to do so. But those programs often ran into problems, such as paperwork and documentation requirements, slowing the delivery of those funds.

Nationwide, state leaders set aside at least $2.6 billion from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to prop up struggling renters, but more than $425 million of that hasn’t made it into the pockets of tenants or their landlords, according to an investigation published this week by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press.

“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” said Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden and his American Rescue Plan coordinator.

Sperling said that the administration has been asking states and localities to “fill that void in a hurry. Some are ramping up admirably. Some are lagging. But we all have to do better.”

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Officials and advocates at Wednesday’s forum urged several policy reforms that they said can make a significant difference for renters and landlords.

Among those are ensuring that tenants have access to counsel. In Detroit, only 4% of tenants facing eviction had access to legal aid prior to the state’s diversion program, McCormack said.

Last week, Philadelphia announced $3 million for its eviction prevention program, said Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for housing policy for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

That money will help with rolling out the city’s right-to-counsel program, which will provide a free attorney to anyone who faces eviction and earns income at 200% or less of the federal poverty level.

Matthew Desmond, who leads Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, also highlighted Philadelphia’s mandatory eviction-diversion program, in which the landlord, the tenant, their counsel and a mediator sit down and try to work out a solution.

Such programs have been found to provide “real returns on investment,” he said, citing an outside assessment showing 80% of cases settled successfully in Philly’s program.