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With rent assistance disappearing and eviction moratoriums set to end, Michigan braces for an eviction crisis. At the height of winter. During a pandemic.

MUSKEGON, Mich.—Time is running out for Michigan residents struggling to pay rent to seek assistance, and not just because federal assistance ends this year. As the court system in Michigan ramps back up once vaccines start getting distributed, advocates say evictions could reach unprecedented levels. 

An eviction crisis in the middle of a pandemic winter is on the horizon, and organizations serving the unhoused are already feeling the strain. But at the start of 2021, housing activists to government officials to landlords all warn of a massive eviction crisis.

Federal and state assistance managed to keep the eviction rate relatively low through the pandemic to date, but the last of those is set to expire at the end of the year. Last year, according to the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative, 135 evictions were filed per day in courts in the Detroit area. This year, the number has peaked at 102 per day. 

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And fewer cases actually get verdicts these days, thanks to the glacial pace of the courts. In order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the courts have regularly suspended eviction hearings.

“We’ve been surprised that the number of filings is relatively low, given that we’re in a state of crisis,” Alexa Eisenberg, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and organizer with Detroit Renter City, a tenant advocacy group, told Detour Detroit. “What’s preventing evictions right now is less the CDC moratorium and more that the courts are moving at a glacial pace.”

Of course, that means that when the glacier thaws, a deluge of evictions will rock the state.

Take, for example, Community enCompass, a local nonprofit in Muskegon. They are already urging those struggling with rent to reach out for federal assistance before it disappears Dec. 31. The organization is responsible for disbursing eviction diversion funds authorized by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).

“It’s really to keep people safely housed, especially now more than ever,” Michael Ramsey, the Homeless Services Director at Community enCompass told MLive. “This pandemic has touched everyone.”

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Newly-elected Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Welch also foresees an eviction problem looming for the courts. She says Michigan’s court system needs to evolve to handle the issue fairly. 

The playing field between landlords and tenants in disputes is wildly uneven, Welch told The ‘Gander, and old approaches to rectifying that problem won’t be enough.

“When I graduated, it was still ‘every lawyer has to give more pro bono time.’ There’s not enough pro bono hours to go around, particularly when you think of the landlord-tenant tsunami crisis that is upon the courts,” Welch said. “Landlords probably tend to have counsell, tenants often don’t. What do we do for that tenant who walks in to the courthouse and is being evicted? The judge has to balance that. It’s a very awkward space for the judge as well, because they can’t represent the unrepresented party, that’s not their job, but it is their job to make sure justice is dispensed fairly.”

Despite the moratoriums that protected Michigan renters, the rate of eviction filings have been steadily rising. Landlords can’t evict tenants for failure to pay rent during the pandemic, thanks to the patchwork of policies until the end of the year, but evictions for other lease violations have become increasingly common.

“If a landlord is fed up, they’ll find a way to evict a tenant,” Rachael Baker, an organizer with Detroit Renter City said to Detour.

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And those who would be evicted for nonpayment still are in the eviction process, housing attorney Jim Schaafsma explained to WKAR. The moratorium prevents the final stage of eviction—court hearings. The rest of the process continues as normal. That means starting in the new year, as Michigan enters its coldest months, the flood of eviction cases will swell all the more in the Michigan court system.

“Many tenants would find themselves at the last stage of the eviction process which is the issuance of an eviction order and the final step of the eviction process which is the enforcement of that order shortly after the end of the year,” he said.

And even city programs, like the one in Muskegon, are running out of time. Community enCompass encourages people to apply for help in Muskegon County by Friday, Dec. 4, to allow for review before the end of year deadline.