$8.2M in emergency rental assistance spent at Detroit properties where landlords still moved to evict

June 14, 2023

University of Michigan researchers found that at least $8.2 million in federal emergency rental assistance funds were spent at single-family properties in Detroit where landlords still moved to evict tenants within six months of payment.

A new analysis by Alexa Eisenberg and Kate Brantley of U-M’s Poverty Solutions revealed that pandemic-era emergency rental assistance did not guarantee housing stability for many Detroit tenants.

Their report, “The crisis is not temporary: Evictions after emergency rental assistance in Detroit,” includes a review of approvals for Michigan’s COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program and eviction filing data, as well as interviews with legal aid professionals, housing advocates, and tenant organizers.

Among 5,600 single-family rental properties in Detroit where a tenant was approved for at least one rent relief payment between June 2021 and February 2022, 15% of landlords moved to evict tenants within six months of the last recorded CERA approval date. At least $8.2 million in CERA funds was spent at these properties. As the analysis covered just about half of CERA-approved rentals in Detroit, the researchers say this amount is likely much higher.

In 2021, Congress allocated $46.55 billion for rent relief programs that aimed to stabilize housing for tenants unable to pay rent during the pandemic and repay debts to landlords. In Michigan, the CERA program accepted applications from April 2021 through June 2022.

“During CERA, Detroit landlords made extensive use of the court system to collect rental assistance, terminate tenancies and file serial lawsuits against tenants despite their widespread noncompliance with rental codes,” said Eisenberg, a postdoctoral research fellow at Poverty Solutions. “Even with unprecedented funding and more ‘tenant-friendly’ procedures in place during the pandemic, the court system still heavily favored landlords.”

The authors’ previous research showed that eviction cases were far more likely to end in a dismissal during the CERA period, preventing many eviction judgments. However, this new report finds housing instability among CERA participants was more extensive than court records quantify. Not only were eviction protections short-lived for many tenants who participated in CERA, but also many case dismissals were conditioned on a tenant’s forced move.

Landlords filed 24,000 new eviction cases during the CERA period, leaving tenants with eviction records that can jeopardize their future stability, according to Eisenberg and Brantley. Among CERA-approved properties with a subsequent eviction action within six months, 69% were associated with multiple pandemic-era filings. This was three times higher than the prevalence of serial eviction filings at comparable properties with no CERA approval, implying that landlords approved for CERA funds were more likely to repeatedly file for eviction than others.

Local nonprofits were ill-equipped to means-test the high volume of CERA applicants, creating protracted delays that heightened the risk that landlords would take eviction action, the researchers said. Administrative delays in the CERA roll-out disproportionately harmed Detroit’s majority-Black renter population, they said. When CERA closed to new applicants in June 2022, just 66% of applications in Wayne County had been processed, compared to 91% in the rest of the state.

The new report documents how high case volumes, tenants’ limited access to full legal representation, and default eviction judgments against tenants who could not appear in court undermined CERA’s effectiveness. One tenant organizer interviewed by the researchers commented on how legal aid and rental assistance came too late in the process to prevent the costs of eviction.

“(Tenants) should be able to get legal aid and other help before it gets to court. You’re gonna wait till I’m already drowning to say, ‘Hey, I’m throwing you a lifeline?’” the organizer said.

The researchers also found that 90% of the 842 CERA-approved properties with an eviction action within six months lacked a certificate of compliance (CoC) at the date of CERA approval. For properties without a CoC, the city placed 20% of the landlord’s eligible CERA funds in escrow until they brought the property up to code or made repairs worth the escrow amount.

Yet, just 27 of the 757 noncertified properties that received CERA funds came into compliance between the date of CERA approval and the subsequent eviction action, signaling that landlords were rarely compelled to improve unsafe housing conditions, the researchers said.

“So long as the supply of quality housing for low-income renters remains deeply inadequate and dictated primarily by the interests of investors in the private housing market, even abundantly resourced or effectively run emergency rental assistance programs will fail to stabilize tenants,” said Brantley, project manager for Poverty Solutions’ housing stability and homelessness agenda.

Brantley and Eisenberg point to policies that can address the implementation deficiencies, loopholes and landlord tactics that their analysis brought to light. They recommend establishing a mandatory pre-court eviction diversion program, requiring that landlords demonstrate good cause and code compliance in order to file for eviction, and expunging pandemic-era eviction records.

“As researchers, we urge policymakers to align themselves with and work alongside tenant-led organizations to bring about their visions for housing justice,” Eisenberg said.

This story was written by Lauren Slagter and Jared Wadley.