Client In the News:

New program to help with rent, utilities for those struggling in the pandemic

By Kristybe E. Demske, April 7, 2021

METRO DETROIT — The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 changed everything for everyone, but shutdowns have affected some residents more than others.

Michael Centi, department director for integration programs and services with Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, explained that the pandemic caused a huge disruption in some renters’ ability to keep paying their bills.

“It, like, swept a rug out from people. Income was just gone at that point,” he said. “You just see it — they were current up until March, and then haven’t been able to pay rent since then or it’s very sporadic. It’s a vicious cycle. You get behind and then you can’t catch up.”

During 2020, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority launched the Eviction Diversion Program, or EDP, to help pay back rent of those facing eviction due to the pandemic. The EDP ran for about six months in 2020 but had a cap of about $4,600-$4,800 in rental assistance, depending on the resident’s income. About 16,000 households across the state were helped through that program.

A new program launched by MSHDA March 15 is “much more robust,” said Lisa Chapman, the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance, or CERA, program director for the Community Housing Network in Oakland County. Funding for the program was included in the federal coronavirus aid package passed in December 2020. Michigan is receiving $622 million as part of the package, with $62 million set aside for case management, administrative and legal services. The first $282 million is available already, with an additional $340 million available to be appropriated by the state Legislature.

“It can provide them support for a longer period of time, depending on their income,” she said. “This can go up to 12-15 months, depending on your qualifications.”

The CERA program provides rental and utility assistance for eligible renter households so they retain their housing stability. It also allows landlords the opportunity to recoup rent they are owed. It is administered in each county through a network of different housing agencies and nonprofits, including Wayne Metro Community Action Agency and Community Housing Network, which work with tenants and landlords to process applications, administer funds and ensure as many eviction filings as possible are resolved by conditional dismissal through CERA.

The COVID Emergency Rental Assistance Program is available to renter households that have incomes less than 80% of area median income, or AMI — which is about $62,800 at the 80% level for a family of four in Oakland and Wayne counties — and meet both of the following conditions:

• An individual in the household has qualified for unemployment benefits or has experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or has experienced other financial hardship due directly or indirectly to the coronavirus outbreak.

• Individuals in the household can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability evidenced by a past due utility or rent notice.

The program can provide up to 150% of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Fair Market Rent based on home size and county. Renters with incomes up to 50% of AMI, or about $39,250 for a family of four in Oakland County, can receive up to 12 months of rental assistance, including three months to be used for future rent assistance. Those with incomes 50%-80% of AMI are eligible for up to 10 months of rental assistance, including three months for future rent assistance. Tenants can apply for an additional three months of assistance, if necessary.

Households eligible for CERA can also receive utility assistance for tenant-supplied electricity, heating, water, sewer and trash, as well as a flat $300 internet stipend.

“The EDP, that really was a lifesaver for a lot of households within Wayne County,” said Centi.

Over the six-month period that the EDP was in place, he said, Wayne Metro Community Action Agency served more than 2,000 households, giving about $9 million in relief. There was a gap between the end of the EDP and the beginning of CERA, during which they had some funds to help residents of Detroit. He said they granted about $1 million during the six-week gap to residents of Detroit.

He said the CERA program is much more helpful because there is no limit on the amount of funding that an applicant can qualify for to help pay for back rent from March 2020 on, as well as utilities.

Adding utility assistance to the program “just made sense,” Centi said.

“Often, if someone’s behind on rent, they’re probably behind on utilities, too. Anybody who is behind on their rent or behind on their utilities can apply.”

In the first two weeks of administering the program, Centi said, Wayne Metro Community Action Agency has allocated an average of $6,500 in assistance per household, with one household qualifying for $10,000 in assistance.

In Oakland County, Chapman said, many people are still suffering from the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the job market. The Community Housing Network helped 612 households in Oakland County, covering 1,500 people, through the EDP.

“Their jobs either evaporated or their income drastically got reduced. Some people were ill themselves,” Chapman said. “Even in January, as EDP was ending … we were hearing from people we had helped earlier in the year that they weren’t back on their feet, that they needed more time and they needed help again.”

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and President Biden have just extended the moratorium for evictions through June 30, Chapman said it is not as straightforward as it sounds.

“It doesn’t really speak to the court system, so it’s more like we’re in a health emergency and if people meet eligibility, they can’t be evicted,” she said, explaining that courts and lawyers are not recognizing the moratorium equally across the board.

The Michigan Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that anyone applying for CERA has to be given a 30-day pause on their eviction, she added.

To learn more about CERA, or for applications for tenants or landlords to take advantage of the program, visit michigan.gov/mshda and search for “cera.”