The pandemic is stressing housing and rental markets in ways not seen since the mortgage and financial crisis 15 years ago. Students in Urban and Regional Studies have spent the last year on projects trying to alleviate eviction pressures for Detroit families while learning about the systemic causes of housing instability in the city and the region.
By Prof. Josh Akers
Urban and Regional Studies students are actively involved in projects intended to slow the threat of eviction due to COVID-19 and assist housing activists and organization building data and tools that make outreach and assistance more accessible to tenants. For much of the last year, 36th District Court, which handles evictions in Detroit, has been closed or operating with an eviction moratorium in place. The current moratorium is a federal order issued by the CDC. It expires on March 31, 2021.
The pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities of race, class, and gender. In housing, this means that those already struggling to cover the rent are often without jobs or in jobs that put them and their family at risk for COVID-19. As of February, the Urban Institute estimated rental arrears in the US between $14 and $52 billion. The recent COVID relief bill signed by President Biden provides additional aid for renters who have been unable to pay. This bill brings the total in federal rental assistance to nearly $50 billion since the start of the pandemic. But the roll out of these funds is complicated. In Michigan, it is slowed by a standoff between the State Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the governor’s emergency powers. The longer these funds go unallocated the more it stretches the budget of housing and legal aid organizations which are taking on debt and lines of credit for a prevention program that is supposed to reimburse expenses. In other cases, the various restrictions instituted with each round of federal funding mean that not all renters in need will qualify. These immediate issues and the longer history of housing insecurity have been the focus of four Urban and Regional Studies courses over the last year.
As the university transitioned to an all-online format in March of 2020, students in the Urban and Regional Studies class turned their attention to cataloging the various strategies being used by anti-eviction and housing activists across the US. This project was a quick pivot from the campus forum they had been planning throughout the term. This work by students Dale Browne, Erie Nash, and Jon Quintal (pictured below) informed a number of ideas included in two white papers detailing eviction prevention strategies circulated in the offices of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in the early months of the pandemic. This work, along with that of many other organizations, activists, and academics, played a role in the current eviction prevention programs in place across the state.
In Fall 2020, Urban and Regional Studies major Chelsea Hampton (pictured left) used an independent study on COVID-19 and Evictions to help develop the first comprehensive data set on the ownership of multi-family building apartment buildings in the city of Detroit. This work is part of a broader project that includes UM-Dearborn alumnus Jacob Yesh-Brochstein. The data work by Hampton is being combined with data on speculator owned housing in Detroit to build an eviction tracker. This tool allows tenant organizers to identify and canvas areas of the city facing the highest threat of eviction; activists to identify the most active landlords evicting low-income tenants; and generates the first comprehensive set of eviction data in Detroit tracking the process from the initial filing to outcome. The data from this project will be hosted in partnership with Data Driven Detroit through a grant from the Kresge Foundation.
URS students in the Winter 2021 capstone have worked to assist the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions and its eviction tracking project. This project developed with Alexa Eisenberg, a PhD candidate in Public Health at UM-Ann Arbor, tracks the first 1,000 eviction cases filed during the pandemic. This is an essential data set as it captures a point in time with some of the most active government interventions in evictions in recent history. The ability to analyze how these moratoria and emergency relief programs functioned will be important for understanding potential policy interventions in the future. The ability of organizers to use this data for outreach inspired the development of an automated eviction tracker. As part of the course, students have worked on eviction tracking, attended Detroit Eviction Defense meetings, and are developing projects examining housing instability in Detroit.