If you lose your home, how can you quarantine?

November 9, 2020

Associate Professor Joshua Akers talks about the Detroit housing crisis on the horizon, what people are doing to help, and why the Dec. 31 eviction moratorium date ignores the reality of increasing COVID case numbers locally and across the nation.

Illustration showing Professor Joshua Akers among COVID-19 Detroit housing concerns
Illustration showing Professor Joshua Akers among COVID-19 Detroit housing concerns
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Urban and Regional Studies Associate Professor Joshua Akers has been fighting predatory landlords and evictions in Detroit for years — and the groups he works with often win.

Using a database and web map that he created through compiling more than a million legal documents and years of research, Akers — a Detroit resident — provides key information to housing attorneys, advocates, and activists to keep people in their homes.

“The work does three things. There is the map that enables Detroit organizations to target their limited resources in neighborhoods with high levels of instability and at particular households in need. The data allows us to understand the way bulk landlords are buying, selling, renting and evicting in Detroit. That knowledge allows us to craft better policy and support legal arguments defending low income residents from exploitation.” 

Akers said predatory landlords and bulk purchasing remain a major issue in Detroit that will only increase with the economic fallout from the pandemic. He added that there are currently protections for tenants facing eviction due to COVID-related circumstances, but the programs are for a limited time and underfunded.

Akers says there is a halt on evictions through the end of the year issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But, despite that protection, Wayne Country’s 36th District Court is currently processing nearly 40 evictions per day and there is not a plan for what happens once the moratorium expires. Akers says this will be an issue for both financially vulnerable residents and for the city of Detroit. “I don’t want to sound too bleak, but it’s important to understand the reality of the situation.”

Recently Akers talked about the Detroit housing crisis on the horizon, what people are doing to help, and why the Dec. 31 moratorium date is inadequate and ignores the reality of increasing COVID case numbers locally and across the nation.

Tell us more about the map you built and what role it has in understanding Detroit’s housing.

Joshua Akers: The goal of the project was to help Detroiters understand what was happening in their neighborhoods. Through mapping Detroit’s 139 square miles, we learned these residents facing eviction were often the victims of property speculators, who are landlords purchasing properties in bulk, exploiting low-income residents seeking shelter, neglecting buildings, and eventually abandoning them once the property was no longer viable — leaving Detroit residents on the hook for the cost of demolition.

Essentially, there was already a housing crisis in Detroit, one in which safe and affordable housing was in short supply for low-income residents. The pandemic is a public health issue first and foremost, and stable housing is essential to one’s health. But the pandemic also has brought economic instability. Just as we have had difficulty sourcing and supplying PPE due to lean supply chains targeting efficiency, we’ve been running our social support systems the same way — incredibly lean. This means prior to the pandemic, our shelter system was running at or over capacity. So, we are in a situation that in January there will be nowhere for displaced people to go. Those that can will double up with family, others will alternate from couches to cars, and a number of families will end up on the streets.

On the flipside, large equity firms and investors are waiting for the aftermath when mom-and-pop landlords and homeowners lose their properties. They are already pooling billions of dollars to purchase houses and apartment buildings that go into foreclosure. This has long-term implications as the practices of these firms after the last financial crisis have significantly contributed to rising rents and evictions across the country. These investors learned from the last housing crisis and we should too. Let’s not make the same mistakes we did a decade ago. What we need now are bold actions that keep people in their homes.   

If there is a stop on the eviction process until the end of the year, why will people be displaced the first week January?

JA: The current CDC moratorium will expire at the end of the year. But that doesn’t mean tenants aren’t leaving the safety of their homes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have been working with large apartment associations to water down the protections of the CDC order since it was filed. With those efforts, clarifications to the order have been given that now allow for landlords and courts to begin proceedings and challenge tenants' claims of COVID hardship as long as the eviction does not occur before Jan. 1, 2021. This means that the number of evictions that can be executed starting Jan. 1 will be higher than anticipated after the initial CDC moratorium. It also means that tenants are attempting to leave now to avoid having an eviction on their credit report.

Due to the allowance of proceedings, the 36th District Court has continued to issue eviction orders despite the pandemic, though the numbers are lower than they could be. The court began hearing eviction cases in early October. They are hearing about 40 cases a day through the end of the year. So, if something is not done, thousands of families will be out on the street in the middle of a pandemic on Jan. 4, which is the first working day of the new year.

Focusing on Wayne County, are there people who are trying to help these families?

JA: There are. The city of Detroit has outsourced nearly all of its eviction response to legal aid organizations who are providing counsel to tenants facing eviction. The United Community Housing Coalition, of which I am a board member, has been scrambling to add staff to handle the demand. It is necessary for the organization to grow sixfold by December which is nearly impossible. All departments at the organization have been running beyond capacity since August and despite their incredible efforts they are nowhere near keeping up with the task. 

In Michigan and Detroit, both the state and city have put some money into assisting tenants with back rent. But anecdotal reports from tenants are that landlords are accepting the government aid while telling tenants they will put them out in January. The money dedicated to these initiatives does not meet the level of need. Homeless shelters in the city of Detroit and the state were operating at capacity before the crisis and there is little slack in the system for them to handle the waves of recently unhoused that are coming. People are working to come up with a solution to this problem, but there isn’t enough time to gather resources or make placements. 

Landlords can’t forgive rent forever. Banks, if there is a mortgage, will eventually repossess their properties. Are there any examples of what other states in the U.S. are doing to give options that balance the financial hardships of the tenants and financial needs of landlords?

JA: There is pain all around. However, those with limited means are bearing the greatest burden. But there are alternatives. In Washington state — when the Dec. 31 moratorium is lifted — landlords can only collect unpaid rent by offering a reasonable payment plan or if the tenant fails to comply or refuses that plan. In Los Angeles, the eviction moratorium extends for six months beyond the end of the crisis. In Washington D.C., U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced a bill that would cancel all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, set up a fund to make lenders and landlords whole, and provide money for governments and nonprofits to purchase private rental properties and convert them to social or public housing. That bill was referred to the House’s Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on the Judiciary, where it sits today and will die with the end of the current Congressional session. 

At this time, what can tenants do if they are in a difficult situation and are concerned about being removed from their homes?

JA: They need to fill out the CDC form. It can be found here in multiple languages. Filling it out and presenting it to the landlord, judge or bailiff should delay an eviction until Jan. 4, 2021. If you are having difficulty, filling out this form is important. I would also suggest getting in contact with the MSHDA Eviction Diversion Program and reviewing the information on Detroit Eviction Prevention Resources website. If you have a summons, contact the United Community Housing Coalition. If you are struggling to find assistance or you are facing an imminent eviction, contact Detroit Eviction Defense.

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