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Reducing Michigan Evictions: The Pandemic and Beyond

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By Elizabeth Benton, Margaret Dewar, Robert Goodspeed, and Robert Gillett

Introduction

In May 2020, University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions published the first comprehensive report on evictions in Michigan. The report included recommendations for reforms aimed at reducing the number of eviction filings, creating a fairer and more just eviction process, and reducing the harm of eviction filings. This new report takes stock of Michigan evictions and the report’s recommendations one year later, as the pandemic has threatened an unprecedented wave of evictions in the context of many policy and programmatic changes. This report updates the recommendations for reform.

The 2020 report and policy brief analyzed data from several sources, including case-filing data from 2014-2018 obtained from the Michigan State Court Administrative Office’s Judicial Data Warehouse and case-level data from random samples of cases in Washtenaw and Lenawee Counties obtained through in-court document review. Even before the pandemic, in better economic times, Michigan had extremely high eviction filing rates, courts across the state grappled
with large numbers of eviction cases and few tenants had access to an attorney or asserted their legal rights in the eviction process. Key findings included:

  • Michigan’s eviction filing rate was 17% in 2018 — or the equivalent of 1 eviction case for every 6 occupied rental housing units in the state. These cases likely led to almost 40,000 court-ordered evictions each year.
  • The number of eviction filings in Michigan has declined since 2011, but Michigan’s 17% eviction filing rate was much higher than rates documented in other jurisdictions with comparable data quality — Chicago with 3.9%, Philadelphia over 7% and Cincinnati (Hamilton County) at 8.7%.
  • An attorney represented only 4.8% of tenants in eviction cases 2014-18, compared to 83.2% of landlords.
  • Census tracts with high numbers of single-mother households, mortgage foreclosures and people living in mobile homes had higher eviction filing rates.
  • In urban areas, tracts with more Black people, children, and higher vacancy rates correlated
    with higher rates of eviction filings.

These findings caused concern even before the pandemic. A growing body of research has documented the detrimental effects of eviction on individuals, households and neighborhoods. This evidence suggests that eviction is not merely a symptom of poverty but also a cause of it. People who experience eviction are more likely to lose their jobs, experience depression, and rate their health as fair or poor. Households who move as a result of an eviction, rather than by choice, move to poorer, higher-crime neighborhoods11 and are more likely to experience problems with their new housing like broken appliances, exposed wires, or lack of heat.

Moreover, the report’s findings showed that Michigan’s eviction rates are a racial justice issue. The 2020 report and other recent studies show that evictions disproportionately hurt racial minorities, women, and families with children. Nationally, Black renters face eviction at higher rates than other racial groups and Black and Latinx female renters face higher eviction rates than men.

The pandemic and threatened wave of evictions have brought increased attention to Michigan’s eviction crisis. Policymakers across the country recognize that evictions pose risks not only to the health of evicted tenants but also to public health. Policymakers have also recognized that eviction filings and judgments during the pandemic threaten tenants’ long-term housing stability by making future housing searches more difficult. As a result, the federal and state governments, the state court system, and local governments rapidly adopted many changes, including increasing emergency rental assistance funding, expanding eviction diversion programs, and changing court procedures governing the eviction process to give tenants an opportunity to connect with services and exercise their rights. The pandemic and anticipated wave of eviction filings also resulted in eviction moratoriums and tenant activism that were unimaginable when the 2020 report was published.

To understand the effects the pandemic and these policy changes have had on Michigan evictions, this updated report relies on two primary data sources, as well as insights and feedback provided through consultation with legal stakeholders. We shared an outline and a draft of the document with the Michigan State Planning Body, a network that serves as a forum for planning and coordinating delivery of civil and criminal legal services to the poor, to solicit feedback from representatives of legal aid programs, the judiciary, and housing law experts. We also drew on the work of housing policy analysts and advocates in analyzing housing problems and seeking ways to save households from eviction in the pandemic and economic downturn.

The data so far show that the policy responses have reduced the number of cases filed as well as the percentage of cases resulting in eviction orders. Because many more renters were facing income losses, illness, and increased expenses, we expected an increase in eviction filings. But only about two-thirds as many cases were filed in the final six months of 2020 as in the same months in 2019.

Key Findings

  • As a result of the pandemic, evictions have become a major housing policy focus as state and federal policymakers have sought to promote housing stability, protect public health and support economic recovery by reducing evictions.
  • In response to the pandemic, the federal and state governments, state court system and local governments rapidly adopted many changes, including increasing emergency rental assistance funding, expanding eviction diversion programs statewide and changing court procedures to give tenants an opportunity to connect with services and protect their rights.
  • As a result of these changes, along with local court closures and state and federal eviction moratoriums, eviction case filings fell precipitously in Michigan from over 14,000 cases per month to near zero in summer 2020, returning to only about two-thirds their pre-pandemic levels by late 2020. Court-ordered evictions as a percent of cases filed also fell, but the eviction rate has edged up in 2021.
  • Michigan’s statewide Eviction Diversion Program (EDP), which operated from July-December 2020, dramatically increased the number of tenants receiving legal assistance and representation in eviction cases. EDP-funded legal aid staff provided some level of assistance to tenants in 15,234 eviction cases, 32% of the eviction cases filed during the program. In the cases where legal aid provided extensive services, 97% of tenants avoided eviction.
  • Stakeholders should act now to make key pandemic-era changes permanent to continue to prevent a wave of harmful pandemic-related evictions and a return to high pre-pandemic eviction levels.

The graph shows Michigan’s eviction rate prior to and during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Michigan Eviction Project)

Policy Recommendations

In Section 3, this report describes the reforms in more detail and recommends further actions going forward in seven areas: (1) moratoriums, (2) emergency rental assistance, (3) eviction diversion programs, (4) eviction procedure changes, (5) eviction data, (6) tenant organizing, and (7) housing affordability.

Download PDF of full report