The Crisis is not Temporary: Evictions After Emergency Rental Assistance in Detroit
By Alexa Eisenberg and Kate Brantley
As pandemic eviction protections end, low-income renters continue to face a housing emergency. Prior to the compounding effects of COVID-19, declines in low-cost housing stocks and rising housing cost burdens among tenants had been occurring for decades across the U.S., as rents increased much faster than wages. During the pandemic, landlords raised rents to record-setting highs; median rents rose 12% between 2019 and 2021–roughly twice the rate of inflation during this time period. In 2021, a staggering 87% of renter households with incomes less than $35,000 per year had unaffordable rental costs, and as of February 2023, nearly 1 in 5 were behind on rent and thus at imminent risk of being evicted. The lack of affordable housing in the U.S. should not be conceived as a market failure, but a public policy failure. Public housing and voucher programs house just 1 in 5 families who are eligible. Rent control and stabilization policies are also rare, in part because the legislatures in the majority of U.S. states prohibit these protections.
To mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic for landlords and renters, the U.S. Congress allocated $46.55 billion in COVID-19 relief funds for states, localities, and tribal governments to create and implement emergency rental assistance (ERA) programs in 2021. The stated goal of the ERA program was to stabilize the housing of tenants who were unable to pay their rent. At a funding level roughly equal to the entire U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget in 2021, ERA instituted an unprecedented safety net for preventing evictions. With millions living on the brink of eviction even before the onset of COVID-19, ERA provided critical relief to many. But programs were designed to be temporary. Further, growing research finds that the strength and duration of ERA eviction protections were influenced by jurisdictions’ institutional capacities to implement rental assistance, program design characteristics, and landlord behaviors.
The goal of this report is to describe and explain the prevalence of housing instability following ERA participation in Detroit, Michigan. To do so, we linked decision data from Michigan’s COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program with pandemic-era eviction records to estimate the proportion of renter households that faced an eviction filing or judgment within six months of CERA approval. Our analysis was limited to single-family rental properties, which comprised 54% of rental units in Detroit in 2021. To interpret the findings and identify aspects of the CERA program that limited its ability to stabilize housing for renters who participated, we analyzed what we learned from court watching and interviews with nonprofit staff, CERA administrators, legal aid attorneys, housing advocates, and tenant organizers.
While our past research showed that CERA funding temporarily stemmed the tide of eviction judgments, this report reveals that housing instability among CERA participants was more extensive than court records quantify. Interviews provided insight into implementation deficiencies, policy design flaws, loopholes, and landlord tactics that significantly undermined the CERA program’s ability to prevent eviction and stabilize housing for renters in Detroit. Amid rampant rent increases and widespread housing insecurity, policymakers must act on lessons learned during the pandemic, not only to support renters in emergency situations, but to change the unequal power relations that put many low-income renters in a chronic state of housing emergency.
- Administrative delays in CERA roll-out disproportionately harmed Detroit’s majority-Black renter population. 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. 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.
- CERA did not guarantee stability for Detroit renters, and landlords frequently filed post-CERA eviction actions. Among 5,600 single-family rental properties 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 were spent on rent relief at these properties.
- Unequal power dynamics favoring landlords made the courtroom a poor venue for administering rental assistance. The CERA program strained already limited legal aid resources and contributed to the disparity in access to counsel between landlords and tenants. High case volumes, tenants’ limited access to full representation, and default eviction judgments against tenants who did not appear in court undermined CERA’s effectiveness.
- Landlords made extensive use of the court system during CERA, and serial eviction filings were common among CERA-approved properties. Landlords filed 24,000 new eviction cases during the CERA period, leaving tenants with eviction records that can jeopardize future stability. Of 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.
- A large share of landlords’ post-CERA eviction cases were filed for termination of tenancy. CERA could not prevent evictions filed for termination of tenancy, providing a legal loophole for landlords who opted not to participate in the program. Among the 817 eviction cases filed at a CERA-approved property within six months of approval, 45% were filed for termination of tenancy. This was double the pre-pandemic rate among comparable properties (22%).
- Properties with post-CERA eviction actions were rarely code compliant, and withholding CERA payments rarely compelled landlords to improve unsafe housing conditions. Ninety percent of CERA-approved properties with a subsequent eviction action within six months lacked a certificate of compliance at the date of CERA approval. The rate of non-compliance was largely unchanged (87%) at the date of eviction action.