Updated May 18, 2020
Where we are:
At the state level, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued a number of executive orders and directives in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Executive Order 2020-85 prohibits the eviction of tenants of leased residential property through June 11. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has suspended the 90-day limit on reimbursement to homeless shelter providers for an individual’s stay in order to minimize exposure risk from guests moving between shelters. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has suspended the 90-day limit on reimbursement to homeless shelter providers for an individual’s stay in order to minimize exposure risk from guests moving between shelters.
Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Administration has agreed to reimburse 75% of the cost of placing in hotel/motel rooms homeless individuals who are diagnosed with, exposed to, or at high risk for coronavirus.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has streamlined the application process for State Emergency Relief, which provides assistance with utility bills and other needs for families in financial crisis. Gas and electric providers throughout the state have implemented shutoff moratoria and service restoration efforts, but the duration and eligibility criteria vary by provider. The Michigan Public Service Commission has issued an order requiring investor-owned natural gas and electric providers to affirm that they have minimum protections in place, including the following:
- Suspending disconnections for Michigan’s most vulnerable populations, low-income and senior customers, through June 1, and waiving late fees for eligible low-income customers receiving energy assistance.
- Allowing for customers exposed to, infected by or quarantined because of COVID-19 to be eligible for a 30-day medical hold to avoid a disconnection of service.
- Waiving deposits and reconnection fees for low-income customers, seniors and customers experiencing financial hardship related to COVID-19 and seeking restoration of electric or gas service.
- Extending access to and availability of flexible payment plans to customers financially impacted by COVID-19, and providing customer assistance personnel with the resources necessary to connect customers to available financial assistance and social service agencies.
Energy cooperatives must affirm similar shutoff protections.
Beginning April 30, 2020, the order also requires investor-owned utilities to report to the MPSC every two weeks on the current number of disconnected customers, the identification of occupied homes without electric or natural gas service, and the utility’s efforts to reconnect service to occupied homes
At the federal level, action by several housing agencies and coronavirus relief legislation provide temporary protection against foreclosure and eviction for homeowners and landlords with federally backed mortgages, as well as their tenants and residents of federally subsidized housing. Additionally, those with federally backed mortgages may request a temporary penalty-free forbearance.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides more than $12 billion dollars to states for programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), including the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) (which may be used for rental assistance in the short term as well as other community development purposes) and Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) (which fund shelters and other services to meet emergency housing needs). Michigan’s share of the first round of this funding includes nearly $72 million in CDBG, over $51 million of which is allocated to specific cities and counties, and nearly $37 million in ESG, of which nearly $20 million is allocated to specific cities and counties.
The CARES Act also provides $900 million in additional funds for states under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help meet increased need for utility bill payment assistance.
Establish a state-level moratorium on foreclosures. The federal measures to suspend foreclosures apply only to federally backed mortgages, and households might not recover financially before those measures expire. Recessions over the past 20 years hit Michigan particularly hard compared to the rest of the nation, demonstrating a need for protections beyond those provided at the federal level. A state-level moratorium could cover all mortgages and, if enacted via legislation, could remain in effect as long as is necessary for families to regain their stability.
Extend the state-level moratorium on renter evictions until the economy has recovered substantially and establish a similar moratorium on utility shutoffs. The health risks and financial hardship of COVID-19 are unlikely to subside by the time the governor’s eviction moratorium expires. Furthermore, only 28% of renters live in buildings covered by the federal eviction protections and they might not know whether the mortgage is federally insured . Additionally, the customer protections and data reporting requirements under the MPSC’s order do not apply to all utility providers or cover all customers of those subject to the order, and the onus is largely on customers to notify their providers if they experience or anticipate hardship that affects their ability to pay their bills. This just compounds the burden on customers whose bandwidth is already consumed with trying to meet all of their other basic needs during a sudden public health and economic crisis. All families, regardless of their utility provider, need assurance that their access to critical heat and electricity won’t be cut off before they’ve recovered financially from the crisis. As with a foreclosure moratorium, it could be wise to institute these measures legislatively so they are not time-limited as gubernatorial Executive Orders are.
Establish a rental assistance fund and manageable provisions for the repayment of rent arrearages to avoid a wave of evictions once the moratorium expires. The temporary protections against eviction do not relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent, and federal relief dollars to date will last only a few months. The state should prioritize rental assistance to the greatest extent possible in spending Michigan’s federal aid and dedicate resources to ensuring families don’t lose their housing before they get back on their feet.
Provide at least $1 million in state funding for emergency housing needs. MDHHS will need additional resources to support local housing and homeless service providers in providing deposit and rental assistance, hotel/motel stays in communities lacking shelter capacity, and maintaining adequate staffing levels. Although federal relief legislation includes such support, it most likely will not be enough to meet the need.
Ensure that homeless service providers have access to necessary medical and sanitary measures, as well as facilities for quarantining people who contract or are being tested for coronavirus. Shelter, outreach and street medicine staff are on the frontlines of the pandemic and should be prioritized along with healthcare providers to receive supplies such as gloves, masks, thermometers and sanitizers. Also, as shelters may have to increase the distance between beds and isolate individuals who present a health risk to others, resources to create more space, fund hotel/motel stays, and repurpose other facilities will be critical.
Why Michigan must act now:
To stem the spread of COVID-19, Michiganders have been ordered to “stay home.” Safe, stable housing is critical to individual and public health at this time. The state was already experiencing a crisis-level shortage of affordable housing prior to the emergence of COVID-19 and more than 65,000 people in our state experienced literal homelessness in 2018. People of color, people with disabilities, older adults and families with children are disproportionately affected by rising housing prices and unhealthy home conditions.
- People experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die from coronavirus as those who are housed.
- Social distancing is critical to minimizing the spread of COVID-19, but unaffordable housing costs may force people to double up with friends or extended family to avoid literal homelessness.
- People facing some of the greatest housing challenges, such as older adults and those with disabilities, also face the highest risk from coronavirus exposure.
- Housing instability is a form of trauma that affects children’s mental health, academic success and earning potential later in life, and could compound the extraordinary disruption Michigan children are already experiencing due to school closures.
- Renters spend a much higher share of their income on housing than homeowners do and tend to be more vulnerable to housing instability. Undocumented immigrants, in particular, are vulnerable to threats of eviction and exploitation by landlords.
- Utilities are critical to maintaining a healthy temperature and air quality in the home, which is essential during a threat of respiratory disease, but they can present a huge cost burden to families with low incomes.