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Some say virus renter aid may actually harm renters

News Photo by Julie Riddle Joe Schell, rental specialist with Up North Property Service in Alpena, looks through paperwork required from renters when they move into a rental property. Coronavirus-related eviction moratoriums have helped keep renters in their homes but put a strain on landlords when their tenants can’t pay.

ALPENA — If rent doesn’t get paid, renters could be the ones who suffer.

Since March, eviction moratoriums at the state and national level have protected Michiganders from losing their homes because of unpaid rent as the coronavirus pandemic stole jobs and wrecked bank accounts.

The moratoriums help prevent homelessness, but they also endanger landlords who have no recourse when their tenants don’t pay, said Victoria Purvis, director of homeless and prevention services with Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency.

Without rental income, landlords could be forced to sell their properties. With apartments and rental homes already hard to come by in Northeast Michigan, the loss of rental properties would be a blow to the region’s economy and make life tougher for renters, Purvis said.

Help is available — both for tenants who can’t pay and landlords desperate to pay their own bills — in the form of state and federal grants and a promised $5.5 million that’s making its way to Northeast Michigan in a few months.

But not all renters are eligible for the funding, and not all landlords can get connected to it, Purvis said.

If rental properties are a landlord’s only income, and tenants have watched their incomes plunge, “How do you get paid?” Purvis said. “You don’t.”

When state and national leaders erected and then extended protections for renters, landlords no longer receiving those rent checks needed some source of income to stay afloat.

Essentially small-business owners who can’t file for unemployment when their own income drops, landlords are in danger of falling between the cracks of efforts to keep the economy stable, Purvis said.

A Michigan eviction diversion program funneled almost $475,000 to Northeast Michigan residents in late 2020 to help with rent payments, keeping 163 households in their rental homes.

The program, funded by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and administered by NEMCSA, paid back missed rent to 106 local landlords, Purvis said.

That program expired at the end of 2020, and many landlords fear they are out of luck in their quest to find a source of rental income, Purvis said.

Hope is on its way in the form of $5.5 million earmarked for landlords in the 11-county region under NEMCSA’s umbrella. The money is part of a federal relief package recently approved by Congress.

That money won’t be available here until March, Purvis said.

In the meantime, NEMCSA is fielding 100 calls a day asking how the agency can help bridge the gap.

There’s money available right now to supplement rent payments for those who qualify, Purvis said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides rent money to people who are already behind on their rent and who meet income limits.

If landlords want to get rental help for people above that financial threshold — at least until the $5.5 million kicks in — they have to take the tenant to court.

That’s an option most landlords don’t want to pursue, said Grace Marshall, broker/owner at Up North Property Services in Alpena.

Most tenants in rental properties owned and managed by her company have been upfront when an insurmountable rent payment loomed, Marshall said.

Landlords are usually ready to work with their tenants to create payment plans if there’s good communication, she said.

“Life happens,” Marshall said. “We all understand that.”

Still, she said, some renters not financially hard-hit by the pandemic take advantage of the moratoriums as an excuse to not pay the bills.

Even with boosts from eviction relief funding, landlord income is still below what they’d be making if renters paid on time every month. Relief funding only covered 90% of normal rent income, Marshall said.

Since the moratoriums were put in place, her property service has been involved in two eviction court filings. One of those was because the rental home was sold after the tenant’s lease expired, an exemption to the moratorium, according to Marshall.

That tenant is not paying rent and refuses to move, leaving the landlord no choice but to go to court, Marshall said.

Meanwhile, NEMCSA is hiring staff for a new rental assistance department and working with judges and magistrates to find ways to keep more people out of courts and in their homes.

There’s still a waiting period ahead as Michigan makes final decisions about the money that’s supposed to be headed to Up North landlords and renters. In the meantime, landlords and NEMCSA are doing their best to keep Alpena-area rental properties stable so local folks have a place to live.

“I don’t want to say we are going to battle,” Purvis said, “but we are getting our gear on so we’re ready to rock when the funding comes through.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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