Legal assistance helps keep families from being evicted from their homes

Losing one's home, especially when you're not sure if you can find a new one, is devastating.

"I had a house fire in 2000. Lost everything," Phyllis Robinson says. 

She has a home now -- but had recently been threatened with eviction. "If I got evicted, it would be like the house fire, losing everything again," she says, choking-up. 

After the fire, she gathered herself together, eventually moved to a trailer in Homer, a small town south of Albion in Calhoun County. With the grandchildren she cared for, she lived at New Village Estates for 15 years. 

Then a situation arose with the ex-boyfriend of her then-17-year-old granddaughter. It involved harassment, stalking, and police. Trailer park management decided the best cure would be an eviction. 

The messy situation called for a lawyer, a necessity that Robinson could not afford. But then she found Legal Services of South Central Michigan. Thanks to LSSCM and their attorney Anna Moss, Robinson worked out a deal with the park and remained housed there.

"They helped me fight to stay," she says. 

Cindy Woodin, 62, was about to lose her home in Tekonsha. She worked in senior care for her whole life -- "not a money-maker" as a career, Woodin says, but she had a modest plan for her senior years. That plan depended on her being able to pay the mortgage on her house.

At 59 she had a stroke. She was unable to work. Her savings had to stretch until she got on Social Security in June 2017.

At the end of last year her money ran out and she wasn't able to pay the mortgage. In February, "the nightmare began." First, there were polite calls from her bank, then she got a caller who was "just brutal." He told her a sheriff's sale was scheduled for May. "I was a wreck." 

Woodin told them she'd make past due mortgage payments once her Social Security checks began, but the bank refused to take her seriously, she says. She went to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority for help. They referred her to Legal Services of South Central Michigan. 

Attorney Moss presented the bank with the same plan Woodin earlier proposed. Sometimes it takes a lawyer to get things done. "One phone call -- she got it!" 

New efforts in preventing evictions in Calhoun County

Evictions, even if they do not directly lead to homelessness, disrupt the lives of entire families. Children are especially vulnerable to losing a home, Moss says. 

"I do hear concerns from parents: the fear of where the family will move, where the children will sleep, if the child's school will change,” she says. “Something that I think is less measurable, but I imagine more pervasive and challenging, is the uncertainty imposed during the eviction process.”

Legal Services of South Central Michigan is doing what it can -- mainly, to provide free legal help --  to prevent evictions in Calhoun County.

Managing attorney at LSSCM Alisa Parker has seen the many issues that can drive people to eviction and likely homelessness, from disputes over pet ownership to life emergencies that lead to unpaid rent or mortgages.

Parker knows how complicated these situations can be.

On one hand, as an advocate, Parker says "it's just morally right that people should have housing."

On the other hand, as an attorney, she knows there are many sides to housing disputes, and Legal Services of South Central Michigan is not going to be able to help anyone unless they also work with the courts and landlords.

A year ago, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant funded LSSCM to "really push forward the eviction diversion work in Calhoun County," Parker said.

That led to an eviction diversion program, which "has a three-pronged approach: First, legal representation and access to legal assistance in the courthouse; second, resource assistance in collaboration with social service agencies for tenants needing financial or housing resource assistance; and third, landlord engagement to help build relationships with local private landlords for the purposes of creating more housing opportunities." 

Before the program, the LSSCM was working with homelessness prevention workers at Calhoun's public schools to find families in dire need of help. By the time they reached potential clients, many were already homeless. "At that point, we'd be getting to families too late, so we needed to come up with a different way."

Parker says they needed a holistic approach to keep families from getting evicted in the first place. Having a record of evictions haunts a family and "takes them down that hole for homelessness." 

The goal should be eviction dismissal, Parker says -- "not to just assist people when they come to court, or advise them, but to negotiate with landlords, or attorneys for the landlords; to say, if we can help get this person connected to resources, would you agree to dismiss this case?"

The landlord's side of the story

Some tenants can be innocent victims of circumstance, Battle Creek-area landlord Douglas Garner understands. 

And some, he points out, can be downright irresponsible.

Either way, the hard reality for Garner is, if he doesn't get the rent check on time, he needs the renter to vacate. If they break his list of rules, from non-payment to "creating drama on the property," he's done with them.

What if someone with a record of evictions comes to Garner in need of a place to rent? Would he give them a second chance?

"Definitely not. That's kind of a bad business practice," he says bluntly.

"A landlord who's out for the good of humanity, who is going to put someone in who hasn't changed, and that person's going to repeat it, then the landlord's going to get burned."

Garner's got a business to run, not a charity. Yet, when LSSCM offered seats at their quarterly dinners for landlords, to "sell their pitch at giving at-risk tenants a second chance," as Garner puts it, he got involved. He got more involved last year when he stepped up to represent landlords as a board member of the Rental Housing Roundtable, part of the Greater Battle Creek Homeless Coalition (the LSSCM is a participating partner).

He also got on LSSCM's list of landlords for at-risk clients, primarily, Garner says, because he will rent on a two-week basis -- it's easier to pay when rent is due at the same time paychecks arrive. 

Garner has had a lot of talks with LSSCM and has noticed changes in their approach to helping at-risk tenants.  

"They are now actually sitting in court to try to resolve issues," he says. With all parties present during an eviction hearing, "it keeps the ball rolling during the eviction process," and it's more likely all can come to an agreement if an eviction dismissal is possible.

"In that case, they've really made a difference," Garner says. 

Better dialog

Parker has often called landlords on behalf of clients, trying to find one who'd take a chance on an at-risk tenant. "It didn't dawn on me until I had a landlord say, 'You know, when you all pick up the phone and say 'I have a client,' that's an automatic turn-off. I'd rather talk with that person. I want to ask questions with this person, not because I want to deny them housing, I just want to see if they're going to be honest with me.'" 

LSSCM needs to consider the needs of both landlords and tenants, Parker realized, and get a dialog underway with all sides. "I think it's made for interesting conversation, better dialog; it's less antagonistic and more collaborative."
 
About Legal Services of South Central Michigan 

LSSCM provides free legal advice and representation to low-income residents of Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Hillsdale, Ingham, Jackson, Lenawee, Livingston, Monroe, Shiawassee and Washtenaw Counties. They also provide services to older adults in St. Joseph County.

They are a division of the Michigan Advocacy Program.
One can't just dismiss them as the villains who throw families out into the cold. Landlords need to be invited to the table, she says. "God knows we don't always agree, sometimes we're sitting around the table having strong disagreements about how things should be approached, but those strong disagreements have been good because they've pushed us on both ends to say, 'there's gotta be a way' at the end of the day."

Parker adds, "It does nobody any good to see massive amounts of people, who are not able to afford housing, out in the streets. It does nobody any good to have children who are not able to have stable housing." 

Since 1992, Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist based in Southwest Michigan. He's covered a wide variety of subjects, from diversity in law to invasive species control, thrash metal bands to Broadway musicals. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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