This story is the first in a three-part series on how COVID-19 has activated and strengthened non-traditional, grassroots networks of community support in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.
Washtenaw County has long faced an affordable housing crisis, but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more people than ever struggling to pay rent, mortgage, and utility bills.
"It's all so heartbreaking, but I can't tell you how many people came to us when lockdown began and we started seeing so many people who never received assistance, and never had been in a situation where they needed assistance before," says Anya Abramzon, executive director of Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Washtenaw County. "There's so much trauma and pain, and mental health issues are skyrocketing. It all really requires attention and resources."
Traditional sources of housing help are already spread thin, and as eviction moratoriums end, traditional providers around the county are swamped. A number of local nonprofits have established new programs to help county residents pay their bills and stay in their homes, and several non-traditional, grassroots initiatives have sprung up to address the overwhelming need.
Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Friends In Deed has worked on helping area residents get out of poverty through a variety of programs for many years. But the nonprofit hasn't traditionally done much work in the area of housing assistance since housing resources were already available, according to Friends In Deed caseworker Joye Clute.
"When the pandemic hit, we realized there was a lot of pressure on already existing financial resources out there for housing, so we made ourselves available to Housing Access for Washtenaw County (HAWC)," Clute says. "Those directly affected by COVID who have fallen behind can receive half a month's rent in assistance from us if they're eligible."
Clute says Friends In Deed staff refer those inquiring about housing assistance to HAWC first or to state-of-emergency relief through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. But if the applicant is not eligible for assistance through those channels, they can call Friends In Deed back.
"They could still be eligible for our services based on income," Clute says. "We make ourselves available for people who have fallen on hard times."
Huron Valley Mutual Aid (HVMA) is a grassroots effort that sprang up during the pandemic to address pressing needs that weren't being met. The organization started with a Facebook page and a spreadsheet that allowed those in need to ask for what they needed and others to offer help. HVMA member Oli Naimi says the group has mostly focused on connecting people to existing resources and directly paying bills for those in need.
At first, cash assistance for rent or utilities was capped at $150, but later was raised to $300 as HVMA raised money through a crowdfunding campaign, grants, and private donors.
While Michigan had an eviction moratorium in place, HVMA wasn't giving any assistance for rent because the group was working with limited funds and there were so many people in need, Naimi says.
"But when the moratorium ended, we were more open to being able to pay a little bit of rent," Naimi says. HVMA also referred those in need to other resources, such as the 211 resource hotline.
Naimi is also involved with NoRent Michigan, a statewide coalition of renters, tenant unions, and housing justice groups including the Arbor Tenants Union and the Radical Ypsilanti Tenants Union in Washtenaw County. That group is primarily working on policy and education.
On the education front, the group has written a document explaining the steps to avoid eviction or ask for back rent to be waived. The group also hosted two "teach-ins" with lawyers and housing justice organizers to teach residents how to avoid eviction, deal with the eviction process, spot an illegal eviction, or run an eviction prevention hotline.
"We also raised a little money for organizations to do flyers around the topic of what an illegal eviction is. You should have a court date. You can't be evicted by the landlord without a court date," Naimi says. "It's really bureaucratic and intentionally inaccessible."
On the policy front, NoRent Michigan has supported a resolution, sent to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to waive rent for the duration of the pandemic. The group is also putting pressure on local city and township governments to support the resolution.
JFS previously provided some housing assistance to refugees and immigrants, but its housing assistance mission has expanded since the pandemic. JFS is one of over a dozen agencies who have collectively distributed $110,000 in Barrier Busters housing assistance funds from the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development to 190 households during the pandemic. JFS also partnered with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Mexiquenses en Michigan, and Buenos Vecinos to provide direct emergency financial assistance for low-income immigrant families' housing, utilities, transportation, child care, and other needs, with help from a $10,000 grant from United Way of Washtenaw County.
Other efforts to keep county residents in their homes during the pandemic include a program in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood to help residents with utility bills; a Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights flyer campaign at Pittsfield Township's Coachville mobile home community to let residents know about their housing rights; and a citizen initiative for new tenant protections that was brought before Ypsilanti City Council Aug. 18.
Another recent development is a mortgage relief program for Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley homeowners who are struggling to make their payments.
Sarah Teare, senior director of resident and community engagement for Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, says that program has already raised $15,800, and the first round has disbursed funds to cover two months of mortgage payments for 20 households. Those who qualify for the funding also receive financial counseling and are referred to other community resources. A second round will be disbursed sometime in early autumn.
Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley staff learned from a focus group conducted earlier this summer that they needed to avoid excessive documentation and paperwork for the program.
"We wanted to model it off the big banks who are giving forbearance plans pretty easily," Teare says. "When you're in a crisis and stressed, it's often a barrier to applying if you have to dig out reams of documentation."
Abramzon says it's difficult to separate housing from other issues that are affecting Washtenaw County residents right now, so JFS tries to take a holistic approach.
"A lack of health care might cause homelessness. Or if you don't have child care and are unable to work, you'll eventually run out of funds. Or you might not have access to reliable transportation," she says. "Normally, you have social supports and you can call a neighbor or a relative or drop off your children with grandparents, but right now many of those social ties with friends and churches are nonexistent. There's a lack of resources to support unemployment, lack of funds to keep people in their homes and to pay for their utilities and meals. Every area of COVID response is under-funded."
Despite the lack of resources, Abramzon notes that a wide variety of nonprofit and governmental units are collaborating and doing an "amazing job" helping community members during the pandemic.
"There is so much to be proud of," she says. ""All these agencies working together and supporting each other is an amazing story."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.