Battle Creek

Battle Creek seeks ways to keep people in their homes as evictions are expected to spike

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. if you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Eviction filings and hearings in Battle Creek are expected to ramp up with the expiration today (July 23) of a statewide moratorium on evictions.

In advance of this expiration, city staff began working on a plan to address what they were being told would be a wave of evictions that are the result of individuals either losing their jobs or having their hours reduced as their employers try to manage the impact of shutdowns and losses in revenue resulting from COVID-19.

Chris Lussier, Community Development Manager for the City of Battle Creek, says part of the city’s plan involves allocating about $729,000 to local organizations already working on stemming the tide of evictions and working with individuals who could lose their homes and those who are already homeless.

Antwoine Davis, a Health Care Advocate with Summit Pointe, often helps people in Battle Creek and Calhoun County deal with housing issues. Here she meets with a woman, a potential client, at the SHARE Center in Battle Creek.Those dollars are part of a $5 billion allocation through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security (CARES) Act that Congress made to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that HUD is re-distributing to municipalities through its Community Development Block Grant program. Of that $5 billion, $2 billion was earmarked for communities, including Battle Creek. 

“Our strategy focuses a little bit around homelessness prevention and emergency shelter, but the majority of the funds will be going towards rent assistance, eviction diversion, and case management with housing,” Lussier says. “We’re expecting that one of the largest unmet needs is that we’re going to have this large wave of evictions or a lot of folks who are not able to pay their rent.”

The funds, he says, will help people catch up on their rent or be re-housed if they are evicted.

With the lifting of the moratorium, state officials are estimating a backlog of more than 75,000 eviction filings.

Closer to home, there is a waiting list of just over 227 individuals who are hoping to work with staff at Summit Pointe responsible for assisting those facing possible eviction. Summit Pointe, which will receive $440,000 from the city’s CDBG funding to cover assistance for back rent, is designated by the state as Calhoun County’s Housing Assessment Resource Agency, according to Maggie Honaker, an independent consultant who is working with the county’s Homeless Coalition to address issues of homelessness.

Honaker says Summit Pointe’s work includes providing intake assessments, housing case management to help people identify and understand the different options available to them, and managing financial agreements negotiated between landlords and tenants.

Maggie Honaker is working with the county‚Äôs Homeless Coalition to address issues of homelessness.“The eviction moratorium was rescheduled a number of times,” Honaker says. “It was originally set to expire at the end of June. Each time we got near that deadline we had more folks who were calling to get information because they knew they’d be in a financial situation where they were not going to be able to make lump sum payments.”

Alisa Parker says, “We don’t really know what the backlog is.”  Parker is the Managing Attorney with Legal Services of South Central Michigan which serves Calhoun, Barry, and Branch counties. That organization also will receive CDBG funds.

“When shelter-in-place orders were first put in place,” Parker says, “our numbers were really low because landlords were not able to file cases. In recent weeks we’ve seen a slow uptick and we are starting to see some of those cases trickle in now.”

Parker says she thinks the majority of cases will be for non-payment of rent. She says she anticipates a “huge rush” starting mid-August into September when the additional $600 in unemployment people have been receiving is no longer available. Those payments, which are on top of normal unemployment benefits, are scheduled to stop on July 31.

Many individuals have been using that extra $600 to cover rent.

If the jobs aren’t there, Parker says she anticipates higher than normal numbers of people seeking help to stay in their homes or assistance in finding stable housing situations if they are homeless. Those in subsidized housing will fare better because their Section 8 vouchers will fluctuate to continue supplementing monies they don’t have.

“Most of our cases are low-income folks who are working and have experienced a reduction in hours,” Parker says.

With CDBG funds, Summit Pointe and all of its partner organizations working on issues affecting the homeless will have received a total of $2.7 million in local, state, and federal funding to deal directly with the fallout from COVID-19 on the city and county’s most vulnerable populations. This includes individuals who had to be relocated from the Haven of Rest Ministries and S.A.F.E. Place, the county’s only domestic violence shelter, to area hotels during the height of the crisis.

Through an Eviction Diversion program operated by Legal Services, Parker says the goal is to get clients engaged with H.A.R.A (Housing Assessment Resource Agency) to develop a plan enabling clients to stay in their homes or be re-housed. Last year, she says her staff served about 248 individuals, households, or families through this program, which received initial funding from the United Way Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region.

“We negotiate with landlords to agree to dismiss a case based on conditions involving a certain amount of days to get the judgment against a tenant paid while connecting people to service agencies who could provide resources for back rent,” Parker says. “This allows people to get their case resolved right then and there. Most of the cases that end up coming to us are resolved 85 to 90 percent of the time with that first appearance.”

Legal Services' CDBG allocation is covering the cost of hiring a new attorney focused on handling the agency's eviction cases.

“Our selling point is that using the courts is going to take you a while, but if we can get the rent satisfied and our tenants remain housed, let’s work together to that end,” Parker says. “Most landlords aren’t out there to become property moguls. They’re aiming to make a modest income out of the housing market. They also have bills to pay. A lot of landlords and property managers want to find ways to work with people.”

The city’s strategy for allocating the CDBG dollars most effectively is based on input from members of a Joint Operations Committee that was established when state-mandated orders to shelter in place began to take effect. The JOC is made up of city and county leadership and also has subcommittees charged with addressing the needs of the area’s most vulnerable residents.

“We used the priorities that came out of the Joint Operations Committee’s response to the COVID-19 crisis to do scans of the needs and based our strategy on that,” Lussier says. “We looked at a number of different things. The overwhelming need was around housing and sheltering the homeless in Battle Creek.”

In late March, the Full Blast recreation center was converted to serve as a shelter for clients of the SHARE Center, a day shelter that also serves meals and offers programming for low-income individuals in various housing situations. That conversion cost about $80,000 that will be covered by CDBG funding, Lussier says.

“We can use those funds retroactively,” he says. “Basically, we were using those dollars for converting the facility before we got the money.”

Lussier says he expects to have signed agreements this week with different organizations receiving a portion of the CDBG funds. In addition to Summit Pointe, these include Haven of Rest Ministries, Community Action Agency, S.A.F.E. Place, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

While working through the grant process, Lussier says he knew that a focus had to be on hard-to-reach communities and those that experience challenges to accessing resources. He says representatives with Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, a program through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have been hired to work with his group to develop an affirmative marketing plan.

“We are paying them to assess the populations least likely to apply for assistance, identifying the barriers, and getting them to apply so they can access resources,” Lussier says.

“We have over 3,000 families, a lot of these families are already in a pretty vulnerable place. Our guess is that we’re talking about thousands of families who have a need for these resources. Our hope is that we’ll be able to help 600 families just with these CDBG resources. We’re not going to be able to help everybody. The need is going to be greater than the demand.”

The vast majority of these people are either part of the city’s ALICE population or new to that population because of a job loss or other reductions in income, Lussier says. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county which represents the ALICE Threshold.  

The federal poverty guidelines for a family of four in Michigan is $24,600 and the ALICE threshold for a four-person household with an infant and a preschool-age child is $61,000, according to the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region.

Based on the most recent ALICE research, about 46 percent of the county’s residents and 50 percent of the city’s residents are at or well below the ALICE threshold, according to Honaker. 

The homelessness crisis and the anticipated increase in evictions are both very much income-driven and are among the disparities that have surfaced in a big way between those who have means and those who don’t, she says.

“We have over 8,000 rental units in the city and the number of households that we can support at some level of assistance is going to be about 1,000. I’m not sure exactly how many households we can support,” Honaker says.

Lussier says he can’t predict when the impact of the lifting of the moratorium will be felt. He says he and his staff have been working quickly to determine how the CDBG funding will be allocated.

“One piece of anxiety around this for me is that we’re still ironing things out,” he says. “I know this will create even more expectation around the resources available and our ability to meet those expectations.”

This brings up the need for a much broader conversation that needs to include discussion about housing costs, wage disparities, and the cost of not returning to work, Parker says. Her organization’s client base is individuals who fall below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Many of them are working low-wage jobs that don’t cover the cost of basic needs like food, shelter, or clothing for themselves and their families.

Those who are part of the ALICE population aren’t always able to use the free legal services because they are above that federal poverty level. For them, the loss of a job or decreased work hours will “hit them hard,” Parker says.

“Even if people have jobs and the economy continues to open up, we still don’t have a vaccine for COVID-19. We’re still anticipating spikes and schools may be online with in-person options,” Parker says. “But, the reality for most working people is that if you can’t bring your kids to work with you,  you have no option but to stay home. In a lot of cases that’s us every-day, lower-middle-class working people.”

Many of these individuals depend on caseworkers with the Department of Health and Human Services to navigate the system and find resources, but Parker says a number of these employees have been furloughed.

“We are going to have to figure out a way to maneuver through all of this,” she says.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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