Each week, 40 to 65 people on the verge of a housing crisis attend the Community Housing Hour in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Staffers from nonprofits, social service agencies, community health providers, and legal aid organizations address questions and connect tenants with local resources. "It’s a one-stop shop,” said Peggy Gagen, Associate Director of Community Investment for the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, which oversees the program’s finances. The hour is one important component of the community’s Eviction Diversion Program, which began helping tenants facing eviction in 2010.
Eviction Diversion Program
The Eviction Diversion Program is the product of discussions among community leaders—including judges, housing aid organizations, landlords, and legal organizations—concerned about the increasing numbers of evictions during the last economic downturn. In addition to the Community Housing Hour, tenants in distress may be referred to the program during eviction proceedings or through the area’s 211 information hotline.
Once in the program, staff from the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) meet with the tenants and help them find ways to avoid eviction. Some households are eligible to receive emergency assistance from the state or aid from Housing Resources, Inc. (HRI), a local nonprofit organization. The program cannot help everyone facing eviction. Gagen noted that those who violated their lease or who are more than three months behind on rent are not eligible. Those not eligible are referred to the Community Housing Hour for connection to other services.
Sustaining Those Facing a Housing Crisis
In 2013 alone, the program prevented 360 evictions, sparing 719 adults and 363 children the trauma of being displaced from their homes and communities, according to data Gagen presented to the Michigan House of Representatives in February 2014. Kathy Smyser, Program Director for HRI, explained that losing one’s home has a lasting impact on individuals and families. She noted that children are often uprooted from their schools, which can harm their academic performance long term. “You can’t overstate the trauma and stress it causes,” Smyser said.
Additionally, an eviction can damage a person's credit and make it more difficult to find housing in the future. But connecting tenants with services and advice early on can help prevent these outcomes. Staff from DHS, Legal Aid, or other organizations can help tenants assess what led to the crisis, whether it was a temporary financial emergency, a transportation problem, or simply that the individual’s rent costs were not financially sustainable. Households can be referred to the appropriate services to get financial counseling, help finding a more affordable unit, or other services.
For those facing a temporary financial crunch, DHS or HRI may provide financial help. More than 800 people applied for state emergency relief through the Eviction Diversion Program in 2013 and 457 received it. In 2013, the average cost to clear back rent and avert an eviction for a household in the program was $1,067 (combined state and local funds), compared to the estimated $10,990 cost to evict and re-house the household.
Smyser explained that the costs of finding shelter for evicted tenants and replacing belongings lost in the process can be substantial for service agencies. Additionally, it can take up to a year for the household to be reestablished. “To prevent the short circuiting of someone’s life for a year, it is well worth $600 or $800 of HRI funds to get back rent up to date,” Smyser said.
The Keys to Program Success
Support from landlords—as well as the judicial system, service agencies, and nonprofits—has been critical to the program’s success. Both Gagen and Smyser stressed the importance of the program’s ongoing outreach to landlords, which emphasizes the benefits to the landlord, as a small business owner, of avoiding costly eviction proceedings and keeping a good renter who is facing a temporary difficulty. “When you focus on [the benefit for the landlord], it makes the job easier,” Gagen said.
The Community Housing Hour, which is hosted by the local Goodwill Industries and accessible by public transportation, has also been an important part of the program’s success and longevity, agreed Gagen and Smyser. The hour gives the community a consistent source of information, Gagen said. The partnerships between participating organizations have also been strengthened by meeting weekly.
“It has changed the climate of how the partner agencies work together,” Smyser said. “People have made the commitment to stay engaged.”
Several other communities in Michigan are working to implement similar eviction diversion programs. But Gagen noted that every community should assess local resources and adapt the program accordingly. For example, she noted that the district court provides office space for DHS, but not all courts would have the space to do that.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter program,” she said.
This article was originally published to highlight the January 2015 theme of Housing. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.