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Communities across Michigan struggle with evictions, Muskegon may have an answer

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Shamuka Bolden outside her home in Muskegon Heights

In 2016 Muskegon County had one of the highest eviction rates in the state. That year, nearly 1,800 people were evicted from their homes, roughly 10% of the county's population.

Shamuka Bolden is a resident who was evicted in December of that year. She said her first eviction came after her landlord found out she was allowing family members to stay with her, and asked for more money.

“I was working two jobs,” Bolden said. “My husband was working one. And then my sister, I told her she had to leave so I didn’t get evicted, but then I felt bad. So...”

After being evicted Bolden, her husband, and three kids bounced around between other family members, hotels, and occasional stints living out of the car. But having the eviction on her record, Bolden said, made it nearly impossible to find a new home.

“Landlords won’t even rent to you,” she said. “So with that it was hard for us to get a house. And all of this happened within… we’ve been homeless for three years.”

Judge Hoopes spearheads eviction prevention

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The Muskegon County Courthouse

At the Muskegon County Courthouse, Judge Ladas Hoopes is working with community leaders to pilot a new eviction prevention program. The goal of the program is to keep people in their homes, but also to keep formal evictions, like the one that hit Shamuka Bolden, off of their records.

“It gets communication going immediately between the tennant and the resources in our community, state wide, federally, and locally that can assist them in getting all of the rent together that they need to keep their home,” Judge Hoopes said.

The residents moving through Hoopes' eviction prevention court are predominantly black. “I don’t think it’s anything intentional as far as racial lines,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a racist issue, but unfortunately it is certainly a city of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights issue.”

According to Hoopes evictions can lead to chronic homelessness - which has wide ranging impacts on mental health, crime, and education.

"We as a community and as a state need to face the fact that we have a huge part of our society that is vehicleless and homeless," Hoopes said. "If we don't find a way to help we are all going to suffer."

Landlords agree to dismiss their pending eviction cases and give tenants additional days to come up with the assistance. In exchange, rent is paid and tenants stay in their homes.

Jill Recker is with Choice Property Management Solutions, which oversees Muskegon properties. She said some landlords have been skeptical about the program, but she sees a clear benefit.

“I look back and I really don’t want to know how much over the 25 years I’ve been a landlord that I’ve lost because of evictions,” Recker said.

The costs, according to Recker, come from cleaning up a property for new tenants and waiting as a property sits empty. Those costs add up.

“A turnover can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000,” she said.

Working with renters to keep them afloat

Tiyanna Williams is the Housing and Eviction Prevention Specialist with Community Encompass, which helps renters through the court process and in finding assistance. Since the program launched, 71 of 90 tenants have been kept in their homes.

“It’s almost like a coaching,” she said. “It’s not just lets gather money from all these other organizations and pay this judgement. While you’re in this time period with me we’re going to help you with things that are preventing you stay housed stably.”

Williams points to daycare programs covered by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and utility assistance programs offered by Consumers Energy and DTE as examples of ways low-income renters can recieve help and cut some of their costs.

“The goal is stability,” Williams said. “Using that time wisely that we have with each person identifying those barriers and setting those goals.”

Since the eviction prevention program launched in 2018 it has received nearly $50,000 to keep renters in their homes from a variety of organizations including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MISHDA), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

LaTanya Jackson is with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She said MDHHS serves as a gatekeeper. MDHHS has to either confirm or deny an application for emergency assistance before other state organizations, including charitable organizations, can provide aid.

“If they don’t meet our criteria then that opens it up for the other programs,” she said. When it comes to providing assistance Jackson said other groups, including Community enCompass, tend to be more “lenient” with their emergency assistance criteria. That’s because every MDHHS worker in Muskegon County is working with about 600 clients.

“We get the ‘we’re not going to get any help through DHS’ but we do everything we possibly can to, if we’re not able to help, put them in touch with someone that is,” she said.

Virginia Taylor is the Bethany Housing Program Director with Community enCompass. “We can prevent the evictions so we can put a band aid in keeping them from getting judgements and keeping them housed but the long term solution is one, affordable housing for those lower income wage earners, but also lets increase the wages,” Taylor said.

Since 2016 the number of evictions has fallen. In 2018 Muskegon county courts reported 1,066 evictions, a fall of nearly 4% from 2016.

But at the same time Muskegon has begun to see new development, and that’s already driving increases in property values, and eventually: rents. Taylor said she’s happy to see her own property value increase but worries about what that means for poorer residents.

“You can see from other communities, we’ve looked at Traverse City and at Grand Rapids and you can see our service industry people are being priced out,” she said.

Taylor said she doesn’t blame landlords for raising rents on poor tenants. At least in Muskegon, she said, landlords aren’t making fistfulls of money.

“They aren’t getting super rich off of these units,” Taylor said. “We can’t put the onus, at least in Muskegon, on landlords getting rich off of poor people and making poor people homeless. That’s not the story. The problem is wage earners are not earning a living wage.”

The future of Muskegon housing

Frank Peterson, the Muskegon City Manager, said if anything, Muskegon has too much low income and income restricted housing. He said when he moved to the city in 2013, it was hard to find a house that wasn’t income restricted.

“I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me,” Peterson said. “I found a place to live, but I really wanted to live in Muskegon and the question is how many dozens and dozens of people wanted to do that and ended up in the suburbs just because there wasn’t the housing stock available for them.”

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Frank Peterson

Peterson advocates for what he calls housing integration: placing housing for people of different income brackets across the city.

“Does it do us any good to build four market rate buildings downtown and then one low income downtown? What good does it do to silo people? What we’re trying to do is fully integrate it so there are market rate people living next to income restricted people.”

Right now, Peterson said, affordable housing isn’t a priority.

“I think we’re in a good space to build one or two or three or even four projects before we’re in need of more.”

Virgina Taylor, with community enCompass, believes affordable housing has to be a priority as the city continues to develop.

“It’s too hard after the fact to backtrack and say, ‘wow, what did we do here we have to build more affordable housing.’ We have to build it now.”

Shamuka Bolden, now living in a rental in Muskegon Heights, isn’t worried about where Muskegon is headed in the long term. Instead, she said she wishes more people knew where to get assistance to keep food on the table and a roof over their head.

At least, for the time being.