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Wednesday, September 19,2012

Eviction diversion

Pilot program aims to keep tenants in their homes

by Sam Inglot

A new program starting today in the 55th District Court is an attempt by social service organizations and the court system to curb evictions by settling disputes between landlords and tenants outside of the courtroom. 

Last year approximately 9,000 Ingham County residents received summons for eviction due to non-payment of rent, said SuAlyn Holbrook, director of the Ingham County Department of Human Services. 

“I do believe if we don’t intervene we’re going to be past that 9,000 mark,” she said. 

Roughly 2,200 eviction cases passed through the 55th District Court in Mason last year, she said. Unemployment, high utility bills and medical bills are common reasons people can’t afford to pay rent. The eviction diversion program is designed for people who can’t afford rent — not deadbeat tenants who choose not to pay it. 

“It’s for those who have run into some kind of hardship but have been good tenants,” Holbrook said. “They’ve hit a bump in the road and now they just need some assistance to get back on board.”

The pilot program will be a collaborative effort between the court system and various social service groups and will have two aspects. The first part is addressing the eviction notice and getting the rent paid, she said. When tenants are summoned to court for eviction or payment of rent, the program coordinators can head off tenants before they even enter the courtroom. She said the tenants will then be able to work with DHS or other community groups like Volunteers of America to see if there is funding assistance available for them. The goal is to pay their landlord without having a court judgment made against them. 

“Depending on what they need and what they’re eligible for, the social service agency will attempt to help them get funding,” she said. 

Financial education will be the other component of the program. By teaching people about financial issues like credit scores and responsible saving, the hope is that they don’t end up back in court later down the road under similar circumstances. 

Holbrook said the pilot program is based on a system that started in Kalamazoo several years ago. Dave Akerly, director of public relations for the Michigan Department of Human Services, said the court — along with Volunteers of America, Capital Area Community Services, Capital Area United Way, 2-1-1 and the Michigan State University Mobile Law Clinic — will be part of the program. The state is helping to spread information about the eviction diversion program, which is designed to make the legal realm less intimidating. 

“We’re doing more to bring more defendants into court so people have a better chance to get help,” said 55th District Court Chief Judge Thomas Boyd, who helped get the program going. “A lot of times tenants simply don’t come to court. We want to create a culture where court is a place you can get help. It’s an entirely new way of looking at courts. It’s a paradigm shift in terms of what it means to go to court.”

Boyd said the program is only the second of its kind in the state. The plan is to pilot it in the 55th District Court and eventually roll it out in the 54A and 54B district courts in Lansing and East Lansing, respectively. 

Akerly said the program won’t require any additional funding.

“This is not an expansion of resources — we’re doing this with existing resources in a different way,” he said.

The cost of eviction is greater than some may realize, Holbrook said.

“Our (homeless) shelters are full,” she said. “We’re second to Wayne County in terms of paying out for shelters.”

Not only does homelessness due to eviction cost the county money, it means the landlords don’t get paid either. Boyd said the program would create a “win-win” on both fronts. He said landlords have been involved with the program development, and he hopes after the program gets some legs, landlords can provide information about the service to struggling tenants. 

As for the number of people the program will help in its debut week, Boyd and Holbrook are uncertain. But they were both looking forward to the launch.

“I think it’s very promising,” Boyd said. “There will be some bumps along the road because it’s different, but I think we’re going to iron those out and it will be for the benefit of the entire community.”

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