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Michigan’s $1 billion pandemic rental fund is drying up. What’s next?

Last fall, Kourtney Bridgewater was in rent arrears.

Bills piled up for the Detroit mom of two as November 1 loomed.

But then the state gave Bridgewater $3,300 to cover her three-month rent.

“I absolutely needed the money,” says Bridgewater, who has worked as a licensed nursing assistant for more than a decade. “It was difficult with COVID, to get to work. I had vehicle problems. So it was very convenient not to have to pay rent for those three months.”

Bridgewater is one of thousands of Michiganders who have received rent or utility payments from the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program since its March 2021 launch.

But the $1.1 billion fund is running out.

Michigan has spent nearly $800 million so far, and state officials expect to have exhausted the remaining $300 million by the fall. The state is now trying to get out of the program that has propped up 143,000 Michigan households in the past 15 months.

“There’s no way we can match a billion dollars,” said Kelly Rose, Chief Housing Solutions Officer of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. “I think of it as a one-off financing opportunity of the generation type that we needed to be able to do that, but we do realize we want to try not to turn it into a complete cliff of aid.”

Related: Ypsilanti Library Hosts Traveling Exhibition Documenting Ongoing Eviction Crisis

Federal dollars created the CERA program to prevent an eviction crisis during the pandemic, with $622 million coming from the Consolidated Appropriations Act in late 2020 and another $493 million from the US bailout plan last year.

In Saginaw County, approximately $17 million — $14.4 million in rent and $2.6 million in utilities — was deposited into the community.

Distributed by the United Way of Saginaw County, President and CEO Audra Davis called it “an astonishing” dollar amount that boosted the 43% of local families living in poverty or struggling to pay their bills.

“These are families working pay to pay, literally one crisis away from homelessness,” she said. “We know that we have served the community really well by providing the support services with this program and ensuring that our families are housed in a stable manner.”

Saginaw kids can enjoy Dolly Parton's Imagination Library books

Audra Davis, president and CEO of United Way of Saginaw County, says she is proud that $17 million in rent and utilities has been distributed to Saginaw families. (Kaytie Boomer | MLive.com)Kaytie Boomer | MLive.com

For Bridgewater, the support came when transportation costs started to rise. She said her family is in a better position now, but she is still waiting for a round of relief.

“I am absolutely nowhere where I was during the pandemic,” she said. “So I’m doing a little bit better.”

In 2020, Michigan homelessness dropped 19%, due in part to a $60 million state rent assistance program and a federal ban on evictions. In line with this, the CERA program has strengthened coordination between district courts, legal aid groups, social service providers and landlords.

“There are a lot of good takeaways with this in addition to just the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve been able to get to landlords,” Rose said.

Related: Crowds gather to prevent eviction of disabled Ann Arbor retiree during pandemic

More than $22 million in rent aid was distributed to nearly 4,000 people in Washtenaw County, where fair market rent is 98% more expensive than the rest of Michigan. show data

“We know that the end of housing assistance is going to be a very dramatic shift for those who have been able to rely on it,” said Teresa Gillotti, director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development.

But Gillotti still worries that evictions and homelessness will increase if funding runs out in a few months. Part of the problem, she said, is that even with all those resources, there aren’t enough homes in the county.

“We’re at a point where we don’t have the actual apartments in places that people can move to, even by any means,” she said. “So that’s the absolute long-term need.”

Related: Nearly 50% of Michigan renters pay too much. The state wants to solve that.

For nearly two decades, Michigan’s rental market has shrunk, with vacancy rates falling from 18% in 2006 to 5.7% last year. At the same time, climbing costs mean that an estimated half of Michiganders are paying too much rent.

“One thing we know is that we just have a general lack of affordable housing in Michigan,” Rose said.

There are approximately 228,000 affordable housing units in Michigan, covering approximately 41% of the state’s “overburdened rental households,” a 2019 Michigan State Housing Development Authority Report Found† Additionally, Michigan had a 17% eviction rate before the pandemicwhich plummeted by two-thirds during a federal moratorium before rising again last year.

As Michigan eases CERA funding, Rose said there is a “long-term focus” on creating more affordable housing. A plan introduced by Governor Gretchen Whitmer last year would develop 75,000 new or rehabilitated homes by 2026.

“We want to try to be as efficient as possible with all our resources to provide as many units as possible with affordable housing each year,” Rose said.

Related: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Praises $100 Million Housing Proposal in Jackson

In the meantime, the end of emergency housing assistance could pose problems for some families.

CERA requests peaked in June after the state announced the portal would close at the end of the month. About 9,000 applications came in every week compared to the previous record of 5,000 in October 2021.

“Who would have thought we would have spent a billion dollars and that’s still not enough,” said Lisa Chapman, director of public policy for the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.

To address immediate housing needs, proponents say Michigan needs to move beyond building more affordable units.

Gov, Gretchen Whitmer Praises $100 Million Housing Proposal in Jackson

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan State Housing Development Authority Chief Housing Solutions Officer Kelly Rose praised a $100 million affordable housing proposal in Jackson, Michigan on July 28, 2021. (J. Scott Park | MLive.com)

A $5 billion spending plan signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in March allocates $50 million to meet the housing needs of low-income families, $50 million to a medium-sized housing deficit fund and $121 million to homeowners who make up for it. have shielding.

Another $63 million from the federal HOME-American Rescue Plan could be spent on another rent assistance program or developing affordable housing. a virtual public hearing July 11 asks for public input on that funding.

Chapman says it will take “many, many layers” to address housing issues, including proposed legislation that would allow sources of income such as Section 8 vouchers to count for rent applicants, regulate application fees and scrap evictions.

“Wringing our hands and saying, ‘This is a terrible problem’ won’t solve all of these problems,” she said. “We’re already behind the 8-Ball, but if we start today, we’ll be better off in two years. We just have to put a stop to it.”

Related: What will the end of the eviction moratorium mean for tenants in Michigan?

For Davis in Saginaw County, solutions also extend beyond housing.

She says there are many families who struggle to afford basic necessities — according to about 38% in Michigan recent United Way data— tackling literacy, high childcare costs, transport challenges and food insecurity are part of the puzzle.

“We really have to look at the big picture and say we have all these people who need rental assistance, and we know the need is great,” Davis said. “And how are we working to address the highest unmet needs through strategies in a very holistic approach, not just providing solutions to prevent eviction.”

The application window for Michigan’s CERA program closed on June 30. But the remaining 72,000 applications will be processed and the funds will be distributed until they run out.

More about MLive:

Rents are rising, see where Michigan ranks compared to other states

Nearly half of Michigan’s children live in households that struggle to meet their basic needs, reports show

38% of Michigan households can barely afford the necessities, says solutions group

Is a recession coming? These are 4 signs Michigan economists say to watch

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