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Eviction Diversion Project Empowers Local Families

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In Livingston County, close to 2,000 families face eviction each year. Ninety-percent of these families are ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained Employed) — working, but living paycheck to paycheck. These families are scraping by until an unexpected situation threatens this balance: The car breaks down and needs major repair; they get laid off or have their hours cut at work; or they encounter unexpected health problems preventing them from working for a time. As a result, families fall behind on the rent, and don’t have enough money to get caught up. Late fees add to the crisis.

Thanks to an innovative initiative in Livingston County called the Eviction Diversion Project, there is hope for some families. The project was sparked by the 2014 ALICE Report, which focused on households that are working hard, but still struggling to afford the higher cost of living in Livingston County. The Livingston County Homeless Continuum of Care Committee recognized this need, and began discussions with the 53rd District Court. Together, they developed a strategy to increase the financial stability of ALICE households, particularly for those heading toward possible home eviction.

The Eviction Diversion Project provides free on-site legal assistance (Legal Services of South Central Michigan), rent assistance (Livingston County United Way Community Investment Funds), and connection to other resources (The Salvation Army) for households facing eviction, along with important information regarding rights and responsibilities prior to approaching a judge. In addition, landlords are able to join the deliberations, so all parties can negotiate in a common space. For the majority of families, negotiating a payment plan with the landlord, or receiving rent assistance dollars from the program is all they need to get back on track. The project also worked to provide consistent methodology. During the initial six-month pilot phase, prior to project expansion, all eviction cases were assigned to the same court, in front of the same judge, on the same afternoon each week.

Legal advocate Kellie Maki Foster reflected on the first phase of the project saying, “I’m really proud of this program and to all the people who have worked together to make it happen. All of the different pieces have been important. Some days, there are up to 70 evictions on the docket.”

This project revealed a number of discoveries regarding the landlord/household relationship. First, the vast majority of property owners are willing to work with tenants facing eviction. Second, some tenants did not understand their rights and responsibilities as a tenant, causing friction. In a few cases, some hazardous conditions had to be remedied before the landlords had the right to receive payment, and in one extreme case, the hazardous condition involved discrimination against the tenant.

So far, the Eviction Diversion Project has served 212 households, including diverting 154 evictions. For the households who were unable to avoid eviction, the majority either received helpful legal advice, extra time to make the payments, or one-time rent assistance. For the small amount of households that were evicted, the families ended up saving money in reduced late fees and court costs.

“The Eviction Diversion Program is a part of our legal system we can be proud of, because it truly serves the public,” said Judge Theresa Brennan. “It is our hope that this program will continue to thrive and positively serve the community for many years to come.”

Looking forward as the project continues, the number of eviction cases in Livingston County is trending downward, and local families headed toward eviction are contacting local resources, such as Department of Health and Human Services, Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency, and The Salvation Army, for help earlier, before they are served an eviction notice.

Contact Scott Richardson, scott_richardson@usc.salvationarmy.org, for more information on this program.