Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 16, 2013

Program aims to keep tenants in their homes

BY ANGIE JACKSON
ajackson@record-eagle.com

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Charles Alexander sat in 86th District Court and uttered that he'd rather be dead than homeless.

Alexander, 51, had 10 days to be out his brother's home, where he rented a room. His name wasn't on the lease, so he had no say when his brother told the landlord he wanted him out. He worried he wouldn't find an affordable place on his disability check of $760 a month.

"I’ve got three eviction notices on my record now and they’re all due to my illness, and I just want a place to live," said Alexander, who suffers from epilepsy and diabetes and said his condition doesn't allow him to work.

Alexander moved into a "beautiful" home a little more than a week later, thanks to Grand Traverse County's new eviction diversion program. The program provides a one-time payment to tenants who are three months or less behind on rent -- if they show they have income to continue on the lease. The idea is to keep people in their home after an unforeseen circumstance, such as an accident or illness. Local organizations, called community partners, foot the bill using their own funding.

Eight families have been helped since the program got off the ground in May.

Alexander couldn't stay in his home, but the Department of Human Services, a community partner, paid one month's rent and security deposit to rent another room for $500 a month.

"It's unreal," he said. "It started off as I thought, 'Now what’s going to happen. I just had three seizures, my brother's kicking me out and I got nowhere to go.' And it’s turned out to be a blessing."

The program is modeled on one in Kalamazoo County and adds to 86th District Court's specialty programs, including mental health, sobriety and veterans courts. Antrim and Leelanau counties are looking to adopt the program, said Court Administrator Carol Stocking.

Landlords receive a pamphlet and application form when they file an eviction in court. They must agree to the diversion terms.

"It should be a win-win for the landlords and tenants," said 86th District Court Judge Thomas J. Phillips. "Landlords get paid, they don’t have an empty apartment and tenants get to stay in their home. It’s nice to be able to help people instead of help them out of their house."

DHS meets with potential participants at landlord-tenant days in district court, and the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency functions as an initial point of contact and streamlines assistance. People can also seek help at housing hours in the community.

Melodie Linebaugh, NMCAA homeless programs manager, said most tenants in a bind are temporarily out of work for a pregnancy, a sick child or an accident. An eviction can lead to a downward spiral.

"Most of the low income or affordable housing will not allow you to rent if you have an eviction on your record. That makes it harder for them to get housing in the future," Linebaugh said.

The Father Fred Foundation is among more than a dozen community partners. The charity allots a $400 annual maximum toward housing assistance per household, so their help is almost always a collaborative endeavor, said Pastor Jim Holwerda.

Holwerda said he doesn't view the program as carrying tenants; it's about getting them back on their feet.

"So many people in our community have no cushion. There’s no margin for the unexpected," he said. "The efforts that people make are nothing short of heroic."

Housing hours are Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to noon at 86th District Court and the third Thursday of each month from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church.