“One of the hardest things we do as district court judges is sign eviction orders,” says Judge Mike Stepka, Grand Traverse County’s 86th District Court judge.
Stepka and his fellow judge T.J. Phillips are now doing something about it, pioneering a new Eviction Diversion program that’s already kept 72 families from becoming homeless.
The program, which began in Grand Traverse County in May, is one of only three in Michigan.
The 72 families represent a 90 percent success rate in preventing the eviction of tenants who would have otherwise been kicked out of their homes due to unpaid rent.
“This is a refreshing program that allows us to keep folks in their homes rather than helping them leave their homes,” Stepka says.
The program is considered a “win-win-win” because it keeps families in their homes, allows landlords to keep their renters and get rent paid before too many months go by, and keeps eviction cases off the court’s dockets.
Eviction Diversion is available to tenants in danger of falling behind on rent due to temporary financial hardship. To qualify, a tenant must be three or fewer months behind on rent payments and must prove an ability to continue paying rent after emergency funds have been dispersed.
“We used to find that landlords would wait five to six months before filing a summons, in hoping the tenant will become employed or will come into funds,” Stepka says. “Now they’re learning to act much more quickly because of the three-month rule.”
The court collaborates with the Department of Human Services (DHS), Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency (NMCAA), Women’s Resource Center, and HelpLink to find clients in need, disperse funds, and provide counseling.
Emergency funds come first from the State Emergency Relief Fund, says Dawn McLaughlin at DHS. If financial need is still present after those funds have been approved, NMCAA then taps into a pool of emergency dollars held by Father Fred, Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Love Inc.
“Many people who are in poverty and in the… program have children,” says McLaughlin. “We are counting these as families, not individuals. Eviction is particularly hard on children who may have to switch schools. Our staff is very committed to going the extra mile to help people.”
Those interested in being considered for the program may also participate in open qualification interviews at the courthouse during “Housing Hour,” held Wednesdays 10:30am-noon.
Plans are underway to create a similar program in Antrim County, with hopes that the concept will spread to Leelanau County soon after.