When Latoya Woods talks about moving, she dreams of homes thousands of miles away, historic spaces in Atlanta, Georgia with soaring ceilings and fireplaces. She imagines a place to start over, a place where she and her sister can raise their children, a place where there’s more hope than struggle.
“I’ve been looking to move out of state; it’s a lot cheaper out of state,” Woods says, sitting at her dining room table as the sun begins to dip below the horizon outside her Muskegon home on a recent Friday evening. “Minimum wage is a lot better out of state. Houses are a lot better out of state. I searched for places where rent is $700 or $800, and they look like mansions. I looked at Georgia, Kentucky and Nevada.”
“But I can’t get ahead; I’m stuck,” she continues. “I work at Walmart, and sometimes my hours get cut. My check doesn’t come in at the same amount when I get paid. It’s hard.”
A single mother of six children, the oldest being 21 years old and the two youngest being 10-year-old twins, much of Woods’ life is spent working to pay her $800 monthly rent for the four-bedroom home where she lives with her family in Muskegon. Being the sole income earner in her household, and receiving no child support, the cost of her rent is burdensome and she’s long hoped to secure subsidized housing. But, she’s been on the Section 8 wait list for two years and hasn’t been able to find a suitable home that’s more affordable in the area.
“I’ve been looking to move just around here, but everything is so high,” says Woods, who grew up in Muskegon. “Some stuff is not even worth paying that much. We’re not in a big city, and they want to charge over $1,000 a month for rent?”
Woods loves her children more than anything, and she adores spending time with them—when she’s not working, she brings them to parks in downtown Muskegon, to other activities in the city, and to church on Sunday. But life is tiring. And stressful. She often has to spend more than half of her paycheck on rent—which, according to federal standards, translates to being “severely cost burdened.”
“A woman said to me once that she didn’t know how I’m making it, and I said, ‘My oldest child is 21; I’ve been doing this for almost 22 years,’” continues Woods, who’s 39 years old. “I’m doing the best I can.”
All of this doesn’t just mean that Woods is stuck as far as moving elsewhere. It means that the slightest change in her financial situation—a car repair, a medical bill—presents overwhelming challenges. In the past, it has meant homelessness.
“I’ve been evicted, and I’ve been homeless,” she says. “Once you’re evicted, you’re probably going to be homeless because no landlord wants you. I was homeless for probably three, four months. There were times when we’d ride around all day with nowhere to go. I went to a shelter, but they wanted me and my smallest three to live in one place and my son to be in a totally different place. I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that,’ so I went with family and friends. Every other night we were sleeping somewhere different. It was so stressful for me and my family.”
This past fall, Woods’ income unexpectedly dipped and she fell behind on her rent. She owed close to $3,000, and her landlord company, Choice Property Management Solutions, informed her that she was facing eviction.
This time, however, Woods and her family did not become homeless. She was not evicted; she was able to pay the rent she owed, and all of that occurred without the eviction case being placed on her record. (Evictions make one’s credit score significantly drop and remain on credit reports for seven years.)
So, what had changed? In one phrase: the Muskegon County Eviction Prevention Program.
The Muskegon County Eviction Prevention Program
For years, Hon. Maria Ladas Hoopes, Muskegon County 60th District Court’s chief judge, has seen the worlds of eviction, homelessness and poverty collide from her bench.
One by one, she would see her eviction cases play out and learn about the stories behind them: the parents who had lost jobs, the families earning minimum wage and unable to make ends meet, the medical emergency that shook money from an individual’s pocket and made it impossible for them to pay rent. She’d see the eviction cases turn to homelessness, and the crime that would stem from that: the children who would steal food, the teenagers who turned to gangs for comfort.
“Homelessness creates in a young person a feeling of instability, and when there’s a sense of instability, then what do they go to?” Ladas Hoopes asks. “They go to something that feels like family, and that’s sometimes why gang-related activity occurs, why people are attracted to gangs because they don’t have stability as a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old. I see young kids who are stealing food; some people are literally just hungry.”
For each of her eviction cases, Ladas Hoopes—the first woman to serve full-time as a judge in Muskegon County—would ask those before her about their lives, and she began to piece together the narrative that was playing out throughout the region: one of poverty, of high housing costs, of destroyed credit making it impossible to find places to live, of homelessness. These are the stories being played out here—and across the country.
“When we picture a homeless person, we often think of an older man on a sidewalk or bench, but we should really be picturing children and families,” Matthew Desmond, a sociology professor at Princeton University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” says in the above video. “Across the country, affordable housing is under threat, and people are getting evicted not by the tens or the hundreds of thousands but by the millions. We have an eviction epidemic in America.”
“In recent years, we’ve seen incomes stagnate or fall, but housing costs have soared,” Desmond continues. “Today, the majority of poor renting families are spending over half their income on rent and utilities. When you’re spending that much on housing, you’re living one misstep away from losing your home.”
Across the country, there are about one million evictions each year. In 2016, about 2.3 million people were evicted from their homes—which translates to about 6,300 people being evicted every day. If you dig into the data a little deeper, the statistics further paint a distressing picture of eviction in the United States. Black households are most likely to deal with eviction; in 2016, 11.9 percent of black households faced an eviction threat, compared to 5.4 percent of white ones. According to research done by Desmond in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, women of color are overwhelmingly impacted by eviction. Black women represent about 9.6 percent of the population in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—but approximately 30 percent of the city’s evictions. In predominantly black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, one in 17 female renters are evicted—compared to one in 150 women in predominantly white neighborhoods.
“If incarceration has come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” Desmond writes. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
In Michigan, there are some 35,000 evictions each year. Here in Muskegon County, where 15.2 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level, there were 1,772 evictions in 2016—the most recent year for which there is data—or close to five evictions a day. The 1,772 evictions represents a 10.1 percent eviction rate, which is three times higher than the state of Michigan’s rate and four times higher than the national average. And while other Michigan cities evict greater numbers of households, the rates of eviction fall below Muskegon. For example, there were 9,873 evictions in Wayne County in 2016, which represents a 3.96 percent eviction rate.
Within Muskegon County, the rates of eviction vary widely. In the city of Muskegon, where 29.83 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level, there was a 10.91 percent eviction rate in 2016, and, in Muskegon Heights, where 42.51 percent of the population lives in poverty, there was a 17.94 percent eviction rate. In North Muskegon, where the poverty rate is 1.23 percent, there was a 3 percent eviction rate, and Whitehall, which has a poverty rate of 9.57 percent, had a 3.78 percent eviction rate.
Muskegon County struggles with eviction at higher rates than surrounding areas: in Kent County, for example, there was a 1.55 percent eviction rate in 2016, and there was a 3.87 percent eviction rate in Ottawa County in the same year.
“I think political leaders don’t want to really talk about how grave the situation is—and it is grave,” Ladas Hoopes says. “If you really look around, into the city of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights—but other areas in our community, too, Holton School District, Oakridge School District, even North Muskegon—you’ll find so many people living with their brother or sister or mother. And it has to be temporary, because there’s not even a bedroom for their children.”
All of this is why Ladas Hoopes spearheaded the push for an eviction prevention court.
In October, the 60th District Court, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, Community enCompass, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) launched the Muskegon County Eviction Prevention Program with a $21,350 grant from the Community Foundation.
The program, which is currently funded for one year, includes a special eviction prevention court that allows for a settlement without an eviction being entered on a tenant’s record. The eviction prevention initiative too works to immediately help tenants facing eviction navigate the web of assistance available to them, including emergency financial aid that can be used to pay the owed rent.
Essentially, the idea is: the more support individuals facing eviction can receive, the more stable the entire community will be, from the courts to the education system. Individuals won’t be kicked out of their homes, which, as Woods explained, frequently leads to homelessness because it’s extremely difficult to find a landlord who will accept a tenant with an eviction on a record. For those working with the program, the new initiative not only prevents homelessness but begins to address the tidal wave of problems evictions can cause: children and families being uprooted, children having to change schools, job loss, depression, and more.
“The evidence strongly indicates that eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it,” Desmond writes.
With the new initiative, tenants are able to connect with needed resources and financial aid immediately upon learning they’re facing eviction. That way, once they arrive for their eviction hearing before Judge Ladas Hoopes, currently the only 60th District Court judge who’s participating in the new program, they’ve hopefully had the chance to work with various agencies that can help them access the funds they need to pay their back rent—as well as with a variety of other resources that will help to further support them, from money management classes to job searches, mental health resources, and more.
“What really inspired me [to push for the eviction prevention program] was the number of people I was seeing both in civil court and criminal court in our community who are truly homeless,” Ladas Hoopes says. “We’ve underestimated the number of people who are suffering from homelessness. Most people think of homelessness as someone who’s on the street, who doesn’t have a roof over their head, but homelessness is also someone who’s couch surfing or going from location to location because they’re not able to rent a place on their own.”
“If you’re working at $10 or even $12 an hour, if you have just one child, you can’t possibly pay for rent, a vehicle, car insurance, gas, food,” the judge continues. “I thought this was one thing we could contribute in assisting the homeless to help them on their feet.”
With the new initiative, landlords are able to opt into the program—so far, Choice Property Management Solutions is the major landlord company working with it; it represents about 400 local properties. For tenants participating in the program, they now receive information about the eviction prevention program and resources available to them upon receiving a summons and complaint from the court. That means that they can immediately connect to organizations like Community enCompass and DHHS, which in turn can either provide direct aid or connect them with other local groups that can help.
The court too provides information about the tenants facing eviction to Community enCompass and DHHS, who then also reach out to the individuals.
“I see this as a natural response, not just in our community but across the state and country to address these social issues,” says 60th District Court Administrator Patrick A. Finnegan. “Evictions are so much farther reaching than they used to be. If I got evicted from an apartment 20 years ago in Ann Arbor and moved to Traverse City, nobody knew about that. Now, that information is available immediately. It impacts my credit score, my ability to get an apartment and a job. The way technology has developed and information is shared, the implications are a lot more real.”
‘It would help keep people in their homes’
In the past six months, there were 64 cases that went through the eviction prevention program—13 of those individuals were evicted and the others were not. All of the individuals involved in the program with whom we spoke—court officials, tenants, and a landlord—say they hope the program both continues and is expanded.
“It really helped me,” a Muskegon tenant who asked that her named not be used says of the eviction prevention program. “I had lost my job and went a month without working. That snowballed my bills on me. I fell behind and I couldn’t get caught back up.”
The tenant—who was three months behind on her $725 monthly rent—was able to secure financial support from Community enCompass through the program.
The experience was a positive one, the tenant says.
“I absolutely think they should expand it,” she says. “It would help keep people in their homes. For me personally, it was not having that eviction notice on my record that makes a huge difference. If I was to move somewhere else, they’re not going to look at that and say, ‘We can’t have her here; she doesn’t pay.’”
Had she not gone through the eviction prevention program, she says she and her four children would have had to move.
“We would’ve had to find someplace last minute,” she says. “I have four kids. I would’ve had to beg family to stay with them because I doubt I would’ve been able to find another place with the right amount of space for all of us. And I wouldn’t have the money to put down first month’s rent and deposit. To move into a house, they can charge you two and a half months rent for a deposit—at the places I’ve looked at, you’re paying almost $3,000 to move into a place.”
‘You got this. Sometimes, you just need an outside perspective’
Driving around Muskegon with Tiyanna Williams, a housing navigator at Community enCompass who works with the eviction prevention program, it becomes immediately evident how much she loves the city in which she grew up. She remembers her house full of siblings and cousins, the playground she helped to build at McLaughlin Community Park. Framed by the colorful mural painted at the McLaughlin park, she gushes about the beach, about the magical summers, about leaving for college and feeling the pull to return home.
But more than anything, she’ll speak about the people in her city: the ones working three jobs to make sure their children can go to college, the ones harvesting tomatoes and lettuce and strawberries (and more) at McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm in an effort to provide healthy, affordable, and even free produce in a food desert. The ones spending their single day off volunteering, the ones filling the neighborhoods with basketball games and barbecues and laughter. She’ll speak of those who are hurting, who have been forced from their homes, who have lost jobs and are struggling to get by.
Williams loves them all—those she knows and those she has yet to meet—because, together, they’re creating a web of humanity in Muskegon. They are, she explains, the reasons she is working at Community enCompass and helping to connect those facing eviction with resources to make sure they can remain in their homes.
“I think one of the things we as humans forget is we’re interdependent on each other; our community lacks when we don’t care about each other,” she says. “When we care about each other, we care about ourselves. So many people come through here [at Community enCompass], and it’s like, man, that could be me.”
Many of the tenants Williams—and others at both Community enCompass and DHHS—are working with are navigating life with “at least two jobs and overtime,” she says.
“Then something comes up, like a medical emergency or a car repair, and you see them working hard to make payments, trying to catch up,” Williams says. “One of the main challenges comes from the loss of income; you don’t have the skills or educational levels to obtain a more permanent position, and your work is temporary or you fall sick and you’re easily replaced. That’s one of the main things that can cause you to get behind in rent. Or if you’re working at a place where there’s no sick leave, or you have a sick child and you’re not getting paid because you can’t be at work.”
Now, Williams says, she hopes to see the eviction prevention program expand in order to further support the individuals who will need to connect with help in the future.
“The eviction prevention court has opened up a lot of opportunities for people to catch up and not get further behind as far as getting judgements and having to limit their housing resources,” she says.
Since the eviction prevention program’s inception, Williams has not only seen people connect with the funds needed to pay back rent, but build better relationships between tenants and landlords. A number of other people, including those at the court, too emphasized that, in light of the new initiative, the court and landlords often aren’t seen as the enemy among people using the eviction prevention program.
“I see it changing attitudes towards the court system and landlord relationships,” Williams says.
Even more than that, it’s a way for the entire community to stabilize—a way to not only decrease homelessness but to remind us of the power of coming together.
“No matter what you’re doing, when you have an opportunity to help someone, you extend that hand, even if it’s not monetarily,” Williams says. “You’re compassionate and understanding, and I always tell people, ‘You got this. Sometimes you just need an outside perspective.’”
‘One of the last things we want to do is evict a tenant’
When Jill Recker, the owner of Choice Property Management Solutions, which manages about 400 properties from Whitehall to Grand Haven, heard about the eviction prevention program, she immediately jumped on board.
“I’ve been a landlord in the area for 25 years; one of the last things we want to do is evict a tenant,” she says. “It’s hard to recuperate the money that’s owed; we have turnover costs—painting, cleaning—and we have downtime when we’re not collecting rent. The cost of an eviction is huge; you can easily be looking at losing $5,000 on one eviction.”
“If we have something to keep the family there and stable, everybody wins,” she adds.
With the eviction prevention program—through which Choice Property Management Solutions now takes all of its eviction cases—Recker says they’ve had a 70 percent success rate [meaning 70 percent of tenants facing eviction were able to remain in their homes and pay the rent that was owed]. Prior to the program, there was about a 40 percent success rate, according to Recker.
As others have mentioned, Recker explains the main reasons tenants will fall behind on rent include vehicle repairs and job loss.
“You have someone who’s making $12 an hour, and they have a car repair; now, they have to choose between paying for their car repair and their rent,” Recker says.
“Having an eviction, having a family uprooted from here to there, sleeping in a basement where they shouldn’t be sleeping—all of that social and economic upheaval is huge,” she continues. “When you’re doing an eviction, you’re moving someone physically out and their eight-year-old kid is helping you. That stays with a kid. That’s not anything we want to do as a landlord.”
With the growing success of the eviction prevention program, Recker hopes more landlords will join the initiative until, eventually, the majority of the county’s tenants would be able to access the program.
“If we can stop evictions from happening, it makes neighborhoods more stable, it makes families more stable, schools more stable, and us landlords more stable and able to provide better housing because we’d have our rent money coming in,” she says.