Skip to content

Rapson: How Kresge is responding to the COVID-19 eviction crisis

American Cities, COVID-19, Detroit, From the President

COVID has left a profoundly painful legacy of loss and grief – one that continues to compound with no clear end in sight. Part of that legacy is the unimaginable mental, physical, and logistical hardships visited on people who are being removed – or who are being threatened with removal – from their homes and rental units. It is a crisis etched in bright relief on the ground in the cities where we have concentrated our energies: Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and Fresno.

At the end of August, the Supreme Court overturned the Biden Administration’s eviction moratorium. That triggered the resumption of writs of eviction – the horrible legalese for laying the groundwork for sending people into the street.

Since then, Kresge has sought to identify meaningful intervention points in the housing ecosystem. Money was not the entirety of the problem – Congress has appropriated $46 billion for the Federal Eviction Relief Assistance Program (ERAP) through the CARES and American Rescue Plan Acts. Michigan received $1.254 billion to distribute to renters, Tennessee $818 million, and Louisiana $551 million, with more than $43 million flowing to the City of New Orleans directly.

Those amounts have not been enough to be sure, even in places that have been relatively successful in disbursing the money. But the even larger problem has been the underutilization of these funds. In some places, dollars are simply not reaching tenants – and landlords – in a sufficiently timely way (New Orleans has proven to be a notable exception.) There seemed to be obstacles in every direction one looked – inadequate public education about the mechanics of the program, leaving potential recipients unaware or confused from complex and onerous application requirements to insufficient program administration capacity, poorly constructed federal regulations, and, unfortunately, incompetence, hostility, or inefficiency at the state level.

A huge problem, as President Biden might say, and one that has mobilized social activists across the country. There has been an inspiring response throughout the nonprofit community – expansion of community education and outreach, policy advocacy and organizing, and legal representation. Kresge has gone to school on these efforts, and we hope that they will – in combination with others still to emerge – provide a template for a durable, comprehensive, and large-scale approach at both the local and national levels to combatting housing insecurity in a significant way.

Our Program staff has oriented its energies around five approaches across four cities. We have made some $1.25 million in grants to advance them.

1. learning from, and raising awareness among, our philanthropic partners

In early November, the Detroit Neighborhood Forum, a monthly gathering of philanthropy and philanthropy-adjacent stakeholders which Kresge convenes, hosted leaders from the three leading agencies seeking to keep at-risk residents in their homes: United Community Housing Coalition, the Detroit Housing Commission, and the City of Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department. The forum impressed the need for every philanthropic entity in the city to understand the nature and severity of the challenges and find its own pathways to help.

2. working hand-in-glove with DETROIT’s City Hall

In Detroit, Mayor Duggan set in motion the Detroit Eviction Assistance and Prevention Program providing some $138 million ($78 million of which has been distributed or committed to date) to tenants for past-due rent and utilities. We are supplementing these efforts in a variety of ways:

  • Providing grants to housing intermediary organizations able to help tenants make payments with the federal dollars;
  • Bridging between city agencies and community-based nonprofits to maximize coordination in getting monies to both landlords and tenants;
  • Increasing our support for community development organization grantees to engage community health workers in connecting tenants to counseling and other support services.
3. using our social investment tools to help bridge to the time federal payments are made

We provided a $4.5 million guarantee to the Detroit United Community Housing Coalition to provide a liquidity bridge to the receipt of federal rental assistance payments. We also provided a grant to the Coalition to work with the Public School District to do outreach and intake for families with children.

4. enhancing legal representation

Kresge has invested in buttressing the ability of tenants to exercise their full legal rights:

5. strengthening grassroots advocacy.

We have supported community-based organizations conducting the kind of analysis, organizing, media coverage, and advocacy necessary to keep the pressure on public officials to get this right:

We are, unfortunately, at the front end of what is certain to be an agonizingly painful, morally reprehensible process of people being punished – including landlords – for the devastating impairments to people’s ability to hold a job and stay current on their rent or mortgage occasioned by COVID. We have to do better. Our work at Kresge, while a relatively few drops in the national bucket, will make a difference for thousands of people. It’s one of those times when the money must be paired with clear-eyed understanding of how to set in motion a machinery of absorption and distribution that is at once efficient, true to purpose, and equitable.