CERA program helps residents overcome pandemic hardships and stay in place

Michigan residents have been feeling the pressure of high unemployment and rent payments that can no longer be deferred. For many, the eventuality is eviction and potential homelessness. Now there is hope for a better outcome.

The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) has recently rolled out the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program throughout the state. CERA disperses federal funds to tenants facing pandemic-related hardships. The program will help many avoid eviction while making sure that apartment owners are compensated as well.

How the CERA program works

Funding for CERA is allocated directly from MSHDA to Michigan counties and was included in the CARES Package extension passed in December 2020. Kent County was allocated approximately $39 million for the program, which covers the costs of 30-40 full-time caseworkers among other resources.

The Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness is the Continuum of Care organization under which the Heart of West Michigan United Way acts as the fiduciary for the program and is responsible for planning the dispersal of the CERA funds.

Courtney Myers-Keaton, Continuum of Care director with the Heart of West Michigan United Way, says planning efforts with community partners have been underway since January to identify who would be able to quickly coordinate, staff up and execute the program so that the funding can get into the hands of the households that need it most.

"Our community partners are hiring the caseworkers and are cutting the checks to the households," she says.

Those community partners include the Salvation Army, which serves as the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency (HARA), and Kent County Community Action. Myers-Keaton says these organizations are well equipped to step up quickly and help CERA program applicants get the resources they need.

The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and The Source have been brought on as community partners too.

"They already have well-established relationships within the Latinx community where some individuals may feel uncomfortable going to an organization that they don’t already have a connection to," Myers-Keaton says.

Alejandra Meza, family support services manager for the Hispanic Center, says two housing support navigators have recently been hired to assist clients through the CERA process, beginning with the application.

The navigators work from the Hispanic Center's 1204 Grandville Ave SW building, where they serve walk-in clients as well as scheduled appointments as needed. Those who are less tech savvy can get help from the navigators in writing emails, filling out applications, retrieving verification, connecting with landlords, and following up on their cases.

"We are very grateful for the opportunity to offer this program to our community," Meza says. "Having two navigators fully committed to CERA has been very impactful to our organization and will eventually reflect in the community. The undocumented population have not been eligible for other programs similar to this one and have had many barriers due to COVID. This is a new resource for them and we’re excited to now have the capacity to walk along them through the process.”

Who is eligible for the Program

MSHDA criteria restricts CERA services to renter households that have incomes less than 80% of Area Median Income (AMI). That is about $60,000 for a family of four. Individuals who qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or have experienced other financial hardship due directly or indirectly to the coronavirus outbreak are also eligible to apply for the program.

The applications are processed by Susan Cervantes' team at Kent County Community Action. Her case managers and field support staff help anyone that needs help and meets the median income dictated by the HUD guidelines.

"They may have lost their job. Maybe they were a server at a restaurant that didn't reopen, or had additional expenses because the children were home. Once we've established that criteria, then we can help them," Cervantes says.

Making sure that those who need help get help is a priority of those working with the CERA project. That includes housing owners as well as tenants. But the funding covers more than just rent for the month. Preventing evictions is also a matter of public health.

"This program is so necessary right now," Cervantes says. "We want people to stay in place. We don't want people moving around because we don't want to spread the virus. This is to help people stay in place and to be healthy."

How to apply

Application begins at the CERA website, which can be initiated by a tenant or landlord. From there, service agencies will get in touch over email letting applicants know when their funding request has been approved and for how much, or if there are further questions that need to be answered.

The county rolled out an eviction diversion program last fall that had similar aims and provided a few opportunities for improvement. The web-based portal the CERA program uses is hoped to be easier to use than the paper applications required by the eviction diversion program. MSHDA also used data from that initiative to help determine how much funding in each community would be allocated for the CERA program.

"CERA has more flexible eligibility," Myers-Keaton says. "It also has a lower AMI threshold. This is a beefed up version, if you will, of the eviction diversion program."


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Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 20 years of experience as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm.
 
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