Local organizations work to assist residents and improve housing equity during COVID-19

Devastated, worried, and nervous. These are all words used by Grand Rapids resident Elena1 to describe how she felt when the state shutdown went into effect.

In March, Elena found out that she lost her job. “I was concerned about how [it] would affect my well-being and mental health,” she says. 

For many renters and homeowners alike, this has been a common concern over the past several months. 

Providing assistance to community members

At Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), Berniz Constanza Terpstra, vice president of housing and family services, works with individuals regularly to provide education and access to resources to help them with general and emergency-related housing considerations. 

"My primary role is to ensure that we deliver quality services and that our team has all of the tools and knowledge to help our residents and clients [with] navigating access to resources. At the same time, I work to ensure that [our organization is] able to access resources to serve our residents and neighbors well," says Constanza Terpstra.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, these resources include various personal necessities as well as rental assistance, she says. “Emergency assistance looks different for all of our neighbors. Our goal is first to listen, evaluate the need, and provide assistance within our means and capacity,” she adds.Berniz Constanza Terpstra delivers groceries to a client.

Elena has been able to benefit from these community resources. “I’ve been blessed to receive some tidings from ICCF,” she says. 

"We are unable to do this work without support," says Constanza Terpstra. The ability to offer these emergency assistance items was made possible through multiple community collaborations.

"We’ve raised over $200 thousand for direct support to our clients and we still have money available. United Way provided us with grants. Various bank partners provided direct assistance for our residents and clients. Our donors continue to send emergency relief [and the] Family Independence Initiative provided cash assistance [of $500 each to help with rent payments]," Constanza Terpstra says.

Of the $200 thousand, 50% is allocated to providing rental assistance and emergency shelter with the remaining 50% allocated to assisting community members with needs such as food, cleaning supplies, transportation, and utility bill payments, she adds.

While these resources are invaluable now, ICCF is trying to be prepared for what's next. "We know that there is going to be an increased need for mental health services because of COVID-19," says Constanza Terpstra. As such, they are currently working to secure grants to help them provide mental health services to both clients and residents. For Constanza Terpstra, this will allow ICCF to "serve clients better [and] continue creating great communities for residents."Veronica Arvizu, Senior Housing Resource Specialist

With over 500 rental units throughout southeast Grand Rapids, ICCF is in the unique position of serving both as a community resource and a property management company. As such, they have had to navigate rental assistance considerations from both perspectives. As it relates to both, Constanza Terpstra encourages tenants to connect with their landlords to discuss any challenges they’re facing and possible solutions. 

In the case of their tenants, ICCF has been able to assist with housing-related needs when necessary by providing rental credits and utility assistance.

Eviction fears in light of the pandemic

With the volatility of the job market and on-going COVID-19 related uncertainties, day-to-day considerations no longer look the same.

“When [coronavirus] first hit, I made sure that I stayed in contact [with my landlord], on top of everything, that was a priority,” Elena says. “They were like, ‘we understand and we’re willing to work with you. It’s not going to be an issue.’”

Even with the flexibility from her landlord, Elena’s other bills are still top of mind. “It’s hard to stay on top of your life as it is in the world today but then to have your job pulled from under you and even [fall] behind one month is devastating and hard enough to catch up [on],” she says. “But three and four months [behind, it’s] not going to be easy for most people.”

To help quell some of the fears related to housing, state-level provisions have been made over the past few months. Executive Order 2020-118 and its predecessors were issued to “temporarily prohibited removal or exclusion of a tenant or mobile home owner from their residential premises...because removing or excluding people from their residences was likely to exacerbate the public health threat of COVID-19.”ICCF residents Mike, left and Jimmy, right unload food and supplies outside the nonprofit's residential housing facility on Stockbridge.

Issued June 26, 2020, Executive Order 2020-134, extended Executive Order 2020-118 and the eviction moratorium until July 15, 2020. Additionally, this Order provides for new funding assistance for COVID-19 related housing debts, which are defined as “a money debt resulting at least in part from a breach of a residential lease, residential executory contract, or residential mortgage due to failure to make a required payment during a state of emergency or state of disaster arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.” For these outstanding obligations, the Eviction Diversion Program (or a similar fund) can be leveraged “to satisfy up to 90% of the amount due to the plaintiff via a lump sum rental assistance payment,” the Order states.

Renters in need of assistance are encouraged to contact their local Housing Assessment and Resource Agency (HARA).

Protecting the rights of residents

Whether at the local or national level, both pre-existing and new potential housing-related concerns are emerging in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

A non-profit agency opened in 1980, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHCWM) is “focused solely on rights and obligations under federal, state, and local fair housing laws,” says executive director Nancy Haynes. Though they do not work directly with traditional landlord-tenant related issues, their assistance comes in various forms including, “education and outreach [and investigating] cases of housing discrimination,” she adds. 

There are various factors that come into play at the federal level when addressing discrimination in this context, including race, religion, skin color, disability status, and gender.

Additionally, “under state law, marital status or age [and] under the local ordinances which include LGTBQ or [having] a legal and verifiable source of income” are all protected, Haynes says.

“Traditionally, [here in Grand Rapids] our number one basis of complaints is disability-status for the last couple of years. Second is familial status — the presence of children under the age of 18 in the home. And then race. They’re all pretty close,” she says.

Housing-related complaints during COVID-19

“Housing discrimination based on race has been a problem for a long time,” says Haynes.Constanza Terpstra's vehicle is stocked full of groceries and supplies for her clients.

“In general, the disparity we see is the group that has been affected most by COVID-19 disproportionately is people of color. We haven’t seen a rise necessarily in race complaints but the groups [we’ve seen] that have been impacted the most by COVID-19 are also the groups that have been affected most by housing discrimination over the years,” she says.

“We have heard, anecdotally, about some people not wanting to rent to or threatening [to evict] people who work in health-related fields due to fears of coronavirus. That’s been a trend we’ve seen nationally. And, in the very beginning, there were some complaints about discrimation based on national origin [such as] people refusing to rent to or neighbor harassment of Asian-Americans based on the coronavirus fears that it was coming from Asia at the time,” she adds.

In addition to racial and national origin-related discrimination, another housing-related complaint has increased, particularly at the national level.

“Nationally, we’ve heard anecdotally of an increase in sexual harassment complaints of housing discrimination. Sexual harassment is protected under fair housing law because it falls under gender. We’ve seen nationally some landlords taking advantage of individuals — it’s most frequently women who have a harder time finding rental units. They’re distressed in general and landlords might try to take advantage of that by saying they might reduce rent or not charge late fees or penalties, or not evict someone in exchange for certain sexual favors,” Haynes says.

There have been numerous reports of sexual harassment related to housing. So much so, the Department of Justice issued a statement reinforcing their commitment to identify violators and enforce the law.  

“Locally, I don’t think we’ve seen a rise but we are on the lookout for that because we have seen it at a national level,” she says.

“We’re concerned going forward that your status, related to COVID-19, landlords might discriminate based on that. Right now, it hasn’t been defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a disability. To be a disability, it has to be something that interferes with a major life function for a prolonged period of time. There will probably be case law that develops around whether or not COVID-19 status is a disability and we’ll be on the lookout for that,” Haynes says.

Helping all community members to thrive

While many may take for granted their ease of access to essentials such as transportation, equitable employment, and quality education, for Haynes, these factors are greatly impacted by where people live. As the community prepares for the aftermath of the pandemic, there is hope for what’s to come.

For Elena, she is focusing on her outlook. “I'm not going to get stressed out. I've been working on a repayment plan and hopefully there will be light at the end of the tunnel with all this is over.” She encourages others to do the same.

“Stay positive [and] stay focused on the future,” she says. “Keep your head up and pay attention to your stress levels [and] your health and just reach out. Reach out for whatever resources are out there to help [you] get back on track.”

Even for those that may not have a current need, focusing on what's next is important.

Berniz Constanza Terpstra“I think we have an opportunity,” says Haynes. “COVID-19 was causing a lot of issues related to financial strain on families and then, on top of that, we’ve had an awakening in our country as to the civil rights violations in many different areas. Hopefully, we can keep that attention on these important issues with regard to the disparity in housing and how that leads to so many other problems. Where you live affects everything else in your life.”

“I’m hoping heightened attention to these issues will be sustained and we can really move toward meaningful action on these issues,” she says.

Constanza Terpstra echoes Haynes’ sentiments regarding these concerns. Going forward, she hopes "that our community pays attention to the need for fair wages."

"When our residents are not paid a fair wage and the rental [and] housing market prices increase, it is hard to become self-sufficient," she says. The effects of this go beyond costs and impact [an] individual's livelihood, she says. "[This] also affects health [because people have] stress [and] fear that there will not be enough money for food or shelter."

"We have so many hard-working families," Constanza Terpstra says. "When we begin to pay attention to [fair wages] and put it in the forefront, more of our community members will thrive."

1 Name changed by request.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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