‘Another stop on the struggle bus’

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Some tenants can’t — or won’t — pay rent this month

Savannah Detzler lives at Capitol Manor in downtown Lansing. She is not planning on paying rent in April.

“They have signs up saying that rent is due but that maintenance won’t come directly into your apartment,” she said, then added with a laugh, “They also sent us an email that listed agencies where we could get welfare, stuff like that. Pretty cool.”

On March 20, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order to ease the burden on tenants during the coronavirus outbreak. It allows all tenants to remain in their homes even if they cannot stay current on rent. The order also enables courts to postpone eviction proceedings until after the crisis has calmed down.

The executive order is in effect until 11:59 p.m. April 17.

“We continue to urge all Michigan families to remain focused on putting their health first and making smart decisions to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” said the director of the state Labor and Economic Opportunity Department, Jeff Donofrio.

According to MichiganLegalHelp.org, while landlords cannot evict tenants as of now, once the crisis is over they will have the ability to start or continue pursuing an existing eviction case. If a tenant is unable to keep up rent payments during the crisis, landlords can start an eviction case when the executive order is no longer in effect.

As Detzler put it, “They still want their money.”

Efforts to reach landlords for this story were unsuccessful, despite calls and emails to 20 different property owners and managers.

Detzler is a server who works for tips, so she sent an email to her landlord that paying rent would be impossible. She is one of many people out of work after Whitmer’s March 20 executive order that shuttered dining rooms of restaurants and cafes and other nonessential businesses. She has received no response from Capitol Manor so far.

Elizabeth Topp also sent her landlord a message to let him know that she and all of her roommates would be going on rent strike. Topp said that the letter attempted to communicate that, in this time, tenants and landlords can work together to achieve common goals like a statewide moratorium on mortgage and rent payments. She, too, received no response.

Even if Topp could pay rent, she said, “I would be choosing not to in solidarity with the millions and millions of people who can’t pay rent this month and the next month and the month after that.”

Topp has a mom and pop landlord. She said she understands that her is not some detached millionaire. Her refusal to pay rent is not an attempt to wage a war with her landlord, she said.

“We don’t necessarily have an adversarial relationship with our landlord,” she explained. “The battle is really between renters and tenants and mom and pop landlords against the banks and the state.”

With a laugh, she added, “They can’t evict us all.”

For Topp, the COVID-19 outbreak emphasized the value of having a stable home. She has been finding solace in the displays of solidarity she has seen around her.

“In a crisis, what we have is our home. What we have is each other,” she said. While she and her roommates are nervous about the future and concerned about the state of the world, there is also something hopeful to them about watching the cracks in the system widen.

To Detzler, this moment in time feels like the beginning of meaningful societal change. She said, “It just feels like we’re all waiting for stuff to go down.”

Like Topp, she feels this crisis is illuminating problems that have a long history — “another stop on the struggle bus.” She said she fears a dramatic eviction when all of her stuff gets thrown out on the lawn. Those scenarios sometimes pop into her head when her anxiety acts up.

But interestingly enough, her history of anxiety has brought Detzler some comfort in these distressing times, too.

“I almost feel like I should be more anxious,” she said. “I have anxiety and now everyone else is worried, too. I’m not the crazy one anymore.”

Detzler also cited past struggles with poverty as a strange source of comfort. Being poor with an unstable housing situation may be new to some folks, she said, but she’s been struggling to survive her whole life.

“It kinda helps that I grew up poor,” said Detlzer. “When you don’t have much to lose, you’re not really afraid of losing everything.”

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