ASKED & ANSWERED: Judge Matthew Sabaugh on Eviction Diversion Program

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

The 37th District Court is beginning operation of an Eviction Diversion Program in Macomb County. The voluntary program is intended to assist landlords and tenants in resolving back rent situations without a credit-damaging court judgment. There are similar programs already operating successfully in Lansing, Kalamazoo and other jurisdictions. Judge Matthew Sabaugh was instrumental in developing the program for his court and has been a judge of the 37th District Court since 2008. The 37th District Court serves the cities of Warren and Center Line.

Thorpe: Tell us about the origins of the program. Did many different groups collaborate?

Sabaugh: I was first approached last year by Kelly Bidelman of the Legal Aid and Defender Association and Elaine McGigor of the Macomb Homeless Coalition. We all agreed that the 37th District Court would be the perfect place to pilot an Eviction Diversion Program (EDP) in Macomb County. We have the largest district court docket in Macomb County and our jurisdiction includes the poorest areas in Macomb. I was excited to get started since there is a great need to help people here. We held a series of meeting with representatives of all the agencies including the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS.) I was happy to collaborate with agencies and charities the district court doesn't ordinarily work directly with.

Thorpe: How does the issue of eviction intertwine with the parallel issue of homelessness?

Sabaugh: Our Eviction Diversion Team is made up of wonderful people that are dedicated to preventing homelessness in our community. The population we serve in Eviction Diversion is not the permanently homeless but those who are at-risk of becoming homeless. Homelessness has such a devastating effect on individuals and families and the community as a whole. Many working people are facing real life situations such as short term job loss, a major medical bill or car repair. When they have these emergencies and can't pay the rent, the landlord can seek to evict them. If they qualify, Eviction Diversion provides them the safety net they need to stay in their home.

Thorpe: How will the program be funded?

Sabaugh: The financial assistance paid to tenants will come from federal and private grants that are available for preventing evictions. Sources include the State Department of Human Services (DHS), The Macomb County Community Services Agency (MCCSA) as well as Charitable funding from the Macomb Homeless Coalition and other non-profit agencies throughout Macomb County.

Thorpe: What are the qualification requirements and what kind of relief does the program provide?

Sabaugh: In order to qualify for Eviction Diversion, the case must be for non-payment of rent- no more than 3 months past due. Also, the property must be habitable and properly kept up. The parties must agree on the amount of rent or damages due. The landlord can serve the tenant with Eviction Diversion information along with the summons and complaint. The tenant then has the obligation to contact the Eviction Diversion hotline to set up an appointment with the team. The team will determine if the tenant qualifies for assistance at the appointment.

Thorpe: How have landlords responded to the initiative?

Sabaugh: I have spoken to numerous landlords and attorneys who are excited about the program. They are very interested in using the program to keep good tenants who have fallen on hard times. The program is entirely voluntary and both landlord and tenant must agree to participate. The important thing for landlords to remember is that they don't give up any rights by referring a case to Eviction Diversion. The cases will move quickly and Eviction Diversion will not cause any undue delay. Landlords tell me that the average eviction costs them $2000 by the time they re-rent the property. A successful eviction Diversion pays the landlord rent and keeps a good tenant in their home.

Thorpe: What kind of legal representation does a tenant receive?

Sabaugh: The Legal Aid and Defender Association(LAD) will provide direct representation to tenants in the Eviction Diversion Program to negotiate a conditional dismissal. Tenants that have major repair issues or other legal defenses will not be placed in the EDP but will be directly referred to LAD for representation.

Published: Thu, Mar 6, 2014