Berrien County discusses housing issues

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, April 22, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Area landlords and renters could be getting more help in the future if Berrien County is successful in getting a national grant to address housing instability issues. 

Berrien County Commissioners approved the grant application at their Thursday morning meeting after a lengthy presentation from Berrien County Trial Judges Donna Howard and Mabel Mayfield. Judge Howard is the chief civil division judge while Judge Mayfield is the chief overall judge. 

The grant application is to the National Center for State Courts organization and is asking for $112,675 over two years. The grant would fund all the costs in the first year and half the costs in the second year. The second year costs would be matched by funds from the Berrien Community Foundation. 

The grant is part of the Eviction Diversion Initiative Grant Program and is designed to help local courts create “holistic, sustainable, and community driven eviction diversion programs.” 

Judge Howard told commissioners that Berrien County courts handle an average of 2,300 residential eviction cases a year outside of the pandemic years. She noted that judges and other court personnel have attempted to address housing instability and eviction issues for many years. 

“When you consider each location being at least one person and oftentimes involving children, evictions have an important impact on the community,” Howard said. “They also affect landlords who aren’t getting paid any rent.” 

She pointed out that the problem is not only in the larger cities of Benton Harbor and Niles but throughout the county. She said eviction proceedings are held every Friday in St. Joseph and every Wednesday in Niles. 

She said the national grant program came about after courts around the country have realized the extent of the rental eviction problem and the need to address everyone’s rights while addressing housing instability issues. 

She said the Berrien County grant application takes a unique approach to the eviction problem. Rather than hiring someone internally within the courts to work with area social service agencies and housing organizations, she and Mayfield are proposing to partner with a specific agency to handle the effort.  

“We didn’t want to burden the county with more staffing needs but coordinate with someone in the community who can partner with us to make sure our procedures are what they should be,” she said. 

She likened the person who would be hired under the grant to a case manager like is currently used in treatment court programs who coordinates the efforts of all the disparate parties involved in a case. 

Mayfield said she thinks the grant will be very helpful in addressing ongoing housing problems in the county. “There is still instability in housing and if that is solved or addressed, it would affect other issues,” she said. “When this popped up, I thought this was perfect since we have already done other community partnerships.” 

Also Thursday, commissioners heard from Berrien County Equalization Director Warren Parrish on this year’s equalization report ahead of their action later in the meeting to adopt the 2023 county equalization report. That report will now be forwarded to the state who will set the state equalized valuation figures. 

Parrish said the numbers in this year’s report are unprecedented with the rate of increase of taxable valuations. While last year’s valuation increase went up 4.54 percent, this year’s increase is eight percent. “It’s a huge increase and we saw it coming with the majority of the effect being from inflation,” he said. 

County Administrator Brian Dissette said the Strategic Leadership Council is considering hiring the Upjohn Institute to study whether the area economy could be entering a recessionary period. “When we see values going up, that’s great if you have property and it’s going up in value,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to enter the market if you don’t have a house.” 

On a related issue, Dissette said that inflation including high construction costs is having an effect on the county’s facility improvement plans.  He said the county’s administration committee is currently discussing how far county dollars will go to make building improvements and will bring the issue to the full board in the next few weeks.