Help is available for some tenants who fell behind paying their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michigan’s COVID-19 Eviction Diversion and Rental Assistance Program is available in Berrien County through Emergency Shelter Services, said Mary LaSata Spiegel, the managing attorney with Legal Aid of Western Michigan, who is helping coordinate the program locally.

She said that renters have to meet certain income requirements, and both the renter and the landlord have to agree to enter into the program, which is funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

For example, the annual income of a two-person family in Berrien County has to be under $51,200 to qualify, while the annual income of a four-person family has to be under $63,900.

The money is paid to the landlords in exchange for them allowing tenants to remain in their homes. In addition, landlords have to forgive late fees and up to 10 percent of the amount of rent that is owed.

“The idea is ... keeping people in their homes and in stable housing during a pandemic, which is pretty critical for not spreading COVID, but also getting financial resources to landlords and back into the stream of commerce in Berrien County,” she said.

It also saves landlords money because they don’t have to pay court fees to take tenants to court, she said.

Denessa Driver, a program supervisor at ESS, said that out of the $50 million being distributed statewide for rent relief, Berrien County received $476,342. Anyone who would like more information can call 277-5055.

“I know we’ll be able to help a lot of people with the amount of money they’ve given us,” she said.

Driver said she’s already received a call from Andrews University in Berrien Springs about 160 families needing help with rent.

Because of the pandemic, the state and federal government temporarily suspended evictions. But the state’s moratorium on evictions expired July 15, with the federal moratorium ending July 24.

LaSata Spiegel said her office has received multiple phone calls from people this past week looking for help.

“Because of being laid off due to COVID, they were unable to pay their rent,” she said. “Many people are going back to work now or have found other employment, but they may not be able to make up a large chunk of back rent.”

Back rent is eligible, starting March 1. She said the program will continue until the money runs out or on Dec. 30.

“This is to avoid homelessness,” she said. “It catches people up. They can then use the money they are making for future rent.”

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege