Detroit tenants deserve representation in eviction court

It’s a simple argument: tenants facing eviction deserve legal representation. The legal system is only fair if everyone is shaken fairly, and the scales in such cases are tipped against tenants without legal representation.

And that’s most of them: in 2017, 30,000 eviction cases were filed in the 36th District Court. y. In Detroit, where more than half of households rent, it’s one in five rentals. Only 4% of tenants were represented in eviction court that year, compared to 83% of landlords.

Tenant advocates argue that flexible families have the right to an attorney — an attorney who can fend off a sneaky landlord who won’t fix an unsafe structure, or don’t play fair with rent, or who rented a house with a predatory lease. or land contract. If all else fails, an attorney can help negotiate a tenant’s departure from a tenancy without a formal eviction.

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of evictions has plummeted, largely thanks to multi-year eviction moratoriums issued by state and federal governments, to around 16,000 last year, according to records from the 36th District Court. district, and about 4,500 so far this year. And the percentage of tenants with attorneys is up, by about 20%, thanks to American Rescue Plan Act dollars that paid for legal aid services to courtroom staff where eviction cases are heard.

And many hearings are now ending with an outcome that wouldn’t have been possible three years ago: the statement that a tenant has applied for federal COVID-19 emergency rental assistance and that the eviction will be overturned. .

A new wave of evictions?

But those federal dollars won’t last forever.

A group called the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition is urging the city to pass an ordinance that will fund legal representation for tenants facing eviction. With support from a wide range of stakeholders and among Detroit City Council members — and, according to defenders, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration — the right to counsel ordinance appeared to be on the way. to be adopted. But last month, the city’s chief financial officer and the company’s acting attorney slammed on the brakes.

After:New proposal would offer legal representation to Detroiters facing eviction

After:Evictions make it harder for Michigan families to find safe, affordable housing

The problem? If you can believe it, the administration’s objection had a lot to do with the name of the Ordinance – Right To Counsel, which is also the name of the national advocacy effort to provide such services.

The city’s acting corporate attorney Chuck Raimi and chief financial officer Jay Rising argued that because the ordinance contains the word “entitlement,” it creates an “unlimited liability” for expenses that could return the city to state financial oversight. At a minimum, Raimi and Rising argued, these bonds should not be funded from the city’s general fund.

Tonya Myers-Phillips, leader of the Right to Counsel Coalition, is baffled by the administration’s claims. An analysis by New York-based research firm Stout found the highest possible price for the prescription was $17 million. It’s so all Tenant facing eviction from the 36th District Court were represented.

Myers-Phillips says 13 cities and three states have passed such ordinances, and none have filed for bankruptcy. In fact, she says, the Stout study found that after enacting the right to counsel, cities spent less on emergency services for newly homeless families. And in Detroit, keeping houses occupied means fewer plagues.

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, wrote in an email this week that the administration supports the order. When I asked if Raimi and Rising’s objections had been resolved, Roach wrote, “Apparently,” but said he couldn’t provide specifics.

But the objections raised by Rising and Raimi relate to Myers-Phillips, who said she was unaware that the administration’s objections were apparently resolved.

“There seems to be a resistance to investing in systemic solutions to the City of Detroit’s problems, using limited grants or half measures, and not a systemic way to meet needs,” she said.

The Detroit City Council’s official budget priorities, passed late Thursday night, encourage the administration to commit $6 million in ARPA dollars to fund Right to Counsel for the next three years.

“It really baffles us why we have to be at this point, why we can’t just pass right to counsel,” said Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio, deputy general counsel for the ACLU of Michigan.

Without a lawyer, she said, a tenant appearing before a judge often doesn’t know what evidence to present or what arguments to raise, or how to introduce issues of fraud and misrepresentation.

“Predatory (rental) practices in the City of Detroit specifically target certain communities that are not eligible for traditional mortgages, or even have a credit history to enter into a lease with someone who checks credit history or payment,” she said. “They know who to target and how to present options that maybe make it look like someone has a path to home ownership – sign that contract and in seven years you’ll own your own home – but the contract is long and confusing and there is no one there to accompany you.”

Often, she says, such a contract is nothing more than a lease with unreasonable demands that the tenant is not expected to meet.

Ted Phillips of the United Community Housing Coalition has been practicing in this area since 1983. UCHC attorneys currently handle eviction hearings. A lawyer, he says, makes all the difference.

“You can handle yourself, you can avoid being judged against you, you can get a little extra time to make sure you don’t get kicked out,” he said. “If (a lease) ends in voluntary agreement and not judgment, it can be life changing.”

Studies commissioned by the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition in cities that have adopted such a provision have shown that the eviction rate drops sharply when tenants have attorneys. In Philadelphia, 78% of tenants who did not have a lawyer were evicted; only 5% of tenants who had lawyers were confronted with such a move. In New York, 84% of households represented by lawyers were able to stay at home.

“If the moral issue of, my god, can’t we get people off the streets, isn’t enough, there’s the impact on our neighborhoods,” Phillips said. “It’s more than tenants who get evicted, because once they’re evicted, then what? We have vacant homes and a horrible vandalism problem.”

Vacant structures are attractive targets for scrap metal workers wanting to strip a home of its furnace, air conditioning units or pipes, all made of metals that can be sold and can cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace – are that few homeowners in Detroit’s poorer neighborhoods can or will pay.

“We have to keep the properties occupied,” Phillips said. “With eviction, not only is the tenant hurt, but the property is damaged because it’s vacant.”

We’ve paid a lot of attention, over the past decade, to how tax grabbing fuels blight, and how blight and vacancy hurt the city. After years of inaction, the city and county of Wayne finally passed the Pay As You Stay program, allowing poor homeowners to write off unreasonably high tax debt and stay in their homes.

In Detroit, where most households are now renters and not owners, the damage caused by evictions deserves the same attention.

Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the editorial board of Free Press. She covered local, state and national politics for two decades. Contact: [email protected] Become a subscriber.

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