Detroit City Council approves ‘Proper to Counsel’ for renters facing eviction

Detroit — The Detroit City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance providing free legal aid to low-income Detroit renters facing eviction.

Following an hour-long public hearing with dozens of public commenters sharing their support, the nine-member council voted to approve the Right to Counsel ordinance spearheaded by Council President Mary Sheffield and nearly two dozen organizations.

“This is a historic moment for the city,” Sheffield said above the applause.

Detroit joins 14 other cities and three states that have passed Right to Counsel already.

The ordinance will provide $6 million in federal COVID relief funds and another $4 million from a philanthropic partner in its first year to fund court representation to those most in need. Advocates say more than $17 million is needed in the first year of the initiative.

Since August 2020, more than 22,700 new eviction cases have been filed in 36th District Court — including 17,900 cases filed in 2020 alone. This averages to about 1,500 new cases filed monthly, according to a February report by UM’s Poverty Solutions.

For subscribers: Why a Right to Counsel is needed and what landlords think

The city estimates that 82% of Detroit’s residents are low-income and 52% are renters.

The 36th District Court sees an average of 30,000 eviction cases annually and a University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions study found that tenants are nearly 90% more successful in winning their cases when they have an attorney provided to them.

The ordinance comes a long way after more than three years of drafting, said Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right To Counsel Coalition.

“Today is the day we can start a new chapter in our Detroit history and put forth systemic change to ensure that we are protecting our most vulnerable residents,” Myers Phillips said. “This ordinance guarantees tenants the rug won’t be pulled out from under them.”

Detroit’s more than 30,000 landlord-tenant cases equate to 1-in-8 Detroit renters, not including “self-help” illegal evictions, which often go unreported. A self-help illegal eviction is when a property owner decides to lock the tenant out without a court order. Cutting off utilities or changing the locks are the most common ways, Myers Phillips said.

Since August 2020, more than 22,700 new eviction cases have been filed in 36th District Court — including 17,900 cases filed in 2020 alone. This averages to about 1,500 new cases filed monthly, according to a February report by UM’s Poverty Solutions.

The city’s top attorney, Conrad Mallett Jr., said they will host a fair and open process when selecting attorneys to take on the tenant defense contracts through the city.

“You can be assured we will look at competitive bids from the men and women who make up the Black Bar Association, but we are going to do our outreach,” Mallett said. “You can also be assured we are going to emphasize experience and capacity because this is important work and the ball cannot be dropped.”

The council also passed a resolution to review contracts under $25,000 to ensure that designated organizations “do reflect the demographics of the city.”

District 6 Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero questioned whether the city would have enough funds to supplement when the federal dollars run out and if staff is sustainable.

“We are already thinking what is the next step beyond these three years,” Sheffield said.

Mallett said none of the city’s general funds will be supplementing a right to counsel initiative because “we believe that it is firmly grounded in the constitution.”

“Persons would disagree but… when we talk about the cover proceedings such as mortgages, property tax foreclosures, land forfeiture, land contracts, we need to come back to this body with the outlines of how the program is going to work,” Mallett said.

The United Community Housing Coalition, Lakeshore Legal Aid and Michigan Legal Service, whose attorneys help residents with housing issues, have helped craft the proposal. However, those agencies have been flooded with requests for help since the US Supreme Court struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal eviction moratorium in August 2021.

Steven Rimmer, who has lived at New Center Plaza for the last four years and is coordinator of its tenant association, said he and his neighbors have suffered from unfair treatment from the Silverside management company.

Steve Rimmers, a Seward Street Apartments advocate, speaks during a Detroit Right to Counsel ordinance press conference at the ACLU Michigan Office in Detroit on Monday.

“After dealing with a broken elevator in my building for months, the owner tries to raise our rent hundreds of dollars. Knowing most residents simply couldn’t afford that, and we had no other recourse, we were forced to organize a tenant association, ” said Rimmer, 33. “One of my neighbors was just taken to court for an eviction case and his case was dismissed only because the tenant association brought his matter to attention and made sure he had the proper representation in court.”

But for most tenants, that isn’t the case, he said.

“I’ve seen the Zoom hearings of 36th District Court people going in with no representation, they get talked over by the judge and they get evictions from their homes,” Rimmer said. “It’s happening every day and tenants here in Detroit have almost no rights but housing is a human right.”

Rimmer said they’re fighting to keep their food pantry called Seward Sharing Table on the property and held a protest Monday against the management company.

Silverside management could not be reached Tuesday.

Rea Maci, a manager with the Congress of Communities based out of Southwest Detroit, said the ordinance follows a long city history of discriminatory housing.

“Detroit is the blackest city in America with one of the highest eviction dockets in the nation with the heaviest burden falling on Black women and children,” said Maci, adding it would also aid undocumented peoples living in District 6.

“While undocumented peoples make up significant portions of our communities, their stories and struggles with displacement often get left behind and forgotten in the larger eviction conversation. These folks are the ones that are often victims of illegal lockouts, landlord harassment, slumlord situations and they also self-evict out of fear of being deported,” she said.

A man clutches a rosary during a Detroit Right to Counsel Ordinance press conference at the ACLU Michigan Office in Detroit on Monday.

Maci said they’re working on adding protections for undocumented tenants to encourage them to show up to their eviction proceedings.

“Their cases and experiences disappear as soon as they self-evict because they are never recorded or tracked. But a fully funded Right to Counsel would provide relief by providing legal services that are holistic and understand the challenges of immigration,” she said. “It is a fighting chance for people to stay in a home or move to a safe location while keeping blight out of our neighborhoods.”

Hassan Beydoun, senior counsel and advisor to the mayor, said the administration has been working with the council and legal team to ensure the revised ordinance is legally and fiscally sound for years to come.

“The financial controls will protect the city from the Financial Review Commission’s reach and ensure that its financially responsible moving forward,” he told the council. “The revised ordinance amends the definition of the designated organizations to require competitive bidding and incorporates the American Bar Association’s standards on legal aid to ensure that Detroiters are only served by the most qualified attorneys.”

Evictions disproportionately affect seniors, people with disabilities and households headed by Black women.

“You guys are not hearing what I hear daily. Right now, we have ARPA funding but what happens after? I can’t keep calling and trying to find help for our neighbors who are

Joe Meguire, a defense attorney representing tenants for the last decade, said in the majority of cases, eviction can be prevented.

“It breaks my heart to think that people are now homeless, often with children due to blaring legal issues that got their case dismissed but if I were there, I could have prevented that,” he said.

Organizations involved in the ordinance include the ACLU of Michigan, Coalition for Property Tax Justice, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, Congress of Communities, Detroit Action, Detroit Eviction Defense, Detroit Justice Center, Michigan Legal Services, Michigan United Moratorium NOW!, MOSES, National Lawyers Guild, Sugar Law Center, United Community Housing Coalition, the Wisdom Institute and the Revive Detroit and Joy Southfield community development corporations.

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Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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