Since the Detroit landlord refused to fix the sewage backups in the basement, Richard Johnson Jr. helped tenant Latasha Tucker suck out a mix of sewage and black sludge three times a week.
Families in one out of five Detroit rentals face eviction every year, a persistent churn that uproots thousands, destabilizes neighborhoods and schools and even threatens the health and safety of residents, a Detroit News investigation has found.
The News analyzed nearly 285,000 eviction cases since 2009 — the first time this data has ever been examined — and found, for example, that in 2015 alone, the vast majority of landlords who took their renters to court were themselves operating illegally.
City ordinance requires that all rentals be registered, livable and inspected yearly, but most landlords have operated without that scrutiny for more than a decade.
Lax city enforcement has contributed to an eviction cycle where many tenants live in dangerous and unfit homes, according to interviews with city officials, housing nonprofits, renters and landlords.
With little other recourse to compel home repairs, the tenants withhold rent, then face eviction. Some leave on their own before they are forced out, in search of other housing that often offers little promise of improvement.
The News found families facing eviction in homes without heat in the winter, with hazardous electric systems, with missing windows, infested with mice and one with a sewage-filled basement. And despite some renters’ pleas for help, City Hall did little to protect them.
“How is this possible?” said Latasha Tucker, a mother of two young boys while waiting for her court hearing. “I am being evicted from a place that I shouldn’t even be living in. ... But we have nowhere else to go. I am lost.”
Sewage and black sludge bubbled from a basement toilet and floor drains for five months in her west side rental, which the landlord bought for $2,600 at the 2013 tax foreclosure auction and never got inspected.
Tucker stopped paying her $500-a-month rent when the landlord refused to fix the backup. While Tucker looked for a new home, she sucked the bio-hazard mix out through a basement window with a garden hose and sump pump three times a week, then lit kiwi-scented incense to mask the smell before her kids would come home from school.
Battles like these, housing advocates say, play out regularly in Detroit’s 36th District Court, which has averaged 35,000 landlord-tenant eviction cases a year since 2009. That caseload has remained steady despite more than 41,000 residents leaving the city since 2010.
Many renters facing eviction simply don’t have the money. Detroit is the country’s poorest big city, with 35.7 percent of the population living below the poverty line, yet housing advocates say if the city and court did more to ensure safe housing, eviction cases would drop.
“They are just settling for the best of the worst,” said Charles Hobbs, a staff attorney for the Detroit nonprofit Street Democracy, which advocates for renters. “They are putting up with having to get space heaters. They put up with mold and a whole long list of things they shouldn’t have to. They are afraid of being homeless.”
The Detroit News investigation found:
■ Last year, just 4,174 addresses were registered and inspected, in a city the U.S. Census Bureau estimates as having 140,000 rental units. That’s down from the 5,235 addresses the city said were registered 10 years earlier under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
■ Judges don’t require landlords to prove they’ve registered and passed city inspections before ruling on eviction cases. In 2015, for example, only one of every 13 eviction cases was filed on an address legally registered with the city.
■ Since 2014, when Mayor Mike Duggan took office, the city has issued fewer than 5,000 tickets for landlords who didn’t register. That’s fewer than the number of tickets written for residents for improperly placed garbage cans during that time, as of last month.
■ Even when landlords are found responsible for blight violations, they frequently avoid paying fines. Nearly 85 percent of “rental” blight violations, amounting to almost $2 million in fines, remain unpaid from that time frame.
Detroit’s chronic eviction caseload is the latest act in the slow-moving housing crisis that’s decimated city neighborhoods. More than a third of city homes had gone through mortgage or tax foreclosure as of 2015, creating more landlords and tenants. Detroit went from a city of mostly homeowners to renters, with 54 percent of residents renting in 2016 compared with 45 percent in 2000, according to census data.
“Investors can buy tax-foreclosed properties ... for very low prices, make no investments or improvement in those structures, pay no property taxes and charge fairly high rents for a poor product,” said Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan professor who has studied foreclosures in Detroit. “They quickly make many times their original investment.”
Neighborhood domino effect
Evicting thousands of families a year exacerbates neighborhood blight, worsens health problems and can stress children when they are forced to transfer schools because the family has moved, experts say.
“This is one of those problems that is foundational,” said Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s former health department director who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018. “The problem touches everything.”
The News reviewed landlord tenant cases from 2009 to August 2017 in Detroit’s 36th District Court. The data includes rental addresses, and information on tenants and landlords but doesn’t include whether an eviction was actually carried out. The analysis was done in partnership with Eric Seymour, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University who has studied housing instability in Detroit.
On average, 35,000 eviction cases are filed annually in Detroit, some involving tenants who faced multiple cases at the same address in one year. Eliminating those duplicates, every year families in an average of 26,400 rentals faced eviction, or 1 in 5 rentals every year, according to census data.
Some neighborhoods are hit harder than others. An area on the city’s west side of mostly single family homes, south of the Lodge Freeway and west of Livernois had the highest rate — 20 cases filed for every 10 rental units — between 2014 and August 2017, according to court and census data.
Nancy Blount, the 36th District Court chief judge, said judges address renters’ complaints of disrepair in a number of ways, including abating rent or ordering escrow accounts while requiring fixes, but can’t legally hold up cases because a landlord’s property hasn’t passed a city inspection. Legal aid lawyers argue that judges could make that a condition of filing a case, but Blount says the state Legislature would need to pass a law requiring it.
“I don’t think the law gives me the mechanism to do what they want me to do,” Blount said.
Duggan’s staff doesn’t dispute the city has done a poor job of policing landlords in the past, and in late May announced a campaign to step up enforcement, including the hiring of more staff, increasing penalties for landlords and offering a proposal to stop landlords from collecting rent if they don’t get city inspections. The goal, the mayor said, is for every rental to be inspected over the next two years.
“What we’re trying to figure out how to do is take the strong landlords and help them grow and succeed and thrive, and take those who are abusing the system and not make it attractive for you to stay in the city,” said Duggan, who is seeking re-election in November.
Lack of city follow-up
Even when renters go to City Hall for help, some find they are on their own.
The News found examples where renters — facing eviction — called in city inspectors who found their living conditions were so bad the city issued emergency repair orders but inspectors never followed up.
That included city-issued emergency orders to fix Tucker’s basement sewage backups, and a father who had no working furnace though the winter.
The father without heat, 44-year-old DeChante Gray, had to move his 4-year-old daughter Autumn out of his rental to live with her grandmother and his other children couldn’t visit because his landlord, Detroit Real Estate Inc., refused to fix the furnace when it stopped working in September 2016, he said. He and the landlord had battled previously over the periodically working furnace and his late rent payments.
Gray tried heating the house with an open electric stove and space heaters as fall turned to winter, but his daughter still got cold playing on her bedroom floor.
“I am a peasant and they are a tyrant. That’s how I am feeling,” said Gray. “You shouldn’t have to live like this.”
He stopped paying his $700-a-month rent and faced eviction twice while trying to get the company to fix the furnace. The landlord dropped the court cases before a judge had a chance to order the furnace fixed.
Gray called in the city inspectors for help on Oct. 31, but they didn’t follow up on the emergency order they issued against the landlord until alerted by The News in December, later issuing $2,880 in fines. Gray eventually replaced the furnace in January, dragging it out of the basement on his own.
Gray had owned the home on Harlow near the Southfield Freeway and Outer Drive for four years until he got behind on taxes and lost it in foreclosure in 2014. The new owner, who bought the house at a tax auction for $6,200, allowed Gray to stay under a contract to “rent with option to purchase.”
Gray sued his landlord after connecting with a nonprofit lawyer, asking a judge to force the owners to set a purchase price for the home, factoring in what he paid for the furnace. He settled in August and told The News he had agreed not to disclose details. Kevin Callahan, an attorney for Detroit Real Estate Inc., declined comment.
The city also visited Tucker’s rental twice in November and December, saw the sewage, issued an emergency order and never followed up. Tucker’s landlord, Tanisha Hines, said she tried to fix the problem by snaking the home’s drain, and accused Tucker of causing the backups. Hines said she didn’t know how bad the basement flooding had gotten.
“I wouldn’t have left her in that house if I had known it was like that,” Hines said.
Tucker denied causing the backups, adding it wasn’t the rental’s only issue. It was infested with mice, some windows wouldn’t close completely and many electrical outlets wouldn’t work, prompting Tucker to snake extension cords through her living room, kitchen and around her boys’ bunk beds, The News witnessed.
David Bell, director of the city Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, in emails to The News, said a clerical error caused the lack of follow-up on Gray’s no-heat complaint and admitted that there were “serious oversights” in Tucker’s case. If landlords don’t comply with emergency orders, the city can issue more fines and in some cases remove the tenants, connecting them to nonprofits to find other housing.
“It gets to the point where you want the city to step in and do something,” said Richard Johnson Jr., the father of one of Tucker’s sons who helped clean her basement several times a week. “You can’t have people living in squalor like this. It’s really against the law and inhumane.”
Tucker said when she got fed up and stopped paying rent in November, she tried to rent another home. But that landlord kept her $900 deposit and wouldn’t let her move in.
Another landlord told her he wouldn’t rent to her unless the pending eviction case brought by Hines was dismissed.
“If I have an eviction and owe her money, they aren’t going to be dealing with me,” Tucker said.
Beefing up enforcement
Detroit officials say they are serious about going after landlords to ensure their rentals are safe.
“They are not going to be able to hide anymore,” said Bell.
The city hired seven inspectors last year, some of whom are dedicated to following cases through the Department of Administrative Hearings, or blight court, and have hired collection firms to recover blight fines, recently collecting about $1 million.
The city also has deputized inspectors to issue 90-day misdemeanor tickets if landlords ignore them. They’ve issued 126 tickets as of this summer and have written 60 percent more rental-related violations over the last year. The city also hired four contractors to do inspections and, as of last month, the city had registered 4,712 rental addresses in 2017.
Councilman Andre Spivey introduced an ordinance in May to stop landlords who haven’t passed an inspection and gotten a certificate of compliance from collecting rent, after a phase-in period expires. And if landlords owe more than $1,000 in delinquent property taxes, they can’t get the certificate unless they are on a payment plan with the county.
If the city takes the action, it will be a dramatic change for landlords.
When asked why the city issued more tickets for trash can-related violations then rentals that weren’t registered, Bell said “the city considers all violations of the city of Detroit Property Maintenance Code to be a priority.”
But some landlords, who say they provide quality housing, warn a crackdown could make conditions worse.
Although they haven’t been enforced for years, the city’s regulations are some of the state’s toughest. They require rentals be inspected yearly and annual lead paint inspections by certified inspectors.
Most Metro Detroit suburbs inspect every two or three years and don’t require a certified lead inspection. Inspections cost $150 a year and the lead testing can range from $450 to $700 a year, excluding any work that needs to be done.
“It is going to have the opposite effect,” said Chris Garner, owner of Garner Properties and Management, a firm that manages about 200 Detroit rentals. “The cost of getting into compliance in Detroit is such a burden. It’s hard enough for an investor in Detroit.”
Garner said he has owners looking to sell because of the added inspection costs and the challenges of theft and bad tenants. He anticipates the investors will be selling at a loss. That will invite “speculators who are looking for short-term returns and will work to circumvent the system,” he said.
Compounding the problem is the age of the city’s housing. About 80 percent of the city’s housing was constructed prior to 1960, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For Michigan as a whole, the number is 37 percent.
Drew Sygit, president of the Real Estate Investors Association of Oakland, doubts that much of the eviction caseload is due to landlords not following city rules. He said most investors take care of their properties and that much of the problem is “slum tenants” who destroy rentals and abuse the courts.
“(Repair complaints are) the first defense they throw up,” Sygit said. “Most bring it up as a defense because they don’t have the money.”
Spivey has said the council is trying to work with landlords. He has proposed reducing the inspection cycle to three years for those who have paid taxes and have no blight violations. His proposal, made in May, would also alter the lead requirements. Landlords would still need an initial lead inspection, but after that would only need a $250 risk assessment, where a trained inspector looks for problems like peeling paint.
Garner said relaxing the regulations isn’t enough. He predicted an owner will challenge the city allowing renters to escrow their rent, after a period of time, if a landlord hasn’t gotten a certificate of compliance.
The city is going to hire a third party to oversee escrow accounts, Spivey said.
“That’s impossible to manage in a small city,” Garner said.
Dewar, who has studied Detroit’s real estate market, said the city doesn’t have the resources to inspect all rentals, but could focus on the worst offenders. About 25,600 units are inspected separately through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because they are in public housing or Section 8 rentals.
“Detroit ... needs to develop a system where the chronic violators receive a lot of inspection attention and better landlords receive much less,” Dewar said.
Joyce Elston agreed. The 45-year-old Detroiter said she recently faced an eviction, not because she was late with rent, but because she called in a city inspector to her rental. The inspector found a number of issues, including dangerous electrical wiring, she said. Elston said she was lucky to find a nonprofit lawyer who helped her fight the eviction. She later found a new place to live.
“I could have been sleeping on the curb,” she said. “You have your good landlords and your bad landlords and your good tenants and your bad tenants. But the city needs to be more strict. You have to weed (the bad landlords) out.”
Leaving mice, sludge
Tucker fought her eviction with help from the nonprofit, Lakeshore Legal Aid. Her landlord agreed to dismiss the case as long as Tucker moved out. She found a new place in March on the east side with help from a local nonprofit, United Community Housing Coalition.
Because Tucker wanted to leave anyway, Judge B. Pennie Millender never heard details about the basement sewage and other repair problems.
“I prayed to God every day to get them out of here,” Tucker said of her boys as she loaded milk crates and garbage bags of laundry into a U-Haul truck. “I don’t want them to get sick.”
Both boys already suffered from asthma.
She didn’t expect her former landlord’s house would stay empty long.
“There are people already posting on her Facebook page asking her when they can rent it,” Tucker said in March.
Neighbors said a few new tenants moved in and out after Tucker left. The county foreclosed in the spring over $4,600 in unpaid taxes. Then in July someone torched the home while it was vacant.
About this series
Detroit News Staff Writer Christine MacDonald spent the last year examining eviction data — more than 285,000 cases — from Detroit’s 36th District Court between 2009 and August 2017 to shed light on the persistent churn of landlord-tenant cases the court hears every year. The data included rental addresses and information on tenants and landlords but doesn’t indicate whether an eviction was actually carried out. Data documenting actual evictions was not available. The data analysis was done in partnership with Eric Seymour, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University who has studied housing instability in Detroit. MacDonald also spent several months in court, observing cases and following families facing eviction who were struggling with major repair issues and a lack of city enforcement.