Legal groups propose help for Detroit tenants facing eviction

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News
LaTasha Tucker of Detroit gets help from family to move out after she was evicted from her rental in 2017 on Detroit's northwest side, even though her landlord ignored her pleas for help to fix her basement sewage backups.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect Neil Steinkamp is managing director at Stout, a New York consultant firm.

Poor renters in Detroit would be guaranteed legal help to fight evictions under a proposal being pitched by an influential group of lawyers and business leaders next month.

The "Detroit Eviction Right To Counsel Summit" will be held March 12 and include local and national experts along with tenants facing evictions. They are expected to lay out the costs and benefits of adopting a program similar to one established two years ago in New York City.

The summit's sponsors are a collection of more than 20 organizations, including the State Bar of Michigan, the ACLU of Michigan, several Michigan laws schools and Ford Motor Co., organizers said.

In a 2017 investigation, The Detroit News found families in one out of five Detroit rentals face eviction every year and that the vast majority of landlords who took their renters to court were themselves operating illegally.

"It's really an uneven playing field," said Joon Sung, Lakeshore Legal Aid's Chief Litigation Officer, whose nonprofit is one of a handful that represent renters in Detroit. 

Evictions can lead to job loss, exacerbate health problems and add to the learning challenges faced by children who must switch schools, backers say. Providing legal help to renters could lessen unnecessary or improper evictions, which add costs for homeless shelters, courts and health care providers. 

"Every case I saw was extreme," said Kim Ray, an attorney with Ford Credit North America who began volunteering last year with legal aid groups in Detroit's 36th District Court. "Without a lawyer, the tenants just don't know what their rights are."

She said she faced off against landlords seeking evictions while refusing to fix exposed electrical wiring, a gaping hole in a child's bedroom ceiling, broken kitchen appliances and rat infestations. One family could only keep food in their refrigerator to keep the rats at bay, she said.

With her help, Ray said judges ordered landlords to fix problems, discount rent because of the lack of repairs and provide more time for tenants to move out.

But some landlords worry facing a longer and costly process to evict rent-dodging tenants will push them out of the industry. Many already complain a separate city-led effort forcing all rentals pass city inspections is onerous, forcing owners to sell off properties. 

Aaron Cox, a landlord attorney, said if there are legitimate repair issues, guaranteeing representation for tenants would make sense. But he said in many cases "legal aid is merely there to cause delays."

"It would be unnecessarily burdensome to the court system," Cox said.  

In 2017, there were 32,220 landlord-tenant dispute cases filed in 36th District Court, the vast majority involving residential properties. It's not known how many tenants were represented by attorneys. Many renters don't appear at the hearings.  

"That's the heartbreaking part," Ray said. "Those people who don't think that they have a chance."

A cost study hasn't been done yet on launching a right to counsel program in Detroit yet. And organizers aren't specific on who they hope would fund the effort. 

The 2017 Detroit News investigation documented families facing a cycle of eviction in unsafe, illegal rentals, including homes without heat in the winter, hazardous electric systems, missing windows, rodent infestations and a sewage-filled basement. City officials admitted they had let most landlords ignore inspection rules for more than a decade but launched a crackdown after the investigation.

New York was the first city to guarantee an attorney to low-income tenants facing eviction in 2017. San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey, followed with similar programs and Cleveland, Washington D.C., Seattle and Philadelphia are exploring their own, said Neil Steinkamp, managing director at Stout, a New York consultant firm that has conducted cost studies on guaranteeing representation. He is also working on the Detroit effort. 

In New York, the city will spend $155 million a year when fully implemented. Before it was launched, a study by Steinkamp found the city could save $320 million by providing lawyers to low-income tenants. New York expects to handle 125,000 cases a year.  

"We hope the summit will draw attention to the situation and explore ways to close the gap in representation, including a discussion of how other large urban areas have demonstrated the long-term benefits of providing attorneys for indigent tenants," according to a statement from the Detroit law firm Dykema, a summit organizer.