Detroit push fails to boost rental inspections

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News
City of Detroit Building Inspector Ken Potenga walks off the porch of a Detroit house after retrieving information on the rental-ordinance-related ticket he securely taped to the front door of this property.

Detroit — The bulk of city landlords have ignored a campaign launched by Mayor Mike Duggan nearly a year ago requiring all rentals pass city inspections.

As of earlier this month, only 10 percent — or 537 of 5,281 known rental properties — had a city clearance to legally operate in six ZIP codes the effort first began targeting back in February, according to data reviewed by The Detroit News.

Officials originally pledged to have rental units citywide pass inspections needed for certificates of compliance by the end of 2019, but the slow pace means that two-year goal will be pushed back, while inspectors target violators with tickets and possible misdemeanor criminal charges, said David Bell, director of the buildings, safety engineering & environmental department.

“It's not where we want it to be," Bell said. "Some landlords are getting the message and are moving forward. Others have decided to take a wait-and-see approach.

"It appears it takes time to change this culture that has been in effect for quite a while."

The enforcement started after an investigation by The News 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.

Tickets issued to landlords were up last year: Nearly 9,000 were written in 2018 compared to about 8,059 the year before. Penalties range from $250-$1,000 each for the first offense and can rise to $3,500 for repeat tickets.

But the tickets, along with mailings and community meetings, haven't been enough to prompt most to follow the rules in the first six targeted ZIP codes. Only 14 percent have passed inspections in 48215, 10 percent in 48224, 12 percent in 48223, 10 percent in 48219, 7 percent in 48209 and 3 percent in 48210, as of earlier this month. Deadlines to comply were staggered during the year in each of the ZIP codes starting in August.  

In Detroit, landlords must register properties and get the certificate of compliance, which includes passing an inspection and getting a lead paint clearance annually.

Some landlords argue the city's regulations are too costly and onerous, forcing owners to sell off properties. The city faces at least two federal lawsuits from landlords and property managers challenging the ordinance, arguing it violates owners' rights to unreasonable searches and they can't challenge a city denial to operate.

"They are selling their properties,"  said James Abbott, a longtime landlord attorney. "I have lost a lot of clients on the east side ... who have just given up, thrown up their hands.

But renters such as 66-year-old Gloria Campbell say the city needs to do more. She battled an absentee landlord for months in 2017 in a two-bedroom apartment with mold, rodents, a flooded basement and sewage bubbling up from the tub. She faced eviction when she withheld $650 a month in rent and moved in with her sister to escape the poor conditions. 

"He had never passed any inspections," Campbell said. "It was unsafe."

"The city needs to crack down even more."

Nonprofits that work with renters say they wish the city could move more quickly, but realize it's a tough process. 

"While we'd like enforcement to go faster, we think the city is doing a good job at designing a rationale process of making the effort work long term," said Mary Sue Schottenfels, executive director for CLEARCorps/Detroit. "There are still far too many landlords that must be held accountable." 

One of the biggest landlord complaints is the cost of the city's annual lead paint inspection. An initial inspection ranges between $450 and $700, not including repairs. The city requires annual follow-up inspections that average about $250 to make sure lead hazards haven't returned.

Lead paint commonly used in homes before 1978, ingested from chips or dust, is considered the top culprit for lead poisoning in children, which can lead to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties.

If the crackdown is too tough, some worry it will push out mom-and-pop landlords and worsen the city's affordable housing crunch. 

City of Detroit Building Inspector Ken Potenga attaches a rental-ordinance-related ticket to the front door of this property in Detroit.

Amina Kirk, a senior legal and policy advocate with Detroit People's Platform, argues those landlords are more likely to be renting to a relative or a neighbor at an affordable rate and may not have the money for improvements. If those landlords are pushed to sell, it could reduce affordable options for tenants. She'd like to see low-interest loans or grants for small-time landlords who offer low rents.

"We have a responsibility to be more careful because we haven't enforced our rental regulations in such a long time, and we have a very vulnerable population in need of affordable housing,"  Kirk said.

Bell said the city isn't trying to put landlords out of business, but if they sell, there are others who will step in and buy. 

"A significant amount of these (new buyers) are coming in knowing the rules of the game," Bell said. "They appear they want to play by the rules, and that excites me."

Bell said his office is making progress after hiring 26 ticket writers and support staff in October. They entered into 457 consent agreements in 2018 and 2019 with landlords who've agreed to follow deadlines toward complying. 

"We are doing our best to work with landlords who are trying to move forward … the goal is to get the word out that we want to partner with them to make this city better," Bell said. 

Another controversial part of the new ordinance: Tenants can escrow their rent with the city for 90 days if their rental doesn't have a certificate of compliance and the landlord is not allowed to collect rent. City officials say they have had at most 30 renters using the program at a time.

But some judges in Detroit's 36th District Court aren't recognizing the city's new rule, said Joon Sung, Lakeshore Legal Aid's chief litigation officer.

"The courts are evicting tenants even when there is no certificate of compliance, in contrast with the ordinance," Sung said.

Landlords say the city escrow rules hurt their business and is ripe for abuse by tenants who don't want to pay. 

This rental-ordinance-related ticket is securely taped to the front door of this rental property in a weather-resistant plastic bag.

Deadlines are different for each ZIP code, but tenants in unlicensed rentals can now escrow their rent with the city in five of the city ZIP codes that were in the first enforcement phase.

Joe McGuire, an attorney for the nonprofit Michigan Legal Services, doesn't recommend renters put their rent in escrow with the city. If tenants escrow with the city while living in a home with particularly bad conditions, they could lose out, he said. 

Judges often discount rent if repair problems are severe, such as no heat. But a landlord could refuse to fix the heat in a rental until the 89th day in escrow, and the city will hand over the full three months rent to the landlord. 

Also, if renters decide to move, they can't get the money until the 90 days are up, McGuire said. 

Sung said he would have hoped that more landlords would have passed inspections by now.

"The problem for each property without a certificate is that Detroit tenants — individuals, families, including kids are in dangerous and slum conditions," he said.