Group wants renters to have lawyers in eviction cases

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News
Nykia Fite of Detroit can't hold back her emotions as she expresses the hardship of keeping her home during the  
Detroit Eviction Right to Counsel Summit on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Detroit.

The tears started when Nykia Fite mentioned her lawyer's name.

The 38-year-old Detroit mom recounted to a crowd of 150 people on Tuesday her recent experience facing eviction and homelessness when she got behind on her home's land contract payments after her daughter got sick.

She tried to pay the debt, but she said the seller still took her to court, despite Fite having already paid nearly $11,000 toward the home's $25,000 sales price. With help from a lawyer, Sean Riddell, from Lakeshore Legal Aid, Fite fought her eviction and was able to stay in the home. 

"I knew I didn’t know the law," Fite said. "I knew I didn’t know the type of language I needed to speak in court to have the judge hear me. He was my translator ... of the pain I was going through."

A group of lawyers and business leaders, along with renters like Fite, gathered Tuesday for a one-day conference called "Detroit Eviction Right To Counsel Summit" to push a proposal to guarantee a lawyer for all poor renters facing eviction in Detroit.

Among the group's findings: only about 4.4 percent of Detroit tenants in the approximately 32,000 evictions filed in 2017 had an attorney.

That's half of what some similar cities have reported, said Neil Steinkamp, managing director at Stout, a New York consultant firm that has conducted cost studies on guaranteeing representation in other cities nationwide. Nearly 83 percent of landlords were represented. 

Almost half of Detroit tenants didn't show up to fight their eviction case at all, which Steinkamp and other experts say shows that too few renters believe they can succeed in court. 

Renters are "feeling like the system is not there for them, it’s only there for the landlord," said John Pollack, the coordinator of the National Coalition for a Right to Civil Counsel. 

When renters didn't have an attorney, 28 percent of cases resulted in an agreement between the landlord and tenant, compared with 62 percent when tenants had an attorney, according to organizers. 

Steinkamp hasn't done a formal analysis of what it would cost to guarantee representation in Detroit but said he estimates it would cost $3.5 million to $4 million.

Speakers said evictions can have a wide effect, leading to job loss, worsening health problems and forcing children to switch schools. Guaranteeing legal help could prevent evictions, reducing costs of homeless shelters, courts and health care. 

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

"This is huge," said Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, which represents tenants in courts. "When people aren't represented, they are evicted. We can't possibly keep up."

Arthur Jemison, the city’s chief of services and infrastructure, on Tuesday committed to meeting with Phillips and other legal non profits on future proposals.

In a 2017 investigation, The Detroit News found families in 1 out of 5 Detroit rentals face eviction every year and that the vast majority of landlords who took their renters to court were themselves operating illegally.

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 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 regulations.

In New York, the city will spend $155 million a year when its program is 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.