Gilbert Family Foundation commits $13 million to aid Detroit renters facing eviction

Detroit — The Gilbert Family Foundation on Monday announced a commitment of $13 million to fund and study the city of Detroit's Right to Counsel initiative, which was established earlier this month to provide free legal services to low-income renters facing eviction in Detroit. 

The foundation says it will invest $12 million over three years into three organizations that will represent tenants in eviction proceedings at Detroit's 36th District Court: United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid.

The funds are expected to assist about 6,000 tenants per year, the foundation said. The program supports families with a child in the home who make 50% of the area median income or less. In Detroit, those income levels for a family of two is $35,800, $40,300 for a family of three and $44,750 for a family of four.

Another $1 million will be used "to fund a long-term study into the efficacy of the program, as well as the eviction defense ecosystem in Detroit," the foundation said.

Jennifer Gilbert, co-founder of the Gilbert Family Foundation, on Monday announced the foundation was committing $13 million to fund and study the city of Detroit's Right to Counsel initiative, established this month to provide free legal services to low-income renters facing eviction in Detroit.

The Detroit City Council on May 10 unanimously approved the Right to Counsel ordinance, which was spearheaded by its President Mary Sheffield and nearly two dozen organizations.

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

The city plans to provide $6 million in federal COVID relief funds to the effort.

Advocates had said more than $17 million is needed in the first year to kickstart the initiative.

United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid have been flooded with requests for help since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's federal eviction moratorium in August 2021.

The foundation noted that only 4% of tenants in landlord-tenant cases in Detroit have lawyers, while 83% of landlords have legal representation. 

Jennifer Gilbert, co-founder of the Gilbert Family Foundation along with her husband Dan Gilbert, owner of Rocket Mortgage, said in a statement that the Detroit Eviction Defense Fund "will level the scales of justice for vulnerable renters, who deserve the opportunity to remain in their home and enjoy lasting housing stability."

Ashley Lowe, CEO of Lakeshore Legal Aid, added that “without interventions like these, less than five percent of renters are represented by an attorney during eviction proceedings." 

Sheffield said in a statement that Right to Counsel is a "step forward" in securing the right to housing for Detroiters.

"Housing is a human right," Sheffield said in the statement.

Mayor Mike Duggan thanked the Gilberts for the donation and urged Detroiters to take advantage.

Duggan said that "6,000 Detroit families with children a year can know they are not alone and that they will have legal support to help them stay in their homes."

"The resources are here," Duggan added. "We just need people to take advantage of them."

Not all celebrated the move.

Detroit Action, an activist group, said that while it supports the Right to Counsel as an idea, the measure should be publicly-funded, not funded by a private donation. The Gilbert foundation donation, the group said, equated to "privatizing" the right.

"Mayor Duggan cannot allow this important policy issue to be funded by philanthropists, when it’s the city that has let unscrupulous landlords destroy our communities," said Branden Snyder, co-executive director of Detroit Action, in a statement. "We urge the Mayor to stand up for working class communities and ensure vital, public funding for the right to counsel.” 

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.

Detroit estimates that 82% of its residents are low-income, and 52% are renters. 

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 announcement follows another $20 million commitment made by the Gilbert's and partners earlier this month. The Gilbert Family Foundation alongside healthcare system ProMedica and DTE Energy introduced the Detroit Home Repair Fund which is anticipated to help more than 1,000 Detroit homeowners over the next three years.