Angelo Henderson award winner Ted Phillips: Fights for Detroiters who face eviction, tax foreclosure

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ted Phillips believes you can always find a way to do the right thing.

As executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, Phillips has spent more than three decades fighting to spare Detroit's most vulnerable from eviction and tax foreclosure.

"I've really enjoyed being able to be the one that could say, 'no, I don't care if the rule is exactly this, there's no way that somebody in a wheelchair is going to be told we're not going to help them, when the ramifications of that is they're going to be homeless,'" said Phillips, a northwest Detroit resident. "We're going to find a way to do the right thing."

The Detroit-based nonprofit serves about 10,000 people per year through foreclosure prevention, legal assistance and housing programs and is in the midst of a monumental task: administering the state's new Eviction Diversion Program to keep city renters in their homes. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled the $50 million program in July after the state lifted an eviction ban put in place amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

Phillips' organization has $6.4 million and a goal of aiding 2,000 Detroit tenants under the effort that got off the ground in late September. 

Ted Phillips is seen inside a conference room at the United Community Housing Coalition. Phillips, head of the United Community Housing Coalition, has been a force in keeping people in their homes by helping them avoid eviction and tax foreclosures.

With Phillips at the helm, the organization persevered despite several staffers, and Phillips himself, being sidelined by the virus as they raced to help clients during the state-imposed moratorium on evictions.

"With the threat of eviction," he said, "there wasn't the ability to just stop everything."

Phillips landed his role with the coalition in 1986 and, apart from a two-year stint with Detroit's Housing Commission, has been there ever since. 

The Wayne State Law School graduate attended Cass Technical High School and earned an undergraduate degree in history at Wayne State, and previously was an attorney for the Legal Aid and Defender Landlord-Tenant Clinic. 

Phillips' mission has always been to "find ways to grow the organization in areas that were not covered elsewhere." 

Among them, the nonprofit has space in Detroit's 36th District Court to operate a legal aid clinic in partnership with Lakeshore Legal Aid and Michigan Legal Services. The setup ensures renters can go into hearings with an attorney at their side.

Phillips said he successfully lobbied the court this summer to adjourn many tenant cases, rather than enter defaults against residents unable to get timely notice of their hearings due to pandemic-induced mail delays. 

He drafted hundreds of letters that were hand-delivered by the city's Department of Neighborhoods to individuals who missed hearings to provide guidance on next steps. 

Richard Hughes connected with Phillips in the mid-2000s after his family home was foreclosed on due to back taxes. 

The 68-year-old said he was fearful of being duped, but quickly found Phillips had his best interest in mind. 

"I didn't trust people, but Ted came to me and saved my house," he said. "Since then, he's been like a big brother to me in more ways than one."

The coalition launched and later expanded the Make It Home program in partnership with the Detroit to help residents faced with tax foreclosure retain their homes. 

Phillips said it's made homeowners of more than 1,150 low-income Detroiters. 

"I'm proud of that," he said. "There's still so much more to do."

Ted Phillips 

Age: 66 

Occupation: Executive director of United Community Housing Coalition 

Education: Bachelor's degree, Wayne State University, graduate of Wayne State University Law School 

Family: Four children, 11 grandchildren 

Why: Phillips has been a force in keeping people in their homes by helping them avoid eviction and tax foreclosures.