Opinion: A pathway for Detroit tenants to enforce their rights
As legal aid attorneys representing tenants in the city of Detroit, we witness our clients making the difficult choice between being homeless and living in substandard housing rife with hazardous conditions. Families are forced to live in homes with raw sewage in the basement, no water, no heat, doors that don’t lock, ceilings that are caving in, insect and rodent infestations, among other horrors. Many rentals are full of flaking lead paint, which many parents only become aware of after their young children have been poisoned.
The prevalence of substandard rental housing in Detroit is shocking and contrary to well-established law. A fundamental tenant of property law is the implied warranty of habitability. That is, landlords have a duty to keep residential rental properties livable, or fit for human use. The implied warranty of habitability is widely recognized throughout the country and under Michigan law. Local building codes set minimum standards for habitable housing. Landlords must comply with local building codes before they start renting a property. Building codes keep people safe and ensure a baseline standard of living.
In a landlord-tenant relationship, a landlord promises to rent a habitable home to a tenant, and a tenant promises to pay for use of the home. The obligations to maintain the property and to pay rent are mutual. If a tenant fails to pay, the landlord can bring an eviction action against the tenant for the violation. Michigan law also gives tenants options if their landlords fail to maintain the property. Tenants may withhold rent if they follow specific steps (we recommend tenants use MichiganLegalHelp.org for assistance).
Renters in Detroit, especially low-income renters, struggle to find safe and affordable housing. This is in large part because landlords have failed to hold up their end of the bargain and have allowed their properties to fall into a state of disrepair.
For the last 30 years, a city of Detroit ordinance has required landlords to register their rental properties and obtain a certificate of compliance before renting out their properties. Despite this decades-old requirement, landlords in Detroit have violated the law with relative impunity. Last year, there were 140,000 rental units in Detroit and only 3 percent were in compliance with the city’s ordinance. The years of neglect have created hazardous and unsafe housing conditions throughout the city. With 97 percent of rental properties not in compliance, it’s unsurprising that tenants have scarce options for finding safe housing in Detroit.
Landlords’ failure to comply with city and state law has not prevented them from using the law to routinely evict tenants. In fact, the 36th District Court handles over 35,000 landlord-tenant eviction cases per year, making it one of the busiest courts in the country. Landlords have been using the law when it suits them and ignoring it when it doesn’t. This double standard has contributed to a widespread eviction crisis in the city of Detroit. Tenants, who are overwhelmingly unrepresented, wind up with eviction judgments against them that force them to move from their homes and make it even harder to find new safe and affordable housing.
Detroit’s new rental enforcement ordinance offers a glimmer of hope to tenants. In October 2017, the city amended the Municipal Property Code in an effort to increase the quality of rental housing.
The new ordinance comes at an important time, because for the first time in 50 years, renters outnumber homeowners in Detroit. The new ordinance allows tenants to escrow rent with the city if their landlords have not both registered the property as a rental and obtained a certificate of compliance. If landlords do not have a certificate of compliance and tenants properly escrow rent, landlords may not evict tenants for non-payment of rent. The new ordinance declares that it’s “unlawful” for landlords to “collect rent” if rental properties are not in compliance.
The new ordinance sets the modest goal of bringing all Detroit rental properties in compliance and up to code by 2020. The obligation to register a rental property and obtain a certificate of compliance is not new. This requirement has been the law for decades.
The goal of the new ordinance is simply to require that landlords comply with the existing law. Landlords have been given plenty of notice. The city announced the enforcement plan in May 2017 and it has a rolling implementation that offers landlords additional time to register their properties and bring them into compliance.
For our clients, improving the quality of rental housing means having safe homes for their families. For example, one Lakeshore client is a Detroit resident and mother of two who rents a home on the east side. A few weeks after moving in last spring, her water stopped working. Her family could not bathe, brush their teeth, cook, or wash their clothes in their house.
After several weeks with no water and after alerting the landlord, our client withheld rent. Soon after, her landlord tried to evict her for non-payment of rent even though the home had no water, was not registered as a rental with the city, and did not have a certificate of compliance. She and her landlord went to court five times for the single eviction case. Eventually, the court dismissed the case on procedural grounds and the parties settled. If she lived in one of the two active zip codes, she would have been able to escrow her rent with the city until the water had been restored, and the lack of a certificate of compliance would have been grounds for dismissal at the very first court date.
Brintanni Hunt, another east side resident and Lakeshore client, faced eviction in August 2018. She rents a home with her partner and lives there with her four children. After moving in, she discovered serious problems, including flooding and raw sewage in the basement, no heat in the winter, and a severe bed bug infestation. Hunt repeatedly asked the landlord to make repairs, but he refused to do so. Hunt stated, “I called the city inspectors and stopped paying the landlord rent because the house was falling apart; the ceiling started failing on my sleeping children.” Instead of making repairs, the landlord filed a termination of tenancy case and attempted to evict Hunt and her family.
At the hearing, the court heard evidence from both sides, and ultimately concluded that the landlord failed to keep the property in habitable condition. The property was not registered with the city and there was no certificate of compliance. In fact, the city recently inspected the property and found 24 violations.
Because of the serious repair problems with the property, the court dismissed the landlord’s eviction case, and further ordered that no rent was due and the tenants shall escrow their rent with the city or with a bank until the landlord made the repairs. For Hunt and her family, the court’s decision meant that they are not going to be homeless. They can stay in the home and escrow rent going forward. Their landlord will not be able to collect rent or evict them until the repairs are made, the property is registered, and a certificate of compliance is obtained.
In Detroit, landlords have been able to skirt the law for decades while collecting rent, not maintaining their rental properties, and evicting tenants. Given landlords’ widespread noncompliance with the housing code, tenants in Detroit had little choice but to live with unsafe conditions for decades.
For our clients, the new ordinance means protection against eviction if they exercise their right under the law and escrow their rent. In the short term, the new ordinance gives tenants a path to enforce their rights. In the long term, the new ordinance has the potential to compel Detroit landlords to follow the law and improve housing conditions across the city.
Linda Jordan and Marie DeFer are staff attorneys at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Detroit. They represent low income and elderly individuals in civil litigation, including housing law.