Our Editorial: Evictions destabilize neighborhoods

The Detroit News

Stability is a pipe dream in a city in which more than 26,000 renters get evicted from their homes each year and have to scramble to find new places to live. Renters in Detroit face a 1 in 5 chance annually of being booted out of their homes.

That’s the conclusion of a Detroit News special report examining the latest housing crisis in Detroit: a shockingly high rate of evictions.

Key findings of the investigation include:

■Of the estimated 140,000 rental units in the city, an average of 26,400 are involved in evictions annually.

■While landlords are required under city law to register their units and have them inspected, last year just 4,174 complied.

■Violating the registration and inspection requirement carries little risk. Since 2014, just 5,000 tickets have been issued to those who ignore the law.

■Most landlords who are cited for blight violations avoid paying the fines. Nearly 85 percent of the levies, amounting to $2 million, remain unpaid.

All of this matters in a city with 54 percent of its residents renting their homes. That’s up from 45 percent in 2000, as home ownership has declined in Detroit.

Many, if not most, of the renters are booted out of their homes for not paying their rent. But the reasons for delinquency are often more complicated than simple household budget shortfalls.

A good number of those evicted, as The News’ series shows, withhold their monthly payments because they are living in squalid conditions due to landlord neglect of the property.

That’s an area in which the city should aggressively intervene.

First, it needs a lot more inspectors making sure rental units meet city code, and that the units are registered.

The city has recently hired four contractors to do inspections, and registration compliance is inching up. The city has also deputized inspectors to issue misdemeanor tickets to landlords with unregistered properties. That’s a welcome step, but the vast majority of rental units remain unregistered and uninspected.

Judges in landlord/tenant dispute cases can address complaints of disrepair by abating rent or ordering escrow accounts until fixes are made. But under state law they can’t legally hold up cases because a property hasn’t passed an inspection. The Legislature should act to give the courts that authority.

Councilman Andre Spivey introduced an ordinance in May to prevent landlords who haven’t passed an inspection and received a certificate of compliance from collecting rent. Landlords who are delinquent in their property taxes would not be able to get a certificate.

These are sensible measures.

Landlords complain that aggressive enforcement will drive up the costs of maintaining a rental home and push up rents for low income tenants.

That’s a concern the city must be mindful of as it sets new policies and attacks enforcement. It must avoid the unintended consequence of creating a housing shortage in Detroit.

But allowing the current conditions to persist is unacceptable, and impacts all aspects of life in the city.

For example, children who are serially uprooted from their homes also often end up bouncing from school to school throughout the academic year, denying them a consistent learning plan.

In addition, those who live in homes that are falling into disrepair are less likely to take care of those properties, contributing to Detroit’s overall blight problem.

And once evicted, renters may make the choice to leave the city altogether in search of more stable housing in neighboring suburbs.

More than half of Detroiters are living in homes they rent. The city has an obligation to make sure landlords are maintaining those homes so that they are fit to live in.