Detroit tenants get right to an eviction lawyer
On May 10, the Detroit City Council passed an ordinance providing tenants with the right to legal representation in the event of eviction. The ordinance is the product of a three-year fight by the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, which is made up of numerous tenants’ rights organizations and led by attorney and activist Tonya Phillips with the support of the president. of Mary Sheffield Council.
The ordinance will have a profound effect in the city. From 2014 to 2018, there were an average of 29,330 eviction petitions from Detroit per year in the 36th District Court, one of the busiest courts in the United States. The COVID-19 eviction moratorium has slowed these filings somewhat, but with the end of the moratorium, evictions are back to pre-pandemic levels.
A Michigan Poverty Solutions study noted that from 2014 to 2018, only 4.8% of tenants in Michigan had legal representation in eviction cases, compared to 83.2% of landlords with legal representation. The study found that tenants are nearly 90% more successful in winning their cases when they have a lawyer.
The majority of evictions in Detroit are carried out by investors who bought the properties cheaply at auctions and bank and land foreclosure sales. These investors, whose sole concern is short-term profit, routinely violate the law by not properly registering properties as rentals and certifying that they comply with city health and safety codes. With legal representation, tenants will now be able to use these landlord violations as defenses to prevent their eviction.
The Detroit ordinance requires that legal representation be provided to all tenants facing eviction whose household income does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty guidelines ($55,750 based on the federal guideline $27,750 for a family of four). In a city where the median household income was just $33,970 in 2019, and even less than that of the majority black population, virtually all tenants facing eviction in the city will now be entitled to an attorney under the household income threshold.
Detroit is the 15th city in the United States to enact legislation mandating the right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases, joining New York; San Francisco; Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland; Philadelphia Cream; Boulder, Colorado; Baltimore; Seattle; Louisville, Kentucky; Denver; Toledo; Ohio; Minneapolis; Kansas City, Missouri; and New Orleans. Maryland, Washington, and Connecticut are the only states to have tenants’ right to counsel laws.
City’s eviction epidemic rooted in racist banking practices
Detroit’s eviction epidemic can be directly attributed to the role of banks and financial institutions and their racist and predatory lending practices from 2005 to 2010. Prior to those years, Detroit was a city characterized by vibrant neighborhoods where working blacks owned homes they and their families had lived in for years.
Detroit once had the highest black homeownership rate of any city in the United States. In 1970, 60% of African Americans in Detroit, well above the national rate of 41%, owned their homes. In 2006, even after the racist restructuring of the auto industry by Chrysler and General Motors that shut down most auto plants in the city, black homeownership in Detroit was still 55%.
However, from 2005 to 2015, 65,000 Detroit homes were seized by banks. Those foreclosures were the product of $4 billion in subprime loans (loans at least 3% above prime), which made up 68% of all mortgages underwritten in the city. Many of them were refinances in which bank agents combed through Detroit neighborhoods and promised families money for needed repairs or medical bills, while concealing the fact that ownership of their home was threatened.
Banks bundled and sold these fraudulent loans as Wall Street securities, where their rate of profit was eight times higher than on similar securities for fixed-rate mortgages. All the banks were guilty of this criminal fraud. After the government paid the banks the full value of these predatory loans, the foreclosed homes were then auctioned off for a pittance. They have been scooped up by investors who exploited them for short-term gain and then let them slide into property tax foreclosure or abandoned them altogether.
While there were 349,170 households in Detroit in 2010 with a homeownership rate of 54%, or 192,043 owners, in 2016 there were only 232,780 households left in the city with a homeownership rate of 45%, i.e. only 104,751 owners.
Detroit’s population fell by nearly 240,000 between 2000 and 2010, from just under a million to 637,000. Neighborhoods that were once prosperous, where black workers owned their own homes, are now filled with abandoned, dilapidated structures or empty fields where family homes once stood.
And Detroit, where black homeownership was once the highest in the United States, is now a city of renters with 30,000 tenant evictions a year.
Banks expected to fund order as part of repairs owed to Detroiters
The right to counsel ordinance in eviction proceedings is a significant victory for Detroit residents in their ongoing struggle to retain their homes and housing. However, activists point out that Detroit’s ordinance faces challenges securing adequate funding to ensure its implementation. It requires that the right to counsel be funded by county, state, or federal funds as well as nonprofit organizations. The ordinance prohibits the use of municipal funds before December 31, 2026.
But last November, Detroit residents passed another law in a referendum mandating the creation of a reparations committee to make recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historic discrimination against residents. of this predominantly black city.
The banks that destroyed Detroit neighborhoods with their deliberate racist practices must be made to repay the city and its people for the consequences of their criminal acts.
Banks should be made to fund the right to counsel in eviction proceedings to ensure that tenants facing eviction get the benefits to which they are entitled. It would be a first step in forcing the banks to repay the people of Detroit for the billions of dollars they stole from them. They must provide the necessary funds, administered by the community, to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods and ensure the right to housing, quality education and health care for all Detroit residents.
Feature photo: Detroit activists celebrate victory after securing a lawyer for tenants in eviction cases, May 10. Photo credit: @DetroitRTC