Advocates make last push to grant free legal aid to Detroiters facing eviction
Supporters of a proposed ordinance to guarantee Detroiters facing eviction have a right to free legal representation rallied Monday in support of the law they say would bring broad benefits.
The Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition gathered at the ACLU of Michigan headquarters to make their case ahead of an anticipated 10 a.m. public hearing and vote on the measure by Detroit’s City Council.
Community groups, nonprofit organizations, legal aid networks, activists and residents have pushed the council for months to adopt the ordinance before federal COVID aid runs out.
Attorney and project leader Tonya Meyers Phillips said Monday that eviction “touches every fabric of our lives, in every fabric of our society,” and it’s a bigger issue than a dispute between property owners and tenants.
“This is a communal issue and we have to change the tide,” she said. “We have to change the way we’ve been doing things.”
Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, who drafted the ordinance in partnership with the coalition, said it will “protect the future of Detroit” and that the proposal is “at the finish line.” She projected confidence that a majority of her colleagues will vote Tuesday to confirm its creation.
“(Eviction) drains public resources on many levels,” Sheffield said. “It causes mental health issues and continues the cycle of homelessness.”
If passed, the ordinance would amend Detroit City Code to ensure low-income residents with eviction cases in Detroit’s 36th District Court receive legal representation from qualified organizations. It also sets aside $6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay attorneys who participate. Detroiters must meet an income requirement of being at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines to qualify for representation.
Activists argue the $6 million comes up short of what’s needed to fully address the needs of Detroiters.
Sheffield acknowledged the ARPA dollars are only a temporary funding source for the program and the council needs to have another conversation about how it can make Right to Counsel sustainable in the long-term.
Sheffield said some of her colleagues believe the city’s General Fund can be used to pay for the program, but the city’s Law Department disagrees.
Charles Raimi, Detroit’s former acting corporation counsel, had argued against creating an ordinance that automatically gives residents the right to counsel without first determining their case is viable. Raimi also has warned against providing an open-ended right to a lawyer, citing concerns about the fiscal impact on city finances. Hassan Beydoun, senior advisor and counsel for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, has disagreed with advocates over how much experience aid agencies would need to participate. If the rules are too strict, he warned, it could jeopardize the city’s use of federal funds.
Sheffield said Monday that the city’s new Corporation Counsel Conard Mallett “seems a little bit more supportive of this initiative” and she hopes to revisit the issue of funding with him.
“We’re still looking at state money, federal money, county money and any other sources that can fully fund a Right to Counsel ordinance,” Sheffield said. “We know that what we have currently is not going to really touch the depth of what we have in Detroit, but it’s going to at least get us started, and we hope to have continued conversations on how we can maybe incorporate General Fund dollars moving forward.”
Detroit loses an estimated $29 million in economic value due to people leaving the city after being evicted, according to the draft ordinance. Each resident who leaves Detroit represents $3,751 in federal funds lost. The city could see $18 million in net savings to social safety net programs. U.S. Census data estimates more than half of all Detroit residents rent their homes.
The ordinance calls for the creation of an “Office of Eviction Defense” under the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department led by a coordinator who will start the program by Oct. 1.
Detroit averages 29,330 eviction filings each year. A 2019 report by University of Michigan Poverty Solutions found only 5% of tenants facing eviction have legal representation, compared to 83% of landlords, and that more than half of tenants in eviction proceedings don’t show up to court.
Advocates say residents rarely have access to full legal representation. Even when court-appointed attorneys are involved, they say, it’s unlikely that they follow a case from start to finish.
Full legal representation is defined in the ordinance as including all legal advice, advocacy and court appearances. The proposal requires that the participating lawyers are licensed in Michigan and have the “experience and competency to provide such legal representation.”
Bonsitu Kitaba, deputy legal director for the ACLU, noted Monday that eviction cases largely involve low-income tenants who don’t have the means to navigate complicated cases against landlords who aren’t always justified in bringing issues to court.
“We believe that representation needs to come from those attorneys who are experienced and knowledgeable to take on these cases,” Kitaba said. “This is not a situation where we want to be adopting the model of the criminal defense system where appointed attorneys are appointed without experience and given a few nominal dollars to provide representation.”
The city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department estimates fewer than 20% of rental structures in the city are code compliant. Tenesa Sanders, housing organizer for Detroit Action, said she’s seen too many renters living in properties that failed city inspections.
Legal representation, she said, could help them bring “greedy” landlords to justice for unsafe housing.
“We all deserve safe homes,” Sanders said. “We deserve legal aid when facing unethical landlords who are willing to ignore and push the law their way.”
Sara Habbo, president of the Detroit and Michigan chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, on Monday also described cases where courts failed residents suffering in unsanitary conditions because they did not have adequate legal representation.
“When I worked in legal aid, my clients lived in homes without hot water, with mold, with leaking ceilings and electrical issues, yet courts would still demand and require tenants to pay rent in homes that weren’t safe or sanitary to live in when they didn’t have attorneys,” Habbo said. “We’re talking about grandmas and family members and our veterans and the working poor, whether they’re able to stay in their homes or be in the streets, or if an investor can pay a mortgage on a home they don’t live in, they couldn’t afford and don’t maintain. A right to counsel ordinance shifts the balance closer to justice.”
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