Detroit Tenants Association Builds a Citywide Coalition Pushing For Renters’ Rights 

Tenants of the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor march in protest in front of the New Center Plaza regarding landlord issues of rent hikes and building maintenance on May 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of Steven Rimmer. 

  

The threat of eviction is still an everyday reality for many Detroit renters.  

Recently local community members and partner advocacy organizations came together to build a citywide coalition, Detroit Tenants Association, to fight back. 

“This year, January 2022, we were pretty much forced to form the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor,” said Steven Rimmer, coordinator of both the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor and the Seward Ave. Tenants Association. 

“They’re two buildings directly across from one another and they’re both owned by Raymond DeBates, and they’re now managed by Continental Management. Back in January, we had a lot of issues with the building maintenance, we reached out to BSEED to complain. They came out and issued them violations and the corrections that need to be made.” 

Tenants faced steep rent hikes and building compliance issues, including elevator malfunctions in the 4-story building.  

“A lot of people here got large rent increases, mine went up $269,” said Rimmer. “So, we decided to form a tenants association to create a line of communication between management, the tenants and the property owner.” 

Rimmer said the organizing of the tenants and increased media publicity pressured the property owner to sign a written agreement to rolling back rent, return the credit of the increase to tenants and addressing maintenance issues. 

 However, once the new management company took over, the promises were not kept with the ownership transition. Instead, the company will be conducting a market rate study to raise rent rates based on a competitive rate. 

Rimmer said tenants at the Seward Ave Sharing Table cooperative experienced multiple forms of intimidation and retaliation due to their unionizing efforts. 

“He [DeBates] went around banging on tenants’ doors,” said Rimmer. “People were saying he was telling them they were rolling back the rent and asking questions about the tenants association and if they were involved.” 

In working with tenants across the city, members of the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor and the Seward Ave. Tenants Association are banding together to create the Detroit Tenants Association to stand in solidarity on similar issues across the board. 

“The goal of DTA for me really is legislation,” said Rimmer, “We have to get some changes made here in the city of Detroit so that renters have more protections. Right now, we pretty much have none and that’s why landlords hold all the power — it’s because the law is in their favor, such as [lease] non-renewal.” 

According to the Detroit Rental Ordinance, landlords must complete several steps in order to be compliant, including registering the building as a rental property, completing a rental inspection, completing a lead inspection and clearance and obtaining a certificate of compliance.  

A certificate of compliance is required by the city’s rental ordinance to ensure the landlords are up to date on health and safety codes of their properties. Yet, according to the Urban Praxis Workshop’s Eviction Machine eviction rate study in Detroit, nearly 9 in 10 pandemic-era evictions involved properties operated unlawfully by landlords in violation of the ordinance. 

“There has been some response from the court,” said Alexa Eisenberg, researcher at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions. “[They] are narrowly interpreting the rental ordinance to apply to only non-payment of rent cases. This only increases the loophole for landlords. If they don’t want to be held accountable for lack of code compliance, they can file for termination of tenancy.” 

The newly formed Detroit Tenants Association (DTA) is a platform whereby collectively, members can cultivate enough strength to make a change by renters themselves.  

Partner organizations of the DTA include Moratorium Now!, Detroit Action, Michigan Communist Party, Detroit Eviction Defense, Charlevoix Village Association, Detroit Will Breathe and the Right to Counsel Coalition.  

The Michigan Chronicle spoke to longtime Detroit resident, Evan Villeneuve, a member of the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, a partner of DTA. 

The Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition began in 2019 as a necessity to address the eviction crisis. 

“We have an average around 3,000 evictions per year,” said Villeneuve, “which is an enormous amount since an estimated 1000,000 people have left the city in the last decade due to evictions.” 

The coalition looks to Right to Counsel models in New York, Baltimore and Cleveland for how having legal representation impacts a renter’s ability to stave off eviction. 

“In Detroit, where people with an attorney are getting evicted, it was something between 5-10 percent that had attorneys representing them. Whereas landlords had an upwards of 90 percent of attorneys that would come to court with them for eviction filings, so that power dynamic is skewed. And this is in favor of landlords who often skirt around. I would say they are often doing things not the most lawful in terms of the types of housing they are providing for their tenants, or in some ways they’re harassing their tenants as well.” 

Villeneuve said the high rates of eviction are lowering in part because there is a permanent right to counsel ordinance. 

In May 2022, Detroit City Council unanimously voted to approve an ordinance providing free legal aid to low-income Detroiters facing eviction. The ordinance allocated $6 million in federal COVID relief funds and an additional $4 million from a philanthropic partner in its first year. 

The Detroit Right to Counsel decided to partner with DTA to align their goals and missions for renters’ rights on several key issues. 

“We need to address the lack of rent control, which has been banned in Michigan since the 1980s,” said Villeneuve. “There is also the huge influx of Wall Street investors gobbling up resources in this city. Another thing is the unrealistic rise in rent, along with the luxury housing units that have built ourselves into a crisis, much like the mortgage crisis of the last recession. I hope DTA tackles these big, overarching issues, if we are ever going to build something sustainable for the next generation.” 

 

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