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Detroit City Council will hold a public hearing May 10 on the proposed Right to Counsel ordinance. The law, if approved, would ensure low-income Detroiters facing eviction have free legal representation. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

Advocates are at odds with the city over how much experience aid agencies will need to take part in a program to offer free legal services to low-income Detroiters facing eviction.

Debate over the proposed “Right to Counsel” ordinance played out Tuesday during Detroit City Council’s formal session as a coalition leader urged strict requirements for the law firms and organizations that seek to participate, while an aide to Mayor Mike Duggan countered such a move could put the city’s use of federal dollars earmarked for the initiative at risk.

Detroiters have pushed the council for months to adopt legislation that gives residents a fighting chance at avoiding displacement. A University of Michigan Poverty Solutions report 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. 

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The City Council will hold a May 10 public hearing on the draft ordinance ahead of a potential vote on whether to approve it.

Tonya Meyers Phillips, an attorney and project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, told council members Tuesday that there should be language in the law requiring attorneys and designated organizations to demonstrate a specific level of experience before they are considered to represent indigent Detroiters facing eviction. 

“It’s OK to set qualifications that say ‘I want an organization to have some experience representing poor people in the city of Detroit,’” Meyers Phillips argued. 

Such a requirement, she said, would lead to better outcomes for the city and its residents. 

“When you’re dealing with legal service agencies or you’re dealing with individuals who do this work day in and day out and they have demonstrated it, that will provide the city of Detroit the best return on its investment,” Meyers Phillips said. 

But Hassan Beydoun, senior advisor and counsel for Duggan, countered that narrowing down the organizations would disqualify the city from being able to use the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding designated for the program. He cited a federal regulation that requires “full and open” competition for procurement. 

The City Council asked Duggan’s administration to appropriate $6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds annually for the next three years to cover the cost of the right-to-counsel program. 

Beydoun said Tuesday that he opposes language in the draft that calls for legal organizations to demonstrate “experience, competency, and community-based partnerships in providing full legal representation and conducting community outreach to indigent persons facing eviction in the 36th District Court.” 

It’s unnecessary, he said, noting the ordinance already would require organizations to adhere to American Bar Association standards. He also pointed to a similar right to counsel ordinance passed in Cleveland, Ohio, that only requires organizations to show capacity to provide legal services per ABA standards. 

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Beydoun said. “It’s worked out very well for Cleveland, all the attorneys involved had been well qualified and I don’t see any reason why the same couldn’t be added here.”

Beydoun said a review of the language uncovered unintended legal and financial issues. This includes the disagreement over ARPA funding as well as a conflict over how to prioritize cases. 

Detroit averages 29,330 eviction filings each year. U.S. Census data estimates more than half of the city is renting their homes.

The ordinance, proposed by Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, would amend the Detroit City Code to create an Office of Eviction Defense within the Housing and Revitalization Department. The office would be tasked with providing ongoing legal representation to Detroiters living 200% below the poverty line in residential eviction cases as well as housing-related administrative proceedings which threaten occupancy. 

The program would start no later than Oct. 1. 

Sheffield has been a proponent of the program’s ability to stop cases from going to court, let alone prevent families from losing their housing. Sheffield said Tuesday that she’s been negotiating with the administration “day in and day out” over the ordinance language. 

“Unfortunately, there are still two to three outstanding issues that we’re not really able to see eye to eye on,” Sheffield said. “I thought that it was appropriate at this point to bring it to a public setting to at least allow the public to understand the kind of outstanding issues that we have and allow this to happen publicly.” 

Meyers Phillips said she disagrees with Beydoun’s interpretation that federal regulations rule out experience requirements, arguing that it is “not a noncompetitive issue that would somehow jeopardize ARPA funding.

The community, she added, has also expressed a clear desire for participating organizations that are specifically qualified to represent indigent residents in housing cases. She urged the council to support keeping the language in the ordinance. 

“Every word matters,” Meyers Philips told council members Tuesday. “Please don’t be deceived. I know you’re a savvy body, but if these words were not important, if they didn’t matter, if they were of no consequence, then I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

In a Wednesday interview, Sheffield told BridgeDetroit she feels the ordinance incorporates “pretty much everything” community partners have asked for. The City Council ultimately has the final say in any contract with legal entities participating in the right to counsel program, so Sheffield said the body can exercise its discretion to pick organizations that are qualified. 

“If we’re not liking how designated organizations are selected to implement the program, counsel can always put its foot down and demand a certain type of organization as it moves forward,” Sheffield said. “The main thing is people are ready to get something done, and we’re ready to get the services provided to our residents who need it the most. We’re really just trying to make sure people are staying in their homes.”

Detroiters Rea Maci and Yvonne Jones advocated for approval of the ordinance during Tuesday’s council meeting. Maci said the program is an investment in the community’s vulnerable residents, while Jones said providing legal services should be part of a larger affordable housing strategy. 

“There’s a three-to-one return on investment for every dollar invested in right to counsel and it is equitable, just and responsible public policy,” Maci said. “The residents of Detroit deserve to feel safe and secure in their homes and as their political leaders you have the opportunity to do the right thing by passing and fully funding this ordinance.”

An analysis of right to counsel ordinances in other states by Stout Risius Ross, a Chicago-based global investment bank and advisory firm, found dollars invested in the programs bring cost savings to cities that implemented them. Philadelphia saw a $12.74 return on every dollar spent on its right to counsel program, while Baltimore saw $3.06 per dollar and Delaware saw $2.76 per dollar. 

Stout has estimated Detroit lost 24,000 residents after an eviction filing in the last decade, depriving the city of income tax revenue and other economic benefits. In total, Stout estimated the city of Detroit lost $28.7 million in economic value due to out-migration from evictions. 

Another disagreement over the proposed law raised Tuesday was centered around how the city should prioritize legal services. 

The draft states that when the demand for legal services exceeds available funds, the program coordinator should prioritize services by financial need, the merits of the case and the recommendations developed in partnership with the legal service organizations.

Meyers Phillips said this should not prevent people from being able to express their right to an appeal. Beydoun countered that the ordinance should aim to prioritize people who need representation over those who seek “a relatively meritless appeal.”

“If the thought is that an appeal should come at the expense of someone being able to fight an eviction in the first place, then I would challenge that sentiment,” he said.

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