Detroit’s 36th District Court on June 5 will resume in-person eviction hearings for at least three months to address an influx of filings, a decision housing advocates say will make it hard for tenants to come to court and stay housed.
Advocates for renters say requiring in-person hearings could lead to more default judgments against tenants who struggle to make it out to court, while juggling work, child care and other responsibilities. It will also make it difficult, they say, for attorneys representing low-income Detroiters to provide the free legal aid they are required to offer under a city ordinance.
The court is moving from virtual proceedings to in-person hearings in the landlord tenant docket for a 90-day trial period to process paperwork faster. Filings are approaching pre-pandemic levels, surpassing 23,000 in 2022.
“While our goal is to resume virtual hearings at some point in the future, it is necessary to return to in-person landlord/tenant matters at this time. The court has recently experienced a sizeable increase in filings,” Chief Judge William McConico said in a news release earlier this month.
Advocates: Move for efficiency will hurt tenants
In-person hearings will allow staff to work with parties in real time, he said. The court does not have a system where parties can file electronically. Submissions for virtual hearings are handled through email and fax. Those documents must then be printed and delivered to judges, slowing the process. Some documents are handled by at least four people before they get to the judge. Virtual hearings, McConico said, increase the workload for court staff, as they handle the paperwork and provide technical support. Going back to the courthouse will also cut down printing and copying costs for the court, he said.
“It is important to remember that this return to in-person hearings is currently only scheduled to occur for a trial period of 90 days. We will work to see if this switch will result in better outcomes, and will revisit the decision if necessary,” McConico said in a Wednesday statement to the Free Press.
Ted Phillips, executive director of the Detroit-based United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), cautioned that requiring in-person hearings will burden tenants and the free legal aid attorneys meant to help them in court.
When a tenant doesn’t appear on their court date a default judgement is issued in favor of the landlord. In 36th District Court, if a tenant fails to show up for two hearings, the judge can issue that default. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 46% of eviction cases ended with default judgments, Phillips said, and throughout the pandemic, with virtual hearings, that dropped to 25%. Defaults will likely go up at a time when evictions are already increasing, he said.
McConico said the court will monitor the default rate weekly and address any spike.
“We’ve had a lot of clients that have attended their hearing from work, had a few that have attended their hearing from the hospital — all sorts of places that you wouldn’t necessarily normally think of. They’re not going to be able to do that,” Phillips said.
Evictions in Detroit are rising after major COVID-19 pandemic safety nets ended. Last year, landlords filed 23,000 eviction cases. Eviction orders — which allow a court officer to remove a tenant and their personal belongings from a rental property — nearly doubled last year compared to 2021, to 3,400, according to data from the 36th District Court.
Legal help at risk
Advocates worry that going back in person will mean fewer people will be able to show up to court. Among the hurdles: looking for child care, taking time off work, finding transportation and paying for downtown parking.
“Getting to 36th District Court is very challenging for a lot of our citizens. It always was and there’s nothing about June 5 that will all of a sudden make it easier for anybody to get there,” said Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, which pushed to pass an ordinance providing free lawyers for low-income Detroiters facing eviction.
The United Community Housing Coalition manages legal services for that program. The move back into the courthouse means fewer people assisting low-income clients.
“The attorneys are going to have to go from having a private conversation on Zoom from their office to the other person’s home and instead having that conversation in a hallway with 50, 60, 80 other people mulling around,” said UCHC’s Phillips.
He suggested to the court that it conduct all first hearings on Zoom and consolidate them on one day, per judge, so that agencies representing tenants can adequately advise clients.
“We are having internal discussions and seeking external feedback for how to best move forward after the end of the trial period. It is the ultimate goal to resume virtual hearings, even if only with first hearings initially,” McConico said.
Courts must use remote proceedings to the greatest extent possible in landlord tenant proceedings, said John Nevin, a spokesperson for the State Court Administrative Office, in an email. Courts across the state are operating in hybrid mode, he said, with some hearings taking place online and others in person.
Matthew Paletz, CEO of Paletz Law, a Troy-based firm that represents landlords and property owners, said he’s a supporter of virtual hearings for civil matters, like landlord tenant cases, and questioned the court’s shift to in person.
“It gives landlords an opportunity that they might not otherwise have to talk to their tenants to see if they can work out resolutions with their tenants. I see that as a good thing,” he said.
Remote proceedings allow for more participation in the process and it’s efficient, he said, adding that it’s time for courts that have switched back to in-person to embrace the remote technology.
“A landlord would much rather have their tenant working so that they can pay for their rent, as opposed to not only taking off from work, but then incurring other expenses,” Paletz said.
McConico, for his part, said he has received positive feedback from attorneys who say the change to in-person hearings will improve the process for all parties.
“We are working in good faith to address what we can based upon our own budget and resources, and are ‘throwing everything at the wall’ to create a process that works as smoothly as possible for all involved,” he said.