The City of Detroit has selected the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition to manage legal services for a program that will provide free lawyers for low-income Detroiters facing eviction.
The United Community Housing Coalition has offered housing assistance to vulnerable residents in the city since 1973. In its role, the nonprofit will handle intake and referrals for legal defense as a part of the Office of Eviction Defense, required by an ordinance Detroit City Council unanimously passed in May. The council must approve the contract with UCHC.
The program has not yet started, but Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett told the Free Press on Thursday that he expects it to begin Jan. 1 or sooner. Mayor Mike Duggan will announce hires for an executive director and project manager for operations in the next two weeks to lead the office.
“Over the past two years, the City has taken unprecedented steps to help Detroit renters stay current on their rent and to provide them legal representation if they are being subjected to an unlawful eviction,” said Mayor Mike Duggan in a news release. “We have one of the finest housing rights organizations anywhere in the United Community Housing Coalition and look forward to swift approval from City Council so we can build our legal team capacity as quickly as possible to help as many Detroiters as possible.”
Advocates have called the ordinance a game changer and a major step forward in a city where tens of thousands of eviction cases were filed each year and where, before the COVID-19 pandemic, most tenants didn’t have legal representation compared with landlords. The program had missed an Oct. 1 start date.
The ordinance offers legal representation in 36th District Court for people below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines — or a person making $27,180 or less — who are facing eviction or involved in other proceedings, such as mortgage and property tax foreclosures.
Once the council approves the contract, the city will ask UCHC to manage a bid process to allow five other organizations which also applied, to help provide the services.
“We are going to need all the help we can get to meet the demand we expect,” Mallett said in a news release.
Tenant advocates have called for more funding for the effort and said the process to launch the program has not been transparent. A report by consulting firm Stout estimated that implementing a right to counsel program in Detroit would cost about $16.7 million a year.
Currently, the program would be backed, over three years, by $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The Gilbert Family Foundation separately donated $12 million to help three nonprofit organizations provide legal counsel in eviction proceedings.
City Council President Mary Sheffield led the effort to pass the ordinance.
“I am excited to arrive at the moment when the Right to Counsel Ordinance and the Office of Eviction Defense created by the legislation is on the precipice of providing this critical service to some of Detroit’s most vulnerable residents,” Sheffield said in a news release. “It also brings me great pleasure that the United Community Housing Coalition has been chosen to manage the program and to work with other organizations who have been providing these services for decades.”
Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Detroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA.