M. Lewis Bass has been looking for affordable housing for five years, but has faced roadblocks along the way — he makes too much money for income-based housing; he doesn’t make enough for market rate units, and waiting lists are long.
Bass, 71, of Detroit, attended the orientation for what would be a citywide tenants association on Sunday at the Spirit of Detroit Plaza and encouraged residents to get involved. Renters, he said, need to organize in their neighborhoods to voice their concerns and understand their rights.
There’s a need for more affordable and safe housing in the majority renter city, renters and advocates said.
The Detroit Tenants Association would be a start for renters in the city to protect themselves, said Steven Rimmer, coordinator of the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and the Marlenor. Rent prices, he said, are rising and displacing longtime Detroiters.
“It’s just been a struggle,” said Bass, who is on a fixed income and has been a renter for 49 years.
Ultimately, Bass wants to live in a place with other seniors. He’s looking for a low-rise building that is accessible in case the elevators break down. Application fees alone cost money — between $35 to $75 in his experience — and prospective renters may not even hear back about vacancies, he said.
Renters, he said, should be able to share concerns around repairs and have those issues addressed in the place they call home.
As of 2015, 51% of Detroit households are renters, compared with 49% of homeowners, according to a Detroit Future City report looking at American Community Survey data.
“You shouldn’t be put out of your place because you filed a complaint and that’s what’s happening all over the city, all over the nation,” Bass said Sunday. “We want to put a stop to that. We need tenants’ rights. We need to be able to fight back because right now all you got is three choices: you either give in, give up or give it all you got.”
The group aims to fight for rent control, Rimmer said. Michigan law prohibits local governments from designating the amount of rent a private residential property charges.
They also want a “right to renew” their lease and say renters are in a vulnerable position after their lease ends. According to Michigan Legal Help, a person can keep living in their home if they have an agreement with their landlord after a lease ends, and can negotiate a new contract or become a month-to-month tenant.
Evan Villeneuve, of the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, said there are several issues to tackle: evictions, the shortage of affordable housing, dilapidated housing and seniors needing home repairs.
“We have to recognize that housing is a human right,” Villeneuve said. “There’s no better time than now to start a coalition of different groups coming together to work on housing issues.”
The group is mobilizing as a $1.1 billion rent assistance program — meant to keep vulnerable Michigan renters housed during the COVID-19 pandemic — winds down and advocates worry that eviction filings will go up.
Earlier this year, Detroit City Council passed an ordinance that provides free lawyers for low-income Detroiters facing eviction but long-term funding, advocates have said, is an ongoing concern.
The city of Detroit over the summer announced a plan to support vulnerable renters after the statewide rent aid program ends, including lawyers for those in court facing eviction, potential job placement through a city program and assistance getting into emergency shelter.
Detroit City Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway, who represents District 2, said on Sunday that she has faced eviction in college and after she graduated. She said her office has been working to bring landlords into compliance, but that all branches of city government need to work together to tackle residents’ housing concerns.
“It’s not fun coming home and all your things are outside on the curb. I’ve been there more than once,” Whitfield-Calloway said.