Next month, the City of Detroit plans to launch a long awaited program that will provide free lawyers for low-income Detroiters who face eviction.
The program is required under an ordinance Detroit City Council passed over the summer. At the time, advocates who pushed for the ordinance called it a major step forward in addressing a huge disparity in legal representation. In a city where pre-pandemic eviction cases averaged nearly 30,000 a year, most landlords are represented by lawyers, while most tenants are not.
Research shows that when tenants have legal representation, they are more likely to reach an agreement with their landlord and stay in their homes, avoiding the repercussions of a potential eviction such as homelessness and school disruptions.
Evictions leave lasting scars on families, housing experts say, making it harder to find housing in the future and often leaving people with little choice but to live in poor living conditions, a situation exacerbated by an affordable housing crunch.
The city missed an Oct. 1 deadline for the Office of Eviction Defense to start the program. Officials said it is now slated to begin in March. The city hired April Faith-Slaker, who most recently served as associate director of the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, to lead the new Office of Eviction Defense as executive director and Dylon Adrine, a process improvement consultant at the city, as program manager.
Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett said legal aid will be available starting March 1 after the council on Tuesday approved a $4.9 million contract with the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition to provide legal services.
Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, a group that has been pushing to guarantee free legal counsel for low-income Detroiters facing eviction, is calling for more funding because eviction cases, they estimate, are projected to near pre-pandemic levels this year.
The Free Press spoke with Faith-Slaker last week about what Detroiters can expect from the Office of Eviction Defense.
How will the program work?
Under the ordinance, the program offers legal representation in 36th District Court for people below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines — or a person making $29,160 or less in 2023 — facing eviction or involved in other proceedings that threatens the loss of a home, such as mortgage and property tax foreclosures.
The plan is for tenants to connect with attorneys at their first hearing through the end of a case, but Faith-Slaker’s goal is to be more proactive with outreach to connect people with services sooner.
To determine eligibility, the United Community Housing Coalition will request documentation of income. But that may not be the most practical option, she said, since tenants may not bring tax forms, for instance, to a hearing. In situations where people don’t have income information readily available, eligibility will be based on what the tenant says their income is — or self attestation.
“Ultimately, we’re not going to turn away a case where someone says that they’re low-income and just can’t produce the documentation right away,” she said.
In Detroit, 83% of landlords have legal representation, compared with less than 5% of tenants facing eviction, according to the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions.
How much funding is there?
The program is backed over three years with $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars. It can handle about 2,000 cases a year, officials said. Detroit, prior to the pandemic, saw about 30,000 eviction cases annually, according to a U-M Poverty Solutions report.
Faith-Slaker said the current budgeted capacity is something her office will revisit as she collects data to better understand needs and how a separate Gilbert Family Foundation contribution will factor into administering the city program. The foundation donated $12 million, over three years, to help three nonprofit organizations; United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid, provide legal counsel in eviction proceedings to 6,000 low-income families with children per year.
Tenant advocates have called for more accessible services from the city to help renters facing hardship, including better customer service. They also say the program needs more funding. A report that advocates cite from consulting firm Stout estimated that implementing a right to counsel program in Detroit would cost about $16.7 million a year to provide free legal help to 12,400 tenants, but as cases continue to rise, so too will the need, said Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition.
“Fund that office, fund legal representation. It’s an investment in housing and housing stability that we just can’t afford to keep ignoring and pretending like everything’s okay, when it’s not,” Phillips said.
Data collection will help determine the program’s impact, Faith-Slaker said. Her office plans to track case outcomes, if landlords have certificates of compliance, total eviction filings over time, landlord and tenant legal representation and demographic information.
When the ordinance passed in May, Detroit joined 14 other cities and three states that offer legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
“I hope that it gives people more confidence to show up to court to assert their rights, to feel like the court system is there for them and not just some institution they got entangled in,” Faith-Slaker said.