Detroit City Council members took several actions Tuesday to support “affordable housing” and call for more investment in solutions to the city’s eviction crisis.
The council unanimously adopted a resolution urging Mayor Mike Duggan to ensure low-income Detroiters can access free legal representation through a program beset by delays since being approved last year. Council members also boosted funding for a website used to find affordable units and approved new requirements for developers who receive federal COVID-19 aid for housing projects.
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Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. said Tuesday that the city has been meeting with the United Community Housing Coalition, which was selected to help manage Detroit’s stalled eviction defense office, to finalize a contract that should be ready for the City Council approval at the end of January.
The right-to-counsel ordinance was supposed to go into effect on Oct. 1, 2022, but the city missed the start date by several months after the bidding process was extended. Advocates who pushed for the proposal argued in City Council meetings last year that the delay represents a failure of Duggan’s administration to protect residents from eviction.
Mallett said the administration sees the urgency. There’s no question, he said, that eviction filings increased to levels seen before the pandemic inspired temporary eviction bans and federally-funded social supports.
“There’s no lack of enthusiasm on the part of the administration for (right-to-counsel),” Mallett said.
Mallett said once the contract is signed, tenants in need of legal assistance will be able to immediately apply for help through UCHC, a nonprofit organization which already provides free legal services to low-income Detroiters. UCHC will also hire three subcontractors to aid in the work.
The Office of Eviction Defense will be led by April Faith-Slaker, formerly an associate director of the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School. Dylon Adrine, a process improvement consultant with the city, will serve as program manager.
The new office is funded for three years through $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. The City Council approved a resolution in July 2022 Duggan to allocate $12 million in additional ARPA funds to support the right-to-counsel ordinance. Organizers who spearheaded the ordinance have pressed Duggan to allocate $18 million to “fully fund” the legal aid.
The Gilbert Family Foundation also committed $12 million to create an eviction defense fund that has different qualifications from the city’s program.
Mallett said conversations about directing more funding to right-to-counsel “are going to be much more substantive” after the program is active for 60 days. He said this will provide more data that can address how the needs of Detroiters are being met.
Council members urged Duggan in the Tuesday resolution to “immediately fund the implementation of this ordinance using all available resources,” but did not specify how much money they’re asking for. The resolution also calls for Duggan to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the new Democratic-majority state Legislature for funding toward right-to-counsel, temporary housing for people at risk of eviction and new affordable housing.
“An eviction should not move renters into housing that is unfit for human habitation or force people into homelessness,” the resolution states. “Housing assistance falls short of the need, given the fact that only one in five renter households who qualify for renter assistance receives help, thereby highlighting the need for affordable housing.”
City Council members also voted Tuesday to increase federal funds for a website that lists available “affordable” housing units and upcoming projects. The contract was increased by $714,300 for a total of $1.8 million paid for through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Keegan Mahoney, a program director in the city’s housing department, said the additional funding is needed to shift responsibilities for site maintenance and security to Exygy, Inc., a California-based contractor. Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway was the lone dissenting vote. She questioned why there are no Detroit software engineers working on the website.
The “housing resource navigation” tool was one of the first residential projects funded through Detroit’s ARPA allocation. It aims to provide up-to-date information on available housing and resources to navigate the application process, obtain financial aid and report maintenance code violations.
Mahoney said the website has been available for roughly six months, but there’s more work being done to increase public awareness of it this year with a “full public rollout.”
“We have been doing a lot of communication about the site, we’re seeing a lot more activity,” Mahoney said. “What we’re doing here in the first quarter of 2023 is a more aggressive marketing campaign to highlight the visibility of the site more broadly.”
Council President Mary Sheffield said more residents need to be aware of the online resource.
“The public needs to be a little bit more aware of this site, because oftentimes you see all the new developments that are taking place and people want to know how they can get in,” Sheffield said Tuesday.
Housing is considered affordable when the occupants pay less than 30% of their income on rent and utilities, according to the ordinance. Affordable housing remains unobtainable for many Detroiters however, because average income is based on a statistical area that includes wealthier communities outside Detroit.
Median income was $67,153 in 2021 for the wider area, while median income in Detroit was only $34,762. Council Member Mary Waters said she hopes Michigan’s representatives in Congress will push for changing flawed area median income calculations to better reflect Detroit’s population.
The council also voted unanimously Tuesday to create new requirements for developers that receive federal COVID-19 aid for housing projects. Council Member Mary Waters introduced the change, calling it a “transparency amendment as it relates to ARPA dollars.” Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a breach of contract and cause developers to return federal funds to the city.
The ordinance requires Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department to send reports to the council about residential developments seeking COVID-19 relief funds. This includes the number of affordable units and rental rates; a description of the developer’s strategy to lease units to low-income residents, those with past evictions and people who live nearby; and the number of units that are compliant with American with Disabilities Act standards.
Developers are required to submit quarterly reports on their compliance with the city’s inclusionary housing standards.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify how funding dedicated by the Gilbert Family Foundation will be used.