A program meant to provide free lawyers for low-income Detroiters facing eviction won’t start Oct. 1, as laid out in an ordinance enacted over the summer, raising concerns among tenant advocates who pushed to get the law passed. Legal services are still available under a statewide pandemic-era program.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

Detroit City Council in May voted unanimously to approve the ordinance. It was a move advocates called a gamechanger 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 ordinance offers legal representation for those below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines — or a person making $27,180 — in 36th District Court who are facing eviction or involved in other proceedings, such as mortgage and property tax foreclosures. 

Conrad Mallett, the City of Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, told the Free Press on Thursday that the Oct. 1 start date will not be met but that the city is working to produce requests for proposals (RFP) and getting through the city’s American Rescue Plan compliance process. The program would be funded, over three years, by $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars and a $12 million donation from the Gilbert Family Foundation.

Mallett said legal services from the federally funded COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program are still available. Advocates have raised concern around rent aid drying up and the lack of assistance to follow.

“I do want to say unequivocally, however, that the CERA program continues to function and that persons who need legal counsel still can access those services. The program in terms of service delivery is not going to end until Dec. 31. We are hurrying, because we recognize that at a certain point, the lawyers won’t be able to take on new cases. We expect to have the RFP on the street soon,” he said.

The goal is to get the RFPs out within the next 10 days, he said.

The CERA program has only been extended for those facing evictions with a summons and complaint until Oct. 14, said Katie Bach, communications director for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the statewide agency responsible for distributing about $1.1 billion in federal pandemic rental assistance.

Legal representation will be available until the end of 2023, she said.

The city of Detroit over the summer outlined a three-pronged plan for help available after CERA ends, including lawyers for Detroiters in court facing eviction, job placement and emergency shelter assistance.

Tenant advocates say the process to start up the new eviction defense program hasn’t been transparent and that existing services are not enough.

“CERA is a good program and it is holding back the dam so to speak from the whole system imploding,” said Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, a group that mobilized to get the ordinance passed.

But the new program would provide “full legal representation” for those who qualify and what is happening right now in court is an “advice type” model, she said.

While tenants facing eviction won’t see a shortage of legal services, Phillips said, they are not getting the level of resources that the ordinance would offer, and more funding is still necessary.

“Housing is probably the number one issue right now in terms of quality life indicators in the City of Detroit,” she said.

A report by consulting firm Stout estimated that implementing a right to counsel program in Detroit would cost about $16.7 million a year. 

“It’s not a fully functional right to counsel initiative by any means right now. It needs an investment. They are over relying on legal service agencies operating from being under resourced, essentially. That’s not a sustainable model,” Phillips said.

While she was pleased that RFPs are slated to go out, “it’s disappointing looking at the amount of time that the city has had to work on this,” she said.

“It’s been opaque, we haven’t been hearing anything, but we’ve been continuing our public education campaign to let people know what the law is and what the law says and what we have a right to expect on Oct. 1 from our city government,” she said.

Mallett said he recognizes the necessity of legal representation, especially for those living in unsafe conditions. Tenant advocates met with city officials this week.

Mallett did not provide a date for when the program would be up and running, but said it would be “long before” November, or when new CERA cases will no longer be accepted.

“We know that this eviction defense work is important. And so we are not behind because we are slow walking this thing; we’re behind because the bureaucracy is just what it is,” he said, citing staff departures and a “management failure on my part.”

Ted Phillips, executive director of the Detroit-based United Community Housing Coalition, said agencies are working very hard but there’s only so many cases they can take.

“We need to know what we can count on,” he said.

Agencies are able to handle about 25% of cases in court, which is a big increase from 4.5% before the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, but that still leaves people behind.

“We know that in the last few months alone, the court has gotten up to an average monthly filing of new cases to about 2,500 cases a month, which is back to where we were before COVID, on average,” he said.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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