An eviction defense program funded by the Gilbert Family Foundation connected thousands of low-income families to free legal support in its first year.
There were 6,453 households impacted by the Detroit Eviction Defense Fund from June to December 2022, including 3,371 households served with full legal representation and 3,082 who obtained legal advice. Darnell Adams, director of Detroit Initiatives for the Gilbert Foundation, said the program surpassed its goal of assisting 6,000 households in the first year and expects to reach even more in the second year while supplementing the city’s newly-established eviction defense office.
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The Gilbert Foundation program, established through a $12 million commitment over three years, focuses on low-income families with children. Adams said the intent is to protect children from becoming homeless. Less than 5% of cases where eviction defense lawyers provided representation resulted in a bailiff eviction from June to December 2022. Adams said 90% of the tenants involved with the Gilbert Foundation program who wish to stay in their homes are expected to do so with help from the eviction defense fund.
“The data has shown us the most economically-disadvantaged among us who tend to face eviction at a disproportionately higher rate are Black people in Detroit,” Adams said. “A lot of people don’t have anywhere else to go and they end up becoming unhoused. The cycle of being unhoused and rehoused over and over begins to erode at one’s mental health, especially for underprivileged residents.”
State data recorded 1,115 children in families in Detroit who were unhoused in 2021 – 92% are Black and 78% are under the age of 10. A local count of Detroit’s homeless population in 2021 found Black families represent 89% of unhoused people. The findings reaffirm research showing Black renters, single mothers and households with children face a higher rate of evictions.
Eviction defense lawyers are available for families with children who earn 50% of the Area Median Income for Wayne County, which equates to $35,800 for a family of two, $40,300 for a family of three and $44,750 for a family of four. Just under a third of the households served by the program last year earn less than 50% AMI.
Ted Phillips, director of the United Community Housing Coalition, said having legal representation dramatically reduces the chance of eviction. UCHC is among a group of three legal firms providing attorneys for the Gilbert Foundation program, including Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid.
Attorneys work to prevent illegal evictions, challenge improper fees and negotiate repayment plans or move out agreements. Ashley Lowe, chief executive officer of Lakeshore Legal Aid, said clients who are threatened with eviction can contact attorneys at (888) 783-8190 before a case is filed in court.
UCHC is also contracted to administer the city’s eviction defense program, which launched in March. The city’s program offers legal representation for people below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines — or a person making $29,160 or less in 2023. It stemmed from an ordinance the City Council passed last summer but the city missed a target for starting up by October 2022.
Adams said the Gilbert Foundation program helped address part of the need while the city established its program. The 36th District Court sees an average of 30,000 eviction cases annually.
“We thought it was critical that we stand up the program as quickly as we could, because the need was so great,” Adams said. “We’re already seeing what those benefits are (as) people are getting access to legal counsel. We are working with the same partners (as the city program). We’re looking at the same numbers, we’re serving the same populations but the programs are slightly different.”
Phillips said 25% of cases typically end in eviction, but that can drop into single-digits if tenants have an attorney. Phillips said he’s seen tenants getting better outcomes since both eviction defense programs started running. Whether that’s a sign of landlords recognizing the harm of evictions or deciding it’s not worth going to trial is an open question, Phillips said.
“Lawyers help make sure the courts are following the process,” added Lowe. “Sometimes things get moving fast. To slow down the process enough to make sure a tenant’s voice is being heard is really important.”
Lowe said Detroit eviction filings are largely either for non-payment of rent or termination of tenancy cases, where landlords can claim a variety of justifications to remove a tenant. Lowe said many renters are living in substandard housing conditions, which can make a major difference in their ability to fight landlords in court.
“In a lot of termination cases, and even a lot of non-payment cases, there is a defense that can be raised about (whether) the tenant should have been paying rent in the first place because the conditions are not habitable,” Lowe said. “A big part of what our lawyers do is raise the conditions defense to say, ‘you shouldn’t have been charging that full amount of rent because you haven’t been providing a habitable residence.’”
A University of Michigan study found 89% of eviction cases filed in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic involved properties that were not up to code.
“There’s a lot of cases where the conditions are just horrifying,” Lowe said. “We’re seeing that tenants don’t have a lot of options. Sometimes that’s why they’re staying in bad spaces, because they don’t feel like they have another place to go.”
Phillips said the presence of attorneys makes a huge difference in pushing back against landlords who claim noncompliant properties are up to code.
“It was amazing how a tenant could have all kinds of repair problems – mice, no heat, sewage backup in the basement – and the landlord would come to court and say ‘this is the first I’ve ever heard of it,’” Phillips said. “It’s hard to believe a mom with kids is not reporting raw sewage in the basement.”
Housing advocates are glad to see more help for renters, but residents are still pushing for more funding for the city’s Right to Counsel program.
Funds for the 2023-24 budget year tripled thanks to an allocation of $12 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars. However, advocates say that’s only a portion of what’s needed – estimates range as high as $27 million annually – and others worry the use of pandemic relief funds that expire in 2026 creates an uncertain future for the much-needed program.
Phillips said the 36th District Court is on pace to see 25,000 eviction cases filed this year. Legal aid programs help maintain “the status quo” of representation after federal pandemic funds for a rent aid program expired in 2022. Phillips said “we’re not anywhere near” being able to represent everyone.
“We’re trying to make sure we get the most vulnerable,” Phillips said.
Adams said the Gilbert Foundation is helping to prove the efficacy of legal aid programs.
“I think philanthropy’s role in any sort of social program like this is to assist the government with proving those models,” Adams said. “We can take that risk before the city does, so that when it’s time to actually adopt the full program (there is) data that says this makes sense.
“We’re learning that there is a need for this program,” He said. “(Legal firms) are telling us by the work that they’re doing with residents that this program should exist indefinitely.”