When the interview was over Brenda Sheard offered to walk the reporter out. First to the door, then to the lobby, and then to the car. 

“It’s nice here, don’t get me wrong, but I get a little bit bored,” the 72-year-old explained, plopping her slender frame down on a metal bench in front of the sliding doors of her temporary home: A Best Western in Allen Park.

In February, Sheard, who was on a month-to-month lease, was evicted from her rental property on Littlefield, a densely populated street in Detroit a few blocks north of Schaefer and Joy Road. Unable to find — affordable — housing in the city, she was one of nearly 300 people in Wayne County that got slotted into a hotel room with funds from Michigan Covid Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA). 

Brenda Sheard, 72, is staying in a Best Western in Allen Park after being evicted earlier this year from a rental on Littlefield in Detroit. She’s one of nearly 300 people in Wayne County slotted into a hotel room with funding from Michigan Covid Emergency Rental Assistance. She is still searching for housing options and was told last week that she has to be out of the hotel on Aug. 1. (BridgeDetroit photo by Allie Gross)

It was a “blessing” and she was emphatic about this, eager to make sure she came off grateful. But it was also exhausting. The eviction hadn’t just meant a lost home. It was also a lost life and sense of self. 

“I’m sorry if I took too much of your time,” she kept repeating, explaining she didn’t have many people to speak with these days.

Only a 20-minute drive from her former home, the hotel — cushioned in something of a concrete no-man’s land off an I-94 exit — might as well have been a different planet. Sheard hadn’t known many of her neighbors but at least they were there, out and about. There was a liveliness and independence to her life before. Now it was a monotonous blur. And one that, most importantly, wasn’t stable. 

Even if Sheard managed to acclimate, it was only a quick-fix solution. The CERA funds are diminishing. Sheard thought she was going to be out of the hotel June 1, then July 1. Last week she was told she now has until Aug.1 It was a stressful and confusing state of affairs, filled with cycles of deep stress, moments of relief, and then back to the anxiety of the unknown. 

“​​I’m going to be on the sidewalk,” said Sheard, explaining she is constantly looking for places to go, but can’t find anything open in her price range. “Have you heard anything?”

As rental prices rise across the country and Detroit — once the land of $500 homes — becomes increasingly unaffordable, low-income renters like Sheard are struggling to find spots to land. But Sheard’s housing woes are the back end of a bigger problem: An eviction that should have never taken place. 

Attorneys note numerous red flags in Sheard’s eviction. The landlord, Yolanda Lockhart, for example, had allegedly ripped out the mailbox so Sheard says she never received proper notification. One of the most problematic, however, is the rental lacked a Certificate of Compliance, a city of Detroit requirement for any landlord to open up a property to tenants, and a supposed pre-condition for a landlord to evict a tenant in 36th District Court. 

Sheard’s scenario is not an outlier according to data aggregated and analyzed by The Eviction Machine, an organizing, advocacy, and research tool developed by the Urban Praxis Workshop with support from University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions and Data Driven Detroit. 

“When I found out I had to move it was less than 24 hours,” said Sheard, sitting on the hotel bed, her books, photo albums, cooking spices, lotto tickets,  jewelry, notebooks, and nail polish  — her life — squished around the small room. “That was a lot. That’s where the camel’s back got broken.”

According to their recent analysis of court data, roughly 9 in 10 of the more than 25,500 eviction cases filed in 36th District Court between March 2020 and March 2022 were filed by landlords whose properties lacked a Certificate of Compliance at the date of filing. Zeroing in on filings after July 2021  — when the city’s rental ordinance had hit each ZIP code — only 16% of filings were for code-compliant properties. 

And it’s not just filings. Last August, the courts reiterated that ​​landlords must have a Certificate of Compliance to apply for an order of eviction, and of the 1,170 bailiff evictions authorized by 36th District Court after that declaration, 1,000 did not have the proper certification at the time the judge signed the order. 

The data highlights a compounding crisis: Shortcomings by the city to execute its ordinance and regulate an increasingly tight and dangerous rental landscape, followed by failings from 36th District Court to uphold city law. And while Certificates of Compliance have been publicly celebrated as a way to keep landlords in check and protect tenants from exploitative arrangements, the lack of enforcement has, in fact, done the opposite. Bad landlords are emboldened. Detroit’s already dysfunctional housing market has been ushered into a new era of precarity. 

“Rental agreements between landlords and tenants are a two-way street – the tenant pays the rent in exchange for a safe and decent place to live. When the court enforces evictions against tenants but does not enforce the laws that require landlords to comply with basic health and safety standards, it is privileging the landlord’s income over the tenant’s right to a safe and habitable home,” ​​said Alexa Eisenberg, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, who works with the Urban Praxis Eviction Machine. ​ “It is enforcing only one side of the rental agreement and that is unjust.” 

Georgette Johnson, a spokesperson for Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED), said the department could not comment on The Eviction Machine’s findings without seeing the hundreds of pages of raw data, but maintained that “​​Property Maintenance is continuing to enforce on properties that are not in compliance with the Rental Ordinance.” 

When asked about Sheard’s case, David Bell, the director of BSEED, said in an emailed statement: “The city provides up-to-date data on its rental compliance page that the court or any member of the public can access for any address 24/7/365.  It’s also been added to the ‘My Info’ search tool on the front of the city’s website, so court staff can quickly search any address for any filing to check its status.  If or how the court considers the current status in these cases is a question for the court.”

Court messaging has been mixed around the Certificates of Compliance and its role in enforcement. 

In August 2020, Chief Judge William McConicio issued an operational order stating landlords wishing to start the eviction process must first provide proof that they are in compliance with local health and safety ordinances and submit their Certificates of Compliance. That order was eventually walked back because the Michigan Supreme Court administrative office said courts couldn’t screen a filing; even those that fail to adhere to city law.  

“That order was deemed inappropriate by the state court administrative office, they said that it was a block of access to the courts and that I couldn’t do that,” said McConico. “So that was rescinded. I could not do that.” 

While this decision could have meant the courts couldn’t stop a person from filing a frivolous suit, but that they could still uphold the law when a non-compliant case came before them, that hasn’t been the case. 

Today Shawn Jacque, general counsel for 36th District Court, said the court “does not have a policy regarding Certificates of Compliance” at all and judges can still evict tenants even if the landlord does not have the proper certification.  

“There is a lot of confusion regarding Certificates of Compliance,” Jacque wrote in a statement to BridgeDetroit. “Some people erroneously think that the lack of a Certificate of Compliance bars a landlord from ever being able to evict any tenants. But that is NOT accurate.”

According to Jacque, tenants can use a lack of a Certificate of Compliances as a defense in a nonpayment of rent case — so long as they’ve put their unpaid rent in escrow. But, it “can’t be used as a defense” in termination of tenancy cases, which are cases where landlords are trying to kick out tenants for anything from a breach of a lease’s terms to illegal activity on the property, damage to the property and wanting the tenant gone if they’re on a month-to-month lease, as was the case with Sheard. 

It’s a response that has surprised housing advocates. With BSEED pointing to the courts to uphold blindspots in its regulation of rentals, and the courts saying they have no policy around Certificates of Compliance, there appears to be a gap on all fronts of enforcement. 

“The norm of nonenforcement starts with the city enabling an environment where anyone can become a landlord and extract rent from tenants without having to meet the safety standards required by law,” said Eisenberg. “It continues with the court where landlords are free to use the courts to collect debts and evict tenants without consequence for their disregard of city and state laws.

“The court’s narrow interpretation of the law creates a giant loophole that landlords are increasingly taking advantage of,” she continued, pointing out that termination of tenancy cases now comprise 1 in 3 eviction cases in court. “Essentially, there is no legal or financial recourse for a landlord who wants to maximize their income by investing as little as possible in their properties, churning through tenants who fall behind or withhold their rent. The consequences for tenants, however, can be life threatening and traumatic.”

Years of fumbled oversight, she and other advocates argue, have deeply hurt the rental market by creating a backlog of unhoused clients, a shrinking pool of compliant, affordable housing options, and a fearless cohort of landlords who have learned to take advantage of the chaos. 

“Landlords know how difficult it’s going to be for you to find other housing that’s better than what you have now,” said Joe McGuire, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, a local nonprofit that focuses on issues of equity. 

“When you complain that they’re not preparing the property as they should, that they’re not paying the water bill, property taxes, or any number of things that a landlord should do, it is a lot easier for landlords to say ‘Well if you don’t like it you can leave,’” continued McGuire, noting that if a tenant chooses not to leave because the market is so tight and they don’t think they’ll find something else, then non-compliant landlords have realized they have another option for getting rid of demanding tenants: Evictions. 

“There isn’t much incentive for landlords to follow the law if they know there will be no consequences for breaking it,” said McGuire, noting one only needs to turn to Sheard’s former west side bungalow to understand this vicious pattern.  

As he and other housing advocates within Detroit Eviction Defense were working to find the grandmother a new home, they learned their search had to expand; they didn’t need one new spot, but two. 

After evicting Sheard in the winter, Lockhart shuffled a new tenant into the house this spring. This month he received a notice to quit, which is a notice landlords must give tenants before filing an eviction proceeding with the courts. If he doesn’t leave by July 6, the document says, Lockhart can take him to court and start the formal eviction proceedings. 

Reached by phone, Lockhart declined to comment, telling BridgeDetroit to “lose her number.”

“It’s a perfect example,” said McGuire, “of how landlords can cycle multiple tenants in and out of the same rental properties within relatively short periods of time.

“They can collect security deposits, application fees, and the first few months of rent while promising to address repair issues or unpaid property taxes,” he said. “When the tenant starts complaining, the landlord simply gives them a month’s notice and evicts them.” 

REGULATING A NEW RENTAL MARKET

To understand Detroit’s recent evictions, one first must understand the city’s foreclosure crisis. 

Between 2005 and 2015 one in three Detroit properties were dispossessed because of mortgage or tax foreclosure. During that same time the city — once known for having the most Black homeowners in the U.S. — became a majority renter town. The transformation wasn’t just a shift in equity, but responsibility. Private property is regulated differently from rentals, and suddenly the city had thousands of homes — many in deteriorating shape —  in the hands of speculators, investors, and prospective landlords enticed by the promise of “passive income.” It scurried to keep up with the changing landscape. 

In May 2017, Mayor Mike Duggan, then-councilmember Andre Spivey, and Bell of BSEED held a press conference to announce plans for the new rental ordinance. 

Detroit, the trio explained at the time, would come down hard on bad landlords, and work with the good ones. Transparency — in the form of a website — would allow tenants and neighbors to easily see if their landlord was compliant. An escrow program would be created to hold money from non-compliant landlords.

Under the program landlords would be required to register their property as a rental, get a lead inspection, go through abatement if there were any problems and then get a clearance to rent via a Certificate of Compliance.

“We’re not coming to get you,” said Spivey at the event, “but we’re coming out to make sure our neighborhoods as they begin to grow and prosper that everyone who lives on a particular block has a good home to live in, a safe home to live in.” 

The ordinance, which called for an incremental roll-out, was approved by the City Council in November 2017. Enforcement began in August 2018 in the 48215 ZIP code. Duggan originally promised all enforcement would be done within two years but the timeline got pushed back, with the City of Detroit announcing full enforcement in July 2021. 

The ordinance called for BSEED to create yearly rental reports including data around registration and compliance but the department hasn’t created anything since 2019, citing the pandemic. 

BSEED data analyzed by The Eviction Machine shows that as of March 15, 2022, the department recorded 6,137 valid Certificates of Compliance on the City of Detroit Open Data Portal. The numbers are whittled down slightly with some addresses being duplicates. Ultimately, they found 5,636 rentals with Certificates of Compliance.

According to the Open Data Portal between January 2019 and February 2022, the city processed over 19,000 rental registrations. A significantly larger number than the number of units with Certificates of Compliance. 

It’s gaps like this that have, historically, made enforcement tricky, according to McConico. 

“So there was an ordinance on the books but no way to comply with the ordinance,” said McConico. “There were not enough inspectors, there was no way to get a Certificate of Compliance. So there was no way for a judge to enforce it. Now there are enough city inspectors. Now that it has been rolled out to all ZIP codes those issues are not the issues anymore.” 

Today, BSEED has 31 inspectors focused on residential properties. 

McConico said that when cases come before judges today the question is did a landlord not have a Certificate of Compliance because they couldn’t get an inspection in time, or because they were purposely evading the law. Figuring this out is the challenge, he said, explaining that the court has a goal of keeping Detroiters in safe housing, but also that people aren’t taking advantage of the chaos. 

“You can’t just say, ‘You don’t have a certificate of compliance’ and then a person just stays rent free forever,” he said, noting that the rental ordinance requires individuals to put their rent into an escrow account. 

BridgeDetroit was unable to use the Open Data portal to filter for current registration numbers, but Johnson, the BSEED spokesperson, said there are currently 12,441 registered rental properties in the City of Detroit.  The Eviction Machine estimates that there are roughly 87,000 rental properties in the city of Detroit overall.

THE HOUSE ON LITTLEFIELD

The unregistered rental on Littlefield looks like many of the houses on the busy block: an unassuming brick box. The defects — backed-up sewage, a leaky roof, missing lights, a cracked window sealed over with plastic bags —  are interior and structural. And could be easily missed with a passing glance. 

Interior photos from the Detroit rental property on Littlefield once occupied by Brenda Sheard. The house, since rented out to Octavius “CJ” Lewis, was severely damaged from historic flooding last summer. The kitchen, which was rotted out from flood damage, has not been repaired. It contains a mini-fridge, a hot plate and a microwave. (Photo by Octavius Lewis)

One of at least eight properties Lockhart owns in Detroit, the house, like the rental ordinance, is an outgrowth of the Wayne County Tax Auction. 

Lost to tax foreclosure in 2012, the property was purchased by an LLC belonging to self-proclaimed speculator Michael Kelly for $1,600. In 2018 Kelly, who is the subject of a city of Detroit “invest and neglect” lawsuit, sold the property to Lockhart, via a land contract, for $9,900. She received the deed in 2021. 

But before Lockhart had finished paying off the land contract, she began renting the property out. Sheard moved in during the fall of 2020. According to a rental receipt, she paid $2,650 in cash to cover the security deposit, cleaning fee, and first month’s rent. A quarter of Lockhart’s land contract price. 

Rent, according to Sheard, was $700 a month. She estimates she paid Lockhart $7,000 by the time she was forced out in February for reasons she is still not clear on. 

“Yolanda takes the money, then puts you out,” Sheard said. 

According to court documents, Lockhart filed a termination of tenancy case with the court on June 24, 2021, in the midst of Detroit’s summer floods, which had wreaked havoc on the property. In November 2021, District Judge Jacquelyn McClinton entered a default judgment against Sheard, and a month later — the day before Christmas Eve — an order of eviction was entered by the court. Sheard maintains she never knew she was the subject of a landlord-tenant case. 

“When I found out I had to move it was less than 24 hours,” said Sheard, sitting on the hotel bed, her books, photo albums, cooking spices, lotto tickets,  jewelry, notebooks, and nail polish  — her life — squished around the small room. “That was a lot. That’s where the camel’s back got broken.” 

Once the damage had already been done, Sheard found a support network. A friend recommended that she get in touch with Detroit Eviction Defense. They connected Sheard with the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), a nonprofit that helps with housing issues in the city. At the time, UCHC was working to administer CERA funding. They helped Sheard access relief and find a spot at the Best Western. 

Before leaving, however, Sheard contacted BSEED. An inspector showed up to the property on Dec. 23, the same day the order of eviction was signed. 

The corresponding report from that visit lists various exterior corrections, such as repairing the roof, replacing defective gutters, and repairing missing glass on the front left window. It also needs interior corrections such as resetting the toilet in the bathroom, installing a bathroom door, and repairing hallway light fixtures. 

But the first three violations —  Secure Certificate of Registration, Provide Lead Clearance Report, Secure Certificate of Compliance — cut to the heart of the matter. 

In early January, McGuire, a member of Detroit Eviction Defense, filed an emergency motion to stay the eviction, but by the time the hearing was scheduled Sheard had already moved out. 

While Jacque, general counsel for 36th District Court, said a lack of a Certificate of Compliance cannot be used as a defense in a termination of tenancy case, in March the court set aside the default judgment and dismissed the case without prejudice. 

Interior photo from the Detroit property on Littlefield rented out to Brenda Sheard and Octavius “CJ” Lewis. The house, owned by landlord Yolanda Lockart, does not have a Certificate of Compliance from the city and needs multiple interior and exterior repairs. (Photo by Octavius Lewis)

BridgeDetroit reached out to McClinton for more clarity on the case and her decisions, but did not hear back. 

The dismissal was a bittersweet victory. While gathering evidence to make Sheard’s case, McGuire discovered Lockhart had received a certificate of forfeiture for the property over unpaid taxes. It spoke to the chaos of Detroit’s housing market: A homeowner lost the property for not paying taxes, and now it was a rental and the taxes still weren’t being paid. 

​​According to the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, taxes are delinquent as far back as 2016, when Kelly owned the property. As of this week, $8,353.10 is owed, but it still hasn’t been foreclosed.  According to the treasurer’s office it has avoided that fate because it’s on an IRSPA payment plan; a plan that requires a property to be the primary residence of the taxpayer, which this rental is not.  

BridgeDetroit reached out to the Wayne County Treasurer’s office for clarification on how the Littlefield address has avoided foreclosure, but did not hear back.  

The eviction was not the end of the saga for Sheard. Lockhart, in November, filed a claim against Sheard in small claims court. According to McGuire, who represented Sheard here as well, the claim had no explanation and asked for the highest amount possible in small claims court: $6,500. Lockhart’s attorney later dropped the claim. He did not respond to BridgeDetroit’s attempts to inquire about his client or the cases. 

“If Ms. Sheard hadn’t had legal representation it’s quite likely a default judgment would have been filed against her where the landlord just automatically gets exactly what they’re asking for,” said McGuire, explaining that had Lockhart been successful she would have been able to garnish Sheard’s wages or put a lien on a future home. “I suspect that’s what the landlord was hoping.” 

RIGHT TO COUNSEL

Legal counsel, and its role in enforcement, has taken center stage in recent months. 

Detroit City Council in May passed a “Right to Counsel” ordinance to support low-income defendants in landlord-tenant cases after years of imbalance. A 2020 report by Poverty Solutions found that between 2014 and 2018 only 4.8% of tenants in the state were represented by an attorney in eviction cases, compared to 83.2% of landlords. 

“The issue of not having a certificate of compliance was an issue at one point when 85-95% of our defendants were unrepresented, but they’re represented now,” said Judge McConico, speaking not specifically to right to counsel but to the supports that were put in place for renters in Landlord-Tenant court during the pandemic. 

Right to Counsel helped codify the more recent changes and has been viewed as a major step toward equitable housing. It has also come with some worries from housing advocates, who say public defenders should be the last line of defense, not the solution. 

“If a tenant doesn’t have an attorney to represent them or has one but that person doesn’t have the time or resources to litigate the case then the case will just proceed. The judge won’t know that the landlord doesn’t have a certificate of compliance,” said McGuire, who believes identifying funding to support the program longer term is of critical importance. 

In the same way, the Rental Ordinance was supposed to stop bad landlords from taking advantage of desperate Detroiters, Right to Counsel is supposed to stop wrongful evictions. But, McGuire said, those  solutions only work if they are properly funded and resourced. 

McGuire points to the realities of public defenders in the criminal defense world to highlight why funds are so critical with the latter. 

“If you have a situation like we’ve seen with indigent defense in criminal cases, where the attorney representing the defendant is overworked, underpaid, and forced to take on far too many cases to be able to litigate them to the full extent that they should, then it really is not going to be meaningful representation,” said McGuire, pointing out that the necessity of proper funding is underscored by one key difference between criminal and civil cases: The ability to appeal a decision due to ineffective counsel. 

That recourse is somewhat more difficult when dealing with evictions, a situation where the damage — moving out, losing out on a spot, having a ‘Scarlet E’ attached to one’s name — is hard to rectify. 

“I actually think it’s even more important to make sure defendants get actual supported and funded representation in civil cases,” said McGuire, “because they don’t necessarily have that second chance that criminal cases have.” 

While Sheard should not have been evicted due to a lack of compliance, she also couldn’t return to the property. Shortly after she moved out a new tenant gave Lockhart $2,000 to reserve the house. 

THE NEW TENANT  

Octavius “CJ” Lewis was in desperate need of housing when a friend put him in touch with Lockhart. The place looked rough — the floods from the summer had completely rotted out the kitchen — but it was the eleventh hour and he needed a spot ASAP. In March he gave Lockhart cash for the security deposit, cleaning fee and first month’s rent. He moved in April 2. 

“It was supposed to be up to code before I moved in,” the 52-year-old said, his voice slow and intentional. “I didn’t expect anything like this.” 

For the first three weeks, the property lacked running water. Lewis said he had to go to a friend’s house to take a shower and bathe. He couldn’t use the toilet without it backing up. The property still lacks a proper kitchen, containing instead a mini-fridge, a hot plate, and a microwave. He washed his dishes in the bathtub. 

“It’s deplorable,” he said, acknowledging, again, that he was desperate. 

Lockhart, according to Lewis, offered to sell him the property for $15,000. But, because he didn’t have the money at the time, she suggested a “rent-to-own arrangement, he said.

“I would pay rent and she’d give me a year to purchase the home from her on a month-to-month lease,” said Lewis, who said the original rental rate was $550; an amount that would never allow him to meet Lockhart’s target and secure the home. 

In May, according to Lewis, Lockhart came to mow the grass — the first time in two months — and shared that she was no longer selling the house, and that rent was being bumped up to $950 because Lewis’s fiance was now also staying at the house, he said

“I said I couldn’t afford it,” said Lewis. Lockhart, he said, brought her asking price down to $800. 

But come June, when rent was due, Lewis felt reservations. Nothing had been done on the property as he had been promised. While the Rental Ordinance allows tenants to put rent into escrow if a property is not in compliance, he didn’t know this at the time. He simply felt something wasn’t right. 

He delayed sending over the $800 as he figured out his next step. But before he could come up with a plan on June 5, two days after rent was due, Lockhart returned to the property. She taped a note to the door: It was a notice quit.  

For Lewis and his fiance, who is pregnant, the situation is both confusing and stressful. The property is not registered — Lewis called BSEED the day after he was given the eviction notice so that this could be logged — but said he  doesn’t know if that will matter at 36th District Court. 

“I’m getting nervous about the situation because I’m not a last-minute person, I try to be secure,” he wrote in a June 10 text to BridgeDetroit. 

While bringing attention to the rental situation felt important, it was also secondary to the big picture reality: His home base and his stability was under threat. 

“I have no clue what I’m going to do or where I’m going to wind up at, it’s just been very stressful,” he wrote in a follow-up text a few days later, on June 13. “I’m going to have to put my things in storage. No one ever called me back from the housing commission or anywhere I reached out for some type of assistance and the clock is ticking once again. I’m so stressed right now I must have somewhere for my family to go.” 

The desperation, confusion, but also struggle to find help has become increasingly common as evictions continue to rise and rental options diminish. 

“The City and the courts are constantly referring people to already overloaded nonprofits and tenant groups,” said McGuire. “It’s often the case that if the City and the courts had protected tenant rights and held landlords accountable in the first place, these people wouldn’t need our help.” 

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO FIND HOUSING 

As the city’s base of renters has expanded, so has the need for options. 

In Detroit low-income individuals, like Sheard and Lewis, have four options when it comes to finding housing: Naturally occurring affordable housing, which means housing that is just on its own cheap — something that is becoming more of a rarity over time; Public housing; housing vouchers (formerly known as Section 8), and “affordable housing,” where developers earmark a certain number of units as affordable to accommodate those living below the Area Median Income (AMI) in exchange for tax subsidies. All come with obstacles: namely, a lack of openings. 

According to Sandra Henriquez, executive director of the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC), which runs the city’s public housing program, there are 3,403 units under the organization’s purview. They are at 95% occupancy. The wait list, which is currently closed, holds 77,666 applicants. DHC has five properties earmarked for seniors 55 and up. They are all full and none of the waiting lists are open, she said.

DHC also runs the city’s housing voucher program, which gives individuals a rental subsidy that can then be used at any unit where a landlord decides to accept it. According to Henriquez, the organization has roughly 5,200 voucher participants right now, and 3,000 people on a waitlist that is closed. When the waitlist was last opened in February 2020, over 22,000 individuals applied in 72 hours and a computer lottery system selected 7,000 for the waitlist. This calendar year, according to Henriquez, DHC issued 1,371 new vouchers, less than 400 of the recipients have found housing, had units pass inspection, signed leases and moved in. The rest are still searching. 

Between the state and the city, there are roughly 25,000 affordable housing units but neither entity was able to share how many are available since the units are run by private entities. 

The “affordable” housing options are tied to the Area Median Income, which includes outlying suburbs. In Detroit, it is based on the Detroit-Warren-Livonia metropolitan area. The end result is an inflated AMI, which can skew out of the favor of Detroiters and make finding placements harder. 

“LITC plus Section 8 works, but that’s two options. Two sources to house one family,” said Ted Phillips, the executive director of UCHC, explaining that to make a tax-subsidized “affordable” housing option work, it typically needs to be done in conjunction with a housing voucher. 

“The big picture,” he continued, “is there is not a lot there, that’s the simple, short answer.” 

BACK TO THE HOTEL 

It wasn’t until last week that Lewis shared that he had found new housing. After weeks of stress, and months of trying to make do with a bad situation there was a lightness to his voice as he detailed his and his fiance’s next steps. 

“It’s much better, yes, and the rent is cheaper,” he said. “It’s registered so we won’t have any problems out of this situation at all.” 

With plans to take Lockhart to small claims court to get back rent paid for an unregistered and non-compliant property, Lewis highlights what can be possible when a person is armed with resources, support, and knowledge. But also luck. His new home is a rental property owned by a friend that happened to be open. Not all Detroiters are as networked or fortunate. 

For Sheard as the deadline to find new housing approaches, her typically affable and sociable demeanor had hardened. 

“I’m stressed out, I really am,” she said over the phone last week, her voice tightening to hold back tears. “I know a lot of people working on this but it’s not —” 

She cut herself off. 

In the months since her eviction Sheard had become increasingly involved with Detroit Eviction Defense, and local politics. She was attending Detroit City Council meetings, she was helping to organize other tenants. Fed up citizens become enlivened advocates. And Sheard was now this. And she knew all the efforts and work that had gone into her case, and others like hers. But now she was also tired, and still facing an uncertain future. 

“They can’t help seniors? Women with babies? In America what’s going on?” she finally said. 

Earlier this month the City of Detroit announced a “three-point” plan to help Detroiters as the CERA funds trickle to a close. Tenants will have access to legal aid, rapid job placement, and spots in emergency shelters as well as connections with housing organizations like UCHC . 

But for Sheard, who gets $789 a month in social security benefits and is already cued in with these groups and attorneys, the options don’t really address her issue: A goal of finding permanent, affordable housing. 

She has been told there are more openings within communities earmarked for seniors, so that’s where she’s been focusing her energies. But so far, nothing has come through. 

“I don’t even know who is calling,” she said, stressing the overwhelming task of trying to find a way in. “I left a message here and a message there. I really don’t know what’s going on. It’s really stressing me out. All I see is the sidewalk.” 

While she has four adult children they all live out of state. They are her pride and joy and she finds ways to sneak into conversation how proud she is that she was able to send them all to college. She also doesn’t know how she’d even get to any of them. 

“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Sheard, her voice choking up. Detroit was home, was where she was born and raised and had community. All she wanted was a home. 

“This is one of my down days,” she said, after another pause. “I don’t like what’s going on.”

About this series

Editor’s note: 

This story is the first in a series on how Detroiters are navigating the city’s eviction crisis. The reporting is based on data compiled by The Eviction Machine, an organizing, advocacy and research tool. Findings are detailed in “Crisis Before the Emergency: Evictions Before and After the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a report developed by the Urban Praxis Workshop with support from The University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions and Data Driven Detroit. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, Congress responded to the public health emergency with relief plans intended to ease the burden of social distancing restrictions and a changing economy. About $72 million in COVID emergency rental assistance was directed to Detroit landlords and tenants, among other interventions, however, 1 in 9 renter households – or 38,400 tenants – still faced eviction in 2021, according to the report, which also found evictions disproportionately impact Black women and families with children. 

The report analyzes eviction filings and trends in 36th District Court between January 2019 and March 2022. 

Since the launch of BridgeDetroit, readers have told us there is a need for in-depth reporting on  housing instability. We’ve also met with housing advocates who believe that the tax foreclosure crisis has morphed into a new scenario where mass evictions and a lack of affordable housing will push some further into poverty or displace residents looking to live in the city. 

This series examines systems that failed and succeeded during a time when an unprecedented set of resources were directed to help Detroit’s most vulnerable citizens.

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7 Comments

  1. I’m about to be evicted from 2625 Central at SW Detroit. The rental management claims that I owe $8800 since 4/22. Also the owner claims not to have received CERA, I contacted USPS with the tracking number which was given by Wayne Metro. The CERA funds were delivered on 3/15/22. The owner has sent harassing texts to me and has done this in front of other tenants.

  2. We, Detroit Affordable Housing Task Force, thank you for this vital article on the City of Detroit housing situation with the landlords and tenants!!!! The Detroit City Council must pass the Area Median Income(AMI)for Detroiter resident 30%. Many can not lived in a city where they were born.!! We will continue to hold our elected official accountable, with BridgeDetroit too. Thanks!!

  3. In addition, are these housing crisis a part of our mental health crisis and killing off the Black Population in this City & Country? Where is the answer my People?

  4. Such a well written, researched and informative article. My heart truly goes out to Mrs. Sheard. I pray for a resolution to her immediate need for affordable housing, especially given that she’s a senior on a fixed income. More importantly, I resent the glaring absence to enforce the law, therefore empowering criminally negligent slumlords, like Ms. Lockhart.

  5. What was done to Mrs. Sheard is very unfortunate especially for a senior. The bigger shame is her 4 college educated adult children that won’t step up to help their aging mother who is in dire need of housing. That’s disgusting.

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