belongings of a home sit on the curb for trash pickup
All the belongings of a home sit on the curb for trash pickup after a possible eviction in the neighborhood volunteers from Eastside Community Network (ECN) go door to door to let people know they are in danger of losing their homes to property tax foreclosure on March 19, 2022. (Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)

Evictions in Detroit are rising rapidly now that major COVID-19 pandemic housing protections have ended.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

The number of eviction cases against tenants is approaching pre-pandemic levels, surpassing 23,000 filings last year. During the first four months of 2023, judges in Detroit’s 36th District Court signed more than 1,800 eviction orders — a 136% jump compared with the same period last year. Eviction orders allow a court officer to remove a tenant and their personal belongings from a rental property. There’s no data on how many evictions resulted in a tenant being forced out, but it’s a step that both parties like to avoid.

Physical evictions are a jarring experience that can take a mental and emotional toll, housing advocates say. For landlords, it’s a bill they have to foot, costing hundreds of dollars. Still, the option is available. And in the middle, there are court officers whose job it is to conduct the actual eviction, but not much is known about their role.

Here’s a breakdown of the events that typically lead up to an eviction, why they’re on the rise and what happens when a court officer comes knocking on a tenant’s door.

What are the steps in an eviction? 

In Detroit, when someone is physically evicted, a city ordinance requires landlords to place the tenant’s belongings in a “large movable container,” or a dumpster, for 48 hours. Otherwise, they are at risk of receiving a blight violation.

“You go from all your stuff being in your house to all your stuff being in a big garbage can,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of the Detroit-based United Community Housing Coalition.

Why are evictions on the rise? 

The number of eviction orders at the 36th District Court nearly doubled last year compared to 2021, jumping from about 1,500 to 3,400. Still, that’s far below the roughly 10,000 eviction orders signed in 2019, before the pandemic. The court does not track how many eviction orders ended with a court officer at the door. Occupants may leave before that step.

In 2022, there were more than 23,000 eviction cases — civil lawsuits filed by property owners to remove an occupant of their property. The majority of the cases are for nonpayment. Through April 2023, there have been about 7,300 such cases. Pre-pandemic eviction cases averaged more than 29,000 a year in Detroit, according to a report for the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions group.

The increase in filings and orders, after a drop throughout the pandemic, is likely due to the end of a statewide rent aid program and moratoriums on evictions. The $1 billion COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program, to help people behind on rent and utility payments catch up, stopped taking new applications last fall.

“It’s concerning, and it’s also more of the same. One of the reasons that I think we’re seeing more eviction filings and judgments now is because we’ve not dealt with the root cause of housing instability. We’ve never dealt with it,” said Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a Detroiter and associate professor of social epidemiology at Ohio State University, who is leading a study about the impact of court-ordered and illegal evictions on Black women and families in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.

Sealy-Jefferson said people are paying more for rent and there is a shortage of affordable housing

What happens during a physical eviction? 

One court officer at the 36th District Court, who did not want to be identified to protect his family’s privacy, described his role as “the middleman.”

“It’s a job and if everybody did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn’t have a job,” he said. “But we have families to feed. We understand they have families to feed, we understand people fall on hard times. But there are resources out there to help you through them hard times, and it’s not our fault that we’re here.”

The number of evictions he is hired to complete fluctuates on any given week. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he would do up to five a day, he said. Court officers, he said, dealt with loss of work and income throughout the pandemic, when moratoriums halted evictions for more than a year.

Now he conducts anywhere from two to three evictions a day. Some days he may not conduct any at all.

Here’s what this court officer says happens during an eviction: he goes to the property with the signed eviction order in hand and explains to the tenant that he’s there to move them out. He tells them they can gather important documents and medicine. Then he starts moving the tenant’s belongings and placing them in a dumpster. Depending on how many items there are, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple hours. Some people leave before that can happen, while others remain because they have nowhere else to go. In his view, tenants have had ample time and notification that an eviction is coming.

What is the impact of evictions on families?

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. Evictions can also have a destabilizing effect on families. Children may have to move to different schools, disrupting their education. Jobs may be inaccessible because of distance. 

“It’s an emotional situation. It’s trauma. Nobody wins, at all,” said Soummer Crawford, a Detroit housing advocate.

As part of her research, Sealy-Jefferson hears from study participants — mostly Detroiters — who have been evicted and the ripple effect that event has on children and the surrounding neighborhood.

“One woman reflected on how she lost her children’s father’s ashes, which really just took my breath away because I never anticipated that that would be part of the trauma of an eviction, that you would lose your children’s father’s ashes and other keepsakes. One woman reflected — and this is something that was kind of seared into my brain now — she said she lost her peace of mind,” she said.

Who are court officers at 36th District Court?

The 36th District Court approves a list of officers whom landlords may hire to conduct an eviction. They are not employees of the court but rather independent contractors. That wasn’t always the case. About a decade ago, the court moved officers who conduct evictions off of its payroll and made them independent contractors as part of a cost cutting measure that the union representing officers at the time resisted.

The officers are paid by the landlord, or the plaintiff in the case, and per eviction. The costs depend on how many items must be removed from the home that is vacated, said David Jones, CEO of DLJ Properties LLC, a Detroit-based property management company that oversees 150 homes across the city for investors within and outside the country. The price tag, he said, can range from $2,000 to $3,000 for the average eviction. The dumpster alone, he said, costs $500.

Matthew Paletz, CEO of Paletz Law, a Troy-based firm that represents landlords and property owners, said he’s seen evictions that cost as much as $2,500, though that is not typical.

“Landlords do not want to evict their tenants. That is the last resort. So, if they can exhaust all avenues to try and work with their tenants, and try to work out financial arrangements with their tenants, then they’re going to try to do that,” Paletz said.

Jones said he tries to avoid physical evictions as well, offering tenant defendants “cash for keys” instead of paying a court officer to conduct the removal.

“At the end of the day, it’s a cheaper alternative than the bailiff and the dumpster and a clean out,” he said.

Of the 150 properties his company manages, there have been 20 evictions this year. Two ended with a physical eviction, while the remaining left before it reached that point. The evictions his company has done over the past two years, throughout the pandemic, have been for nonpayment. He said he tries to work with tenants who communicate that they’ve fallen behind.

“If you’re ducking and dodging, we’re making multiple phone calls and leaving notices — we’re just not going to chase you. Those automatically go to termination. The people who don’t communicate, we terminate,” he said.

Can court officers carry weapons? 

Yes. Court officers may obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm, according to the 36th District Court.

“They may go through the process as any other citizen may, however, firearms and the appropriate licensure are not provided for by the court,” McConico said in a statement earlier this month.

Who oversees court officers? 

State court rules lay out some provisions for how evictions are to be conducted, including who can execute them. Ultimately, it’s up to chief judges to choose and supervise the court officers.

Complaints related to court officers are also submitted to the chief judge. McConico said he has not received complaints pertaining to the conduct of court officers during an eviction in 2022 or 2023. During his tenure, he said no court officers have required disciplinary action. Court officers are not required to submit reports in instances when they may use force while conducting an eviction. Detroit police are “called to keep the peace when necessary,” McConico said.

McConico said court officers “have been the victims of violence in the course of their legal, official duties. … The threat against their physical safety is rising exponentially, and that cannot continue.” He pointed to an incident in March where two people working with a court officer were shot while an eviction order was being executed.

“They are carrying out lawful court orders that have been signed by a judge after the judicial process has been followed,” he said in a statement. 

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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