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Free legal representation now available for many Detroiters facing eviction

A neighborhood in Detroit
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
Houses in a Detroit neighborhood.

Many Detroiters facing eviction can now get free legal representation. It’s a big step in implementing the city’s “right to counsel” ordinance after months of delays. But some housing advocates said the city still isn’t moving fast enough, or offering enough support to those who need it.

To get a free attorney now, eligible Detroiters just have to show up to their first hearing at 36th District Court and qualify based on their yearly income. Hearings are currently being held virtually.

“The judge will ask if you want an opportunity to meet with an attorney,” said April Faith-Slaker, head of Detroit’s Office of Eviction Defense. “If you say yes, then the attorneys will pull you into a breakout room to conduct intake at that point.”

The free legal representation is only available to people who make less than 200% of the federal policy guidelines. Those guidelines are set depending on how many people live in a household. For a single person living alone, 200% of the poverty guideline would be an annual income of $29,160 or less. For a family of four, it would be $60,000.

The city currently doesn’t have a way for people to meet with attorneys before their first hearing, so Faith-Slaker said it’s important people don’t miss it.

“Some people don’t show up and the best way to defend yourself is to show up, ” Faith-Slaker said. “And with respect to the right to counsel program, showing up also will get you an attorney for full representation.”

Faith-Slaker said the city is still looking into other ways to reach out to people who need help in eviction cases, including possibly setting up a hotline for residents to call. But there’s still no timeline on when those other outreach efforts will be implemented.

Residents have been pushing for months for the city to move faster and do more to fully implement the right to counsel ordinance, which was originally approved last spring.

“It just doesn’t seem to be a high priority,” said Tonya Myers Phillips, an attorney and project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition. “It’s certainly taking a long time to see the city carry out what they said they were going to do.”

One basic thing, Tonya Myers Phillips said, would be to open up a hotline.

“I would think that’s the minimum of what you should do,” she said, noting that the right to counsel ordinance called not just for hiring attorneys, but for the creation of the Office of Eviction Defense. “Just like any other office in government, there should be a phone number people can call and receive help and be connected to resources.”

Myers Phillips said she and others will be watching closely this Friday, when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan unveils his budget proposal for the upcoming year. The Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition is calling for people to show up to city hall on Friday at 10 a.m. for the mayor’s presentation, and to keep the pressure on the city to fund eviction prevention. The Coalition has called for $27 million in funding going forward, compared to the nearly $5 million that’s been allocated so far.

Faith-Slaker, who heads up the Office of Eviction Defense for the city, acknowledged that more funding will be needed to represent people in the tens of thousands of eviction cases that are expected to be filed this year. She said she’s optimistic the mayor’s proposal will include the funding.

If not, housing advocates such as Myers Phillips plan to keep showing up to city council meetings to push the city to do more.

“Residents and citizens are in a housing and eviction crisis,” Myers Phillips said. “It should and must be addressed this budget cycle.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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