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Detroit renters with building problems do have options. Here's how to protect yourselves.

Nisa Khan
Michigan Radio

For Detroiters, navigating the city’s labyrinth-like rental landscape, building codes, and landlords can be stressful.

If elevators are broken, or there’s sewage in the basement, or no heat in the winter, late or ignored service requests can be disastrous.

Thousands of Detroiters faced eviction cases from a rental that violated the city’s ordinance during the pandemic, according to a University of Michigan study.

The U of M researcher, Alexa Eisenberg, said non-payment of rent was the most common reason landlords filed eviction cases. But rental agreements are a two-way street.

“When the court enforces evictions against tenants but does not enforce the laws that require landlords to comply with basic health and safety standards, what it's doing is privileging the landlord's income over a tenant's right to a safe and habitable home,” Eisenberg said. “It's enforcing only one side of the rental agreement, and that is unjust.”

Michigan Radio consulted residents, lawyers, academics, and activists to round up what renters can do to protect themselves when building problems go unaddressed.

Problems with your unit? Document, document, document.

Donna Chavous put her rent into an escrow account (more on that below) after the elevator in her apartment building broke. She kept meticulous records, and encouraged others in the building to do the same.

“Because I know what kind of people (the landlords) were, and I knew I needed that,” she said.

Tonya Myers Phillips, Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition’s project leader, agrees.

“Pictures, logs, notes, written correspondence with a landlord or property owner, documenting repair requests that have been made," can all be helpful Tonya Myers Phillips said. "So those things can be presented to the court if necessary."

Can I fix something myself?

Yes. According to United Community Housing Coalition’s Executive Director Ted Phillips, “the law also allows tenants to do what's called repair and deduct.”

Renters can only use this option if the problem causes an unsafe or unlivable situation. First, the renter must ask a landlord to fix the issue and wait for them to get back. How much time a renter must wait can depend. But emergency situations like no heat during a Detroit winter, can allow the tenant to use their rent money to fix the issue quicker.

Renters can hire someone to do the repairs, but may need to choose the service with the cheapest estimate. Again, be sure to document all expenses.

Your building should have a certificate of compliance.

To get a certificate, buildings have to get a lead clearance test and pass a city inspection. Inspectors look at heating, smoke detectors, and vermin, among other things.

Click on the images to make bigger.

Detroit’s rental ordinance states it’s unlawful for a landlord to collect rent from a tenant who’s living in a property without a valid certificate of compliance. The reality though, is the vast majority of Detroit’s rental units are uncertified.

Detroit’s city council updated rental ordinance protections in 2017. Despite Mayor Mike Duggan’s pledge to bring all rental properties into compliance by the end of 2019, only 8% of Detroit rental properties had a certificate of compliance as of July 2022, according to Eisenberg.

How do I find out if my rental is registered or certified?

Detroit has a database that you can searchby address or on a map. Fair warning though: The database is not always current. You can also call Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental (BSEED) to confirm a building is certified.

If your place is not registered, tenants can get a free inspection by calling 313-224-2733 or 313-628-2451 which is the Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental department’s number. Renters can also file a complaint there too.

Renters can make a complaint online by using this form. These complaints are not anonymous.

How long should it take for BSEED to get back to me?

Project Manager Julie Fowler said BSEED will contact a renter back within 24 to 48 hours on business days. If a renter calls on the weekend, the department should respond on Monday.

Emergency complaints will get a quicker response. Emergencies include no heat during the winter, flooded basements and sewage backups. Landlords must fix these problems faster — depending on what the emergency is and if it is present when the inspector is on site. Fowler recommends calling BSEED (313-224-2733 or 313-628-2451) for emergencies instead of reporting online.

There are 30 residential building inspectors, according to Fowler. There are also third-party inspection companies that help with single family and duplex properties. So far this year, there’s been a minimum of 2,000 inspections a month, she said.

What should happen when the inspector comes over?

If there are code violations, Fowler said the inspector will issue the property owner a correction order. Landlords have 30 days to respond to standard correction orders before a re-inspection.

In the case of emergency orders, the landlord has to act quicker. The response time varies — around three days for no heat — depending on the violation.

If the problem isn’t fixed, on day 31, BSEED should issue a ticket through the Department of Appeals and Hearings.

The most common citation is not having the property registered, which is $250. Failure to have a lead clearance is $500. The fines get more expensive for repeated violations.

Establishing that a property does not have a certificate of compliance alone is not enough to avoid eviction, Kellie Foster from Lakeshore Legal Aid warns. However, she said requesting a BSEED inspection can help give renters some defense in court.

(An inspection report) can be used in court to show, if we're explaining like this is a property that rents for $1,000, but look at all of these conditions,” she said. “This should only be worth like $500.”

Click on the images to make bigger.

What if I think there might be lead in my house?

The Eviction Machine, an advocacy-research group, links to a lot of helpful hotlines. You can call BSEED for an inspection, but there are other resources available:

Consider putting your rent money in escrow. Here’s how.

There are a couple things to keep in mind before you can consider your apartment unsafe to live in and take action, like withholding rent, Detroit attorney Tonya Myers Phillips said.

“This is habitability,” she said. “So, we're looking at things that make the place not safe to be in. You know, hot water isn’t running. Stairs are missing, like the porch stairs are missing…The furnace is broken, anything (with) mold.”

Detroit Renter City, a comprehensive guide, also splits up these issues into "emergency" and "major" repairs on its website. Emergency repairs include gas leaks, flooding, bedbugs, and roof damage.

First, a renter has to ask their landlord to fix the issue. Consider reporting major problems, like a broken furnace or exposed electrical wires, to the city too.

Nisa Khan
Michigan Radio
Donna Chavous is a Detroit renter who used escrow when her building's only elevator broke down. She was able to get her money back and use it to move out.

Then, tenants with major issues that make their home uninhabitable can put their rent money in an escrow account. A neutral third party like a bank will hold the rent unless conditions are met. Renters must deposit their rent money in full, on time, each month they withhold it.

If a landlord fails to fix a major issue, putting money in escrow and documenting the process is a good move.

Tonya Myers Phillips said setting up an escrow account is “a good line of defense.”

Putting rent into escrow can mean a separate bank account and a credit union. United Community Housing Coalition (313-963-3310), a non-profit organization, is a good resource to help with this.

You can also use the 36th District Court on the second floor — however, this options means there needs to be a case in front of the court.

As long as the tenant has the money that's kind of segregated, that escrow requirement is met.” Kellie Foster from Lakeshore Legal Aid said.

BSEED has its own application, with a turnaround time of five business days. It currently has two people enrolled in it. Joe McGuire, who is part of activist group Detroit Eviction Defense, suggested trying a bank, rather than the city’s programs. This is because tenants may have a better chance of getting more of their money back.

UCHC’s Ted Phillips said it’s important renters make an official BSEED complaint and let the landlord know they’re setting up an escrow account. This could be an email or even a screenshot of a text.

“The main things are that the landlord knows what (a tenant) is doing and why they're doing it. And that, if it's something that is serious enough for a code enforcement unit…they should hold onto their (rent) money and not spend it.” said Ted Phillips.

Even simply not having a Certificate of Compliance is enough for renters to start withholding their payments and putting the money into an escrow account.

But there are risks attached to escrow, including being taken to court for non-payment of rent. That’s why pictures, videos, text messages, and evidence of the apartment’s state is important, Ted Philips said. 

Get legal advice

Michigan Legal Help can connect renters to resources and lawyers.

Detroit renter Donna Chavous said even though she knew about escrow, consulting with her lawyer helped guide her. Chavous used LegalShield, a service that provided legal assistance for her at $25 a month.

Lakeshore can give a free legal consultation by calling (888) 783-8190.

UCHC also provides legal services to low-income Detroiters. Email them at help@uchcdetroit.org or call (313)-963-3310.

What are other resources I can check out?

You can look up:

    Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
    Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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