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Report: Detroit evictions on the rise as legal representation for low-income tenants stalls

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Just over a year after the end of a pandemic moratorium on evictions in Detroit, the city is on track to return to pre-pandemic numbers of eviction filings. That’s according to a new report from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions team.

The report found that at the city’s current filing rate, more than 20% of tenants — 61,000 people — would face eviction this year.

The University of Michigan researchers analyzed data from nearly 68,000 eviction case records filed in Detroit’s 36th District Court between January 2019 and June 2022 to find trends in eviction filings during the pandemic and make projections for the rest of 2022.

“In Detroit and cities like it, COVID-19 eviction response measures disrupted a status quo of unjust and unmitigated mass displacement,” said Alexa Eisenberg, postdoctoral research fellow at U of M’s Poverty Solutions initiative, said in a press release on Monday. “The policy changes early in the pandemic showed us evictions are preventable but inevitable within a system that prioritizes landlords’ investment interests over tenants’ health and human right to shelter.”

Eisenberg and Katlin Brantley, a graduate student research assistant at Poverty Solutions, co-authored a new policy brief based on data from the Eviction Machine, an organizing, advocacy and research tool that was developed by the Urban Praxis Workshop with support from Poverty Solutions and Data Driven Detroit, according to their press release.

The research found court data showed tenants’ access to legal counsel increased during the pandemic. One in five tenants had full legal representation, though landlords were four times more likely than tenants to have attorneys, the report said.

“Fully funding and implementing the city of Detroit’s Right to Counsel ordinance would help address this disparity,” the press release said.

Detroit passed a Right to Counsel Ordinance that was supposed to take effect in October. No one had been hired by its mandated start date, but officials from Mayor Mike Duggan’s office said they expect to have an update on it by the end of the week. The city will need to hire staff for an Office of Eviction Defense required by the ordinance.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield discussed the delay during Tuesday’s City Council session.

“We’ve done our part. We passed the ordinance. We’ve allocated funding. We’ve also reached out to the administration about additional funding as well," Sheffield said. "We are working extremely hard to get it up and running, but there is a process that is not necessarily on council’s end. It’s the administration now, their responsibility to implement the actual ordinance."

Several residents and members of Detroit’s Right to Counsel Coalition have spoken at city council meetings in favor of more funding for implementing the ordinance and for its immediate start. The ordinance included $6 million in funding, but advocates say much more money will be needed to meet the city’s need.

Eisenberg and tenant advocates describing Detroit's evictions as "a public health crisis" are holding a virtual event with Q&A at noon November 17.

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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