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"We know what needs to be done": Detroit picks nonprofit to run program for renters facing eviction


A Detroit nonprofit is the city's choice to manage a new program that will provide free lawyers to low-income Detroiters facing eviction.

The United Community Housing Coalition has been offering programs to keep low-income Detroiters in their homes since 1973. That work includes preventing foreclosures and evictions as well as connecting low-income residents with federal and city programs.

Now, they'll handle intake and referrals to legal defense. They'll also be responsible for subcontracting with law firms interested in representing people.

United Community Housing Coalition Director Ted Phillips said he's excited about what his organization can do to make an impact for those facing eviction.

"This is a tremendous opportunity. I think we know what needs to be done and we've worked with a lot of groups over the years, a lot of legal services groups over the years. And I think that it's going to be a great new era," Phillips said.

Detroit City Council will need to approve this contract, and it has only a couple of weeks to take action this year. The council is scheduled to take a recess from December 1 through January 3.

Right to Counsel Coalition member Tonya Myers Phillips said she's happy with the housing coalition being involved.

"We're going to see a dramatic reduction in evictions. And what that means is Detroiters are stably housed, communities are more closely knit together. And as you know, children are able to have more continuity in schools. People are less stressed and traumatized and are able to live their life," Myers Phillips said.

The city still has not hired anyone for its new Office of Eviction Defense, a requirement under the city's Right to Counsel Ordinance which was supposed to take effect October 1.

In a press release, Mayor Mike Duggan said that he will announce the hires for an executive director and project leader to lead the Office of Eviction Defense by the end of the month.

“Over the past two years, the city has taken unprecedented steps to help Detroit renters stay current on their rent and to provide them legal representation if they are being subjected to an unlawful eviction,” Duggan said. “We have one of the finest housing rights organizations anywhere in the United Community Housing Coalition and look forward to swift approval from City Council so we can build our legal team capacity as quickly as possible to help as many Detroiters as possible.”

The right to counsel ordinance guarantees funding for all Detroiters who are facing eviction or foreclosure proceedings in the 36th District Court and have an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty line — that's $27,180 for a single person. City council unanimously approved the ordinance in May.

Once the contract is approved by city council, Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett said he wants the community housing coalition to manage a bid process that could allow the other five organizations that applied for the work, to act as subcontractors.

“We are going to need all the help we can get to meet the demand we expect," Mallet said.

The new office will be funded for the next three years with $6 million in COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act committed by the Duggan administration. Separately, the Gilbert Family Foundation has pledged $12 million over the next three years to provide eviction legal defense for 6,000 low-income Detroit families with children.

But the effort needs more money, said Myers Phillips.

"That's not enough. And if they don't, as in Mayor Duggan, doesn't initiate additional ARPA spending to support the right to council ordinance, then Detroiters will still be left out in the cold," Myers Phillips said.

A report by consulting firm Stout estimated that implementing a right to counsel program in Detroit would cost about $16.7 million a year.

The city has not yet announced a date the program will officially start or when and how the funds will be dispersed.

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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