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Detroit ordinance ensures residents have right to counsel in eviction cases

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council has unanimously approved an ordinance giving low-income people the right an attorney during eviction proceedings.

Housing advocates hailed the ordinance, which had been in the works for years. They say too many Detroiters were evicted before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vast majority didn’t have legal help. They said that led to family instability, increased blight, and homelessness.

Joe Maguire, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, said many people were evicted when they had no right to be. “And what breaks my heart is when it happens after somebody has already been evicted, sometimes people come to me and I say, ‘Oh, if I was there, I could have got this case dismissed instead,’” McGuire told the Council.

There are still questions about long-term funding for the program. It will launch with $6 million in federal Covid relief funds, as well as some philanthropic dollars.

Tonya Meyers-Phillips, an attorney who heads the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, said it’s important that the city contract capable and experience agencies to provide the free counsel. She said securing a permanent funding source is also essential. Detroit’s corporation counsel told the City Council that the city can’t use general fund dollars for the effort.

“We don't have the privilege of sitting on the sidelines and allowing evictions to climb back up to the rate that they were pre-pandemic,” Meyers-Phillips said. “We don't have that luxury as a city.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit’s 36th district court handled on average around 30,000 eviction cases per year.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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