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House Committee holds 1st hearing on renters’ rights bills

Brick, single-family homes in Detroit
Paulette Parker
Michigan Public
Passing down homes within a family is one of the common ways generational wealth is built in the U.S. When homeowners don't leave a will and their property doesn't go through probate, a home can become an heirs' property, increasing the risk the family will lose the home.

A state House panel held its first hearing Thursday on legislation to create a right to legal representation for people facing eviction from their rental homes.

Advocates for both tenants and landlords testified before a House subcommittee on housing. They all said taking the wrong path would worsen Michigan’s affordable housing shortage, but differed on whether a right to legal counsel should be part of the solution.

Tonya Myers Phillips of the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition said the existing system is unfair to renters, “and when the system is fair, thousands of Michiganders will not be unjustly evicted and will remain in their homes.

Erika Farley, the executive director of the state Rental Property Association, told the committee that the legislation could force an unfair burden on smaller rental property owners.

“Every time there is rent that is not being paid that’s a cost that is being absorbed by the property owner, which, unfortunately, can get passed on to other tenants because they’re absorbing the cost for the mortgage, for taxes, for property upkeep, etc.,” she said.

Farley says if legislation leads to protracted litigation, that would also push rents higher and lead to fewer units on the market as Michigan already faces problems with affordable housing.

William Lawrence with the statewide Rent is Too Damn High Coalition said most evictions are carried out by businesses with a large number of properties.

“And, of course, these major property owners and managers are very well represented by well-heeled attorneys,” he said. “Meanwhile, tenants, the majority of the time, have no representation. They’re afraid. They’re alone, and we know that these proceedings deeply impact their lives.”

Republicans on the committee wondered how a guaranteed legal counsel for rental litigation would be funded.

There were no votes held on the two bills and future hearings are expected. Democrats in the Legislature have put affordable housing on their to-do list for this session.

Another bill introduced this year would allow local governments to enact rent control ordinances.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.