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Detroit's new office that will provide free lawyers for low-income residents gets delayed start

Detroit Skyline
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Detroit skyline

A program for low-income Detroiters facing eviction is going to have a delayed start.

As part of Detroit’s new Right to Counsel ordinance, an Office of Eviction Defense was supposed to be created by October 1.

The city is not going to make that deadline, but officials say they hope to hire the two positions for the office by the end of October.

The city will be hiring a director of the program as well as an assistant. Those two will be in charge of coordinating residents with lawyers, according to Detroit’s Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr.

He said he recognizes the need for representation in the city, especially for those who meet the requirements for the city’s ordinance.

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.

City Council President Mary Sheffield was behind the ordinance alongside Detroit's Right to Counsel coalition. Michigan Radio reached out to Sheffield's office multiple times over the last month for comment about the state of the Office of Eviction Defense. Her office did not give a comment.

Over the next three years, the program will be funded with $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars and a $12 million donation from the Gilbert Family Foundation.

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

Mallett Jr. said for now, Detroiters facing eviction will still get representation thanks to federal funding through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program.

The CERA program has been extended, only for those facing imminent eviction with a summons and complaint, until October 14, 2022, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

The program has funding for legal representation until the end of 2023.

Mallett said the city plans to post the job listing this week as well as produce requests for proposals to get law firms who are interested in working with the office to represent low-income residents.

"The CERA program is still in existence and will be until December 31. Now, that does not mean that we can amble along at a certain point. The lawyers doing that work will run out of runway," he said. "That is, there won't be funds available to take on new clients. ... Based on what we know at this time, persons who are facing eviction, who get down to 36th [District] Court with their particular documentation will receive representation and probably will receive representation until the end of October," he said.

Mallet said he hopes the Office of Eviction Defense will be up and running by then.

The report from Stout found that only 4% of Detroit tenants have access to representation, compared to 83% of landlords.

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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