Tenants are organizing in Detroit. Here's what they're hoping to accomplish.
This article was published in partnership with Outlier Media.
Deborah Patrick and Roger Turner run into each other almost every day while on walks or taking groceries out of their cars. The two are neighbors in the Sherwood Heights Apartments near Outer Drive and Wyoming Avenue. When they see each other, they have often found themselves complaining about the conditions of their apartments and the larger 10-building complex.
The litany of common complaints, like the wall near the gate never getting fixed and the pool not being refilled, got more serious: Another building’s basement backed up with sewage, the hot water was off again, the power went out because of another electrical surge. The list of issues kept growing, and Patrick and Turner, 64 and 66 years old, felt management seemed unwilling to undertake long-term fixes.
“One day, we just decided we have to stop talking and do something about it,” Patrick said. “Filing individual, separate complaints wasn’t going very far. But if we all banded together, we could be heard.”
Patrick and Turner formed the Sherwood Heights Tenants Association to do just that last June. They want to pressure the property management company to address their concerns.
They say residents in 75 of the 300 units have already become members. Many of the residents are in their 60s or older.
Sherwood Heights tenants are among an increasing number of Detroiters organizing to stop what they see as widespread profiteering and mistreatment by landlords. These tenants aren’t just trying to improve their own buildings — they also want local laws to keep up with protecting the needs of renters.
“We’re not getting any justice”
Turner has lived at Sherwood Heights for nearly 15 years, and he remembers when it was a quiet and well-maintained neighborhood — the perfect place for him and his wife to retire.
“This place is a real diamond in the rough,” he likes to say. The complex was built in several phases during the ’50s and ’60s. The low-slung, golden brick buildings of Sherwood Heights surround a large courtyard, insulating it from the busy streets nearby.
Turner said a series of ownership and property management changes over the past few years has resulted in worse conditions at the complex that don’t get fixed.
The complex was sold in November 2021 by Sherwood Heights Associates LLC to another entity named Sherwood Heights Apartments MI LLC, a corporation based in Delaware. In January, it was sold once again to Sherwood Owner LLC, also based in Delaware.
The professionalization and distance of property owners who buy, sell and manage homes and apartments in Detroit is becoming a more permanent part of the housing landscape tenants now have to navigate. Outlier Media and Michigan Radio could not identify Sherwood Heights current individual owners using corporate and property records.
The tenants association is a grassroots effort. A core group of 10 volunteers do the essential work of handing out flyers, sending emails, running the group’s Facebook page and getting legal advice.
The association has a list of demands around fixing up the buildings, especially the plumbing and electrical systems. Members also won’t agree to any rent increases until the biggest issues are resolved.
“We’ve got these complaints and we’re not getting any justice,” Turner said. “So eventually we’re gonna hold back the rent in escrow, and I bet you they’ll come down and want to speak with us ... because that’s a lot of money.”
In January, the current owners hired a company called Beztak Properties to manage Sherwood Heights. Residents say it was a relief after the previous property management company, Beacon Management, provided poor service.
“We hear from tenants across the complex that they put in maintenance requests that get ignored and then are labeled complete when they’re not,” Patrick said about Beacon Management. “They haven’t even been to see what the problem is.”
Beacon Management did not respond to multiple calls and voicemails.
The tenant association held a meeting with Beztak in February, which agreed to work on some of the major capital improvements and meet with tenants monthly. Beztak did not respond to an interview request.
A protracted fight
Several miles closer to downtown, Steven Rimmer has big goals for tenants in his building — and the rest of Detroit. He wants to fundamentally change city policy to give renters more rights to renew leases and keep rent low.
He got started organizing tenants in his own apartment building.
The elevator where he lives, New Center Plaza, stopped working in June of 2021. Rimmer said that was only one of a number of issues at the four-story building, including roaches, cracked ceilings and broken washer and dryer machines. Then in late December that year, with the elevator still broken, management tacked new lease agreements onto residents’ doors that included rent increases. Rimmer’s was set to go up by $250 a month.
“We decided at that point that we had to escalate,” Rimmer said. “Once everyone got those rent increases, we decided to form the tenants association.”
Rimmer and others formed the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor the following month. Both New Center Plaza and The Marlenor are owned by local real estate investor Raymond Debates III and sit across from each other on Seward Street. Rimmer said there are about 160 units combined and that 30 units are rented by members of the tenants association.
Their organizing includes bringing attention to their situation through the press, reporting issues to the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, and getting Debates to agree there would be no rent increases until repairs were made.
The elevator was fixed last May. Debates said management also installed LED lights throughout the building and planted oak trees in the courtyards.
“We have been doing a number of improvements to the property after the elevator modernization was completed at a price tag north of $200,000,” he said.
But Rimmer said Debates hasn’t done much to improve their living situation beyond fixing the elevator. Not a single tenant of New Center Plaza has been given a new lease to sign since December 2021. Renters on month-to-month leases can be evicted with just 30 days’ notice in Michigan.
“We have not yet offered leases to any existing residents, but we are about to start that,” Debates said.
Debates is suing Rimmer for defamation in Wayne County Circuit Court and trying to evict him. Rimmer has filmed Debates following him in a car.
“It was a struggle organizing here because we had management influencing and intimidating tenants,” Rimmer said.
“That’s why we really need to build something bigger because we have more power than people realize.”
Renters have been making up an increasing share of Detroit’s population over the last decade. The city is now almost equally split between renters and homeowners according to the latest census data.
Rimmer helped form the citywide Detroit Tenants Association (DTA) last August. Its members hope to change local laws through collective action to improve renter protections. The organization works to inform tenants of their rights through events and monthly meetings that are open to any renters.
A majority of the city’s renters are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. An estimated 90,000 Detroiters live in substandard housing, with renters having it worse than homeowners.
The first monthly meeting of the DTA was on Jan. 10. About 70 people showed up, including members of other housing rights groups like Detroit Eviction Defense, Moratorium NOW and the Right to Counsel Coalition.
DTA’s first priority is to enact a Right to Renew ordinance according to Rimmer. A law like that would give tenants who have not violated their lease a right to extend it after the term ends. Right to Renew laws seek to give renters more stability and keep rental rates from rising too fast. A similar ordinance was recently passed in Ann Arbor, requiring landlords to make a “good faith” offer 180 days before the current lease ends.
A decade of organizing
Detroit Eviction Defense was one of the groups at the January DTA meeting. It’s also one of the older tenants rights groups in the city that’s still active, having been around for more than a decade.
Robert Day is a retired Detroit legal aid attorney and has been with Detroit Eviction Defense from the start. He said the group emerged from organizing with Occupy Detroit in the early 2010s when activists wanted to support homeowners facing foreclosure.
“We always fight in the courts any way we can,” Day said, “but we all understood that we were going to have to do something that was outside the normal process, outside the courts, outside the government to get things done.”
Its tactics are direct. Detroit Eviction Defense members will do anything they can to physically get in the way of an eviction.
“We’re against evictions,” Day said. “We know what side we’re on — we’re on the side of tenants and homeowners. I can’t think of a situation where we’d say, ‘we think you should be evicted.’”
Detroit Eviction Defense has no formal organization structure: No one has any roles or titles, there is no budget, the organization isn’t a registered nonprofit, and all decisions are made democratically. The group has a varied mix of members who bring different skills to the table: There are academics, students, current and former lawyers, and organizers and tenants who were once helped by Detroit Eviction Defense.
“We deal with lots of slumlords,” said Sammie Lewis, who has been with the group for a couple years. “There’s a lot of people in conditions that are barely livable.”
Detroit Eviction Defense meets every Thursday at St. John’s-St. Luke’s Evangelical Church south of Eastern Market. Anybody worried about or facing an eviction can come. Members offer suggestions and may end up organizing a home defense, where they’ll try to prevent the arrival of the dumpster to take away residents’ possessions or locking arms to stop a bailiff from entering.
Despite the challenges tenants face every day in Detroit, Lewis said they’re excited about what’s happening in housing organizing in Detroit.
“I feel a lot of optimism for the housing movement,” Lewis said. “Detroit Tenants Association is doing some great stuff around Right to Renew. More people are showing up and getting involved. I think we could win a lot here.”