Imagine if half the time a person was charged with a crime they went straight to prison without consulting a lawyer or going to court. Not because they were guilty — but because the system was so stacked against them it didn’t seem worth fighting the case, or they didn’t even know they could.
That’s a little like the situation renters find themselves in when they get eviction notices. Low-income renters, who are often already paying unaffordable rents and living in housing that isn’t up to code, typically don’t know their rights and don’t get access to public defenders as they would in criminal cases. In Detroit, a full 46 percent of people facing eviction never showed up to court in 2017, no matter their circumstances. So their landlord wins by default, they get a strike on their record and they have to leave their home.
But a growing national movement imagines a system that would level the playing field for low-income renters by providing them with lawyers in eviction proceedings. It’s called the “right to counsel,” and has been implemented in three cities, with others exploring the possibility. In the last year or so in Detroit, advocates have been having conversations about how we could join their ranks, energized by New York City’s groundbreaking 2017 ordinance.
Earlier this month, more than a dozen groups came together for a day-long summit to talk about the impact right to counsel could have in Detroit, with input from tenants, judges, city officials, legal aid attorneys and people who work on similar efforts in other cities.
Eviction is a widespread problem in Detroit, where more than 30,000 tenants, or families in one in every five rentals across the city, face eviction annually. Evictees deal with more than the hassle of finding a new place — for poor renters, the cost of moving and pulling together two months rent and a security deposit can be a major barrier. They may leave the city or end up homeless.
“That puts you at risk of having your children taken away, so essentially at that point we’re criminalizing poverty,” said Meghan Takashima, supportive housing director for Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department.
The instability and dislocation of an eviction has a particularly negative affect on kids, who often have to change schools. It also gives renters a strike on their record and affects their credit history, making it harder to find good quality and affordable housing. Eviction can plunge someone into poverty and can have negative consequences for mental health.
When renters do get to court, they’re usually representing themselves and ill-equipped to deal with the legal system. Detroit renters had lawyers in less than 5 percent of cases in 2017 — more than 80 percent of landlords did have attorneys. Eviction cases that year took place in 110 zip codes, but nearly 80 percent came from just 15 zip codes, generally areas with high poverty rates.
At the 36th District Court, a judge might handle more than 100 eviction cases in a morning, said Judge Cylenthia LaToye Miller, who was on the landlord-tenant docket for several years before switching in October. Some defendants are helped by the lawyers staffing a part-time Tenant Housing Clinic, if they’re lucky enough to hear about it. The assistance eliminates some of what Miller calls “cringeworthy moments.”
“As a judge you’re sitting there and you can see, like, if somebody could just help this person to know the right thing to say, or the right question to ask, or to present the right document, then maybe things would be different,” Miller explained. She said she often heard from tenants how their ignorance of the law harmed their case, like not knowing that landlords must make certain repairs.
“This is a human rights issue; it is a social justice issue; it is really a civil right to me, that we should have counsel in the courtrooms,” she added.
Evictions also have an impact on the city’s bottom line, said Brian White, chief of staff for Councilwoman Mary Sheffield. Displaced tenants often move to suburbs where they can find cheaper rents, leading to decreases in funding.
“That creates a vicious cycle of not having enough police officers, not having enough resources to provide services to the residents,” White said.
With Detroit’s high rate of vacancy and poor quality rental stock, an eviction might turn a house vacant, and eventually blighted and on the demolition list.
“When we have to demo a home that’s costing us way more than providing an attorney for a couple hours to stave off an eviction,” White said. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot, and we have to find the money one way or another, whether it’s private or general fund money.”
There’s no clear pathway to funding right to counsel in Detroit, though Arthur Jemison, Chief of Services and Infrastructure for Detroit, said he’d be willing to meet with advocates from the United Community Housing Coalition and other groups. Jemison suggested the best way to get stakeholders on board would be to convince them of a program’s value with a test pilot.
New York City’s program will cost up to $155 million annually, though proponents say they expect larger cost savings through reductions in the burden on the shelter system, public health and other supportive services. Sounds like a lot, but a version of right to counsel could probably be implemented here with $3-$6 million a year to fund full-time attorneys, said Neil Steinkamp, who has conducted on evictions and right to counsel nationally as managing director at the financial advisory firm Stout Risius Ross. (Some advocates noted that there’s a difference in outcomes for tenants between limited and full representation, which would likely cost more.)
New York City has only extended the right to counsel to a few neighborhoods so far as they phase in the program over five years. Still, the citywide eviction rate dropped by 14 percent in 2018. In 84 percent of cases where tenants were provided attorneys, they got to stay in their homes — which affects not just the individuals, but helps preserve affordable housing and neighborhood stability.
It’s hard to put a price on the value of having a lawyer for the individuals whose homes are at stake. Marie Thornton, 68, skipped dialysis to attend the summit — currently awaiting her sixth court date in her eviction proceedings, she hoped she’d learn something that would help her argue her case. A friend is representing her pro bono, and Thornton said her main takeaway was that she wouldn’t have been able to represent herself effectively.
“I really appreciate my attorney, period,” she said. “It made me think today just how valuable access to counsel is, that other people like me wouldn’t have.”
Thornton lives in rent-subsidized senior housing and has been taking more steps to fight her eviction than most — she held her rent in escrow for five months while management refused to do repairs; she had the city come out and inspect the dangerous loose tile in her bathroom; she went to the Detroit Housing Commission; and she has compiled documentation of all her communication with management. She believes she’s being evicted as retaliation for serving as a witness in a criminal case about a fight in her building, and she still doesn’t know if she’ll be allowed to stay in her home.
“All I wanted to do was kiss my grandbabies and smell flowers while I was going through dialysis,” Thornton said. “I never wanted to fight for where I live… but I still got to get up and fight everyday to keep a roof over my head.”