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How to escrow your rent in Michigan

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Moldy walls. No heat in winter. Sewage in the basement.

These are all dangerous conditions to be living with — and if you are renting, it is your landlord’s responsibility to fix them in a timely manner.

In reality, that often is not the case. However, there are some tools available to renters who find themselves in this kind of situation. One Detroiter shared her story about how she tried to get her landlord to fix the only elevator in the building by withholding her rent in a practice called escrow.

“I prayed as I walked up,” Donna Chavous, who has bad knees and lived on the fourth floor, said. “As I walked up the stairs, I said, ‘Lord, please deliver me out of this.’ I said, ‘Help me, Lord."

Michigan Radio compiled a Detroit-specific guide to escrow, which involves calling up the city’s building and safety department.

Michigan Radio consulted residents, lawyers, academics, and activists to round up what renters can do to protect themselves when building problems go unaddressed.

In this statewide guide, we want provide a more general look at escrow in Michigan, its risks, and what resources may be available in your area.

“...[T]enants don't have a lot of leverage against landlords. So it's one way to withhold their rent money in order to try to get repairs,” Michigan Legal Help Program director Angela Tripp said.

MichiganLegalHelp.com is a comprehensive guide to legal tools in the state. Its article, I Am Having Trouble Getting My Landlord to Make Repairs, can also be filtered for specific counties.

As always, getting legal advice — if you can — helps immensely.

What is escrow?

Escrow is when a tenant puts their rent money in a third-party, neutral account instead of giving it to their landlord until conditions are met. It must be paid in the full amount and on time, to prove that the tenant does have the money.

Escrow accounts can be made at a bank or a credit union.

Gayle Rosen is a lawyer with Student Legal Services at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“If the repairs are still significant and still haven’t been addressed ... I would suggest to a student to withhold rent,” she said. “Our goals are to get the repairs done, and possibly seek rent credit for the failure to have had the property maintained up to that point.”

When should I escrow? What do you mean until “conditions are met?”

Escrow is for the more serious service repairs that affect habitation and safety.

This could include:

  • No heat in the winter
  • Mold
  • Sewage in the basement
  • Broken front door
  • No hot water

It can’t be for issues like cracks in the wall — unless those cracks lead to something falling on top of you.

The time between letting the landlord know about the issue and taking action can depend on the severity of the problem and how the landlord responds.

But different municipalities have different views of habitation and safety certificates, Tripp said. Tenants could reach out to see if their issues fall within those habitation requirements. Tenants can also consider asking for an inspection to see if the issue needs involvement from the city.

Tripp emphasized that if the ordinance enforcer considers the home too unsafe to live in, a series of actions is triggered against the landlord — but the tenant may have to move out immediately too, and not have a place to live.

What are some things I should know before I escrow? 

Document everything: pictures of all of the issues, letters, screenshots of emails and texts. Make sure you have a trail of what the issue is and every failure of the landlord to respond.

Make sure you have let your landlord know about the issue through a letter or an email, and give them time to respond. You may have to do it multiple times, Tripp said.

If you have called your landlord with any concerns, be sure to follow up with them afterwards with a text or email. It’s written documentation that the phone call has happened, Rosen said.

If tenants can, go to your city and make a complaint to have another record of the complaint being made. For example, in Detroit, tenants can write or call Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental (313-224-2733 or 313-628-2451.)

Rosen, who works primarily with student tenants in Ann Arbor, said she would tell them to file complaints with the city to see if they could inspect and address the issue. To get the form, email JFarrell@a2gov.org or call 734-794-6000, ext. 42680. The office will contact the landlord and the landlord will have to respond to the office in 24 hours for safety issues, or 72 hours for non-emergency issues.

These complaints are often not anonymous.

Not every city or municipality has a renter’s office, which is why documenting all communication with the landlord and the issue is so important — in case the matter goes to court.

“On what day did the stove stop working? How (and) when did you notify the landlord? Can you take a picture of what is broken or can you take a picture of the repair problem? Can you somehow record the temperature in your home when you don't have any heat?” are examples Tripp gave. “It’s good to have documentation that the court can understand why you are withholding rent. And what the landlord needs to do to earn that rent back.”

Tenants must also alert landlords of the intent to hold their rent in escrow.

What are the risks? 

Escrow is often seen as a last resort tactic, after letting the landlord know of the issue and getting a lawyer to contact the landlord.

Tenants could be taken to court for nonpayment of rent, which is why having heavy documentation is so vital. The court may help convince the landlord that problems need to be resolved, Tripp said.

However, there are risks beyond the court — even if the tenant wins their case. Other cities are seeing credit companies and tenant-screening apps that collect renters’ names from court filings, landing them on a landlord blacklist. Tripp said many landlords require written applications, and many run those names through different trackers to see who has been involved in court cases. (These databases rarely show the outcome of cases, she said.)

“So a lot of landlords may view that tenant as a high-risk tenant just for having been named in a case,” she said. “There are efforts in some parts of the country to expunge eviction records at different points. But in Michigan, all of that, you know, all of those cases are public record. And so it's relatively easy to find out if someone's ever been on the other side of a landlord-tenant case.”

A bipartisan bill in the Michigan Senate would have required eviction records to be expunged after five years. The bill failed to get out of committee in the term that recently ended; but it could be re-introduced in the new term next year.

What is “repair and deduct?”

If a landlord is ignoring a safety or health hazard that the tenant raised before, the tenant can consider having the issue repaired themselves — and deducting those costs from their rent.

Rosen said this is a series of letters, texts or emails sent to the landlord to let them know of the problem.

If there is a failure to respond, the tenant can reach out to contractors and get three estimates for the repair and let the landlord know that they have done so.

“‘If I don't hear back from you, by such and such date, I'll have this contractor who offered the lowest price or the middle price come out and do the work and then ultimately have that cost deducted from (my) rent,’” Rosen said.

Be sure to keep all of the receipts involved.

What other resources are available to tenants? 

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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