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Detroiters facing unsafe conditions can withhold rent payments. Here’s how one woman put her rent money aside and got to keep it.

Donna Chavous and buildings in Detroit.
Nisa Khan
Michigan Radio

Many renters in Detroit are living in uninhabitable homes, according to a study from the University of Michigan. Moldy walls, water backed up in the basement, broken porch steps and a lack of hot water can make a home unsafe.

But renters do have options to get their landlord to fix the issues. Here’s how one Detroiter did it.

With her kids moved out of her house, a few years ago Chavous decided to downsize. She loved the one-bedroom apartment she moved into at the New Center Plaza Apartments. It was close to Wayne State University, restaurants and stores, and it was affordable at $550 a month.

But in June 2021, Detroit’s historic floods reached Chavous’ apartment building - damaging the building’s elevator, and leaving Chavous to trek up four flights of stairs at least once a day.

“I would walk up as far as I could and then I’d stop and rest,” Chavous said about the elevator being out. “There were many times when I would have several bags, and I'd have two or three on this shoulder and two or three on the other. I mean, it was really tough,” she said.

Chavous’ landlord Raymond DeBates said that the parts needed to repair the elevator were backordered, in part, due to the pandemic. He also pointed out that other elevators, includingat the Detroit Public Library, were out of order after the historic floods.

But Chavous said she struggled daily to get up and down the stairs. Carrying groceries, taking out the trash, her laundry, and “heaven forbid,” she made it all the way up the stairs before she remembered that she forgot her phone in the car.

Moldy walls, water backed up in the basement, broken porch steps and a lack of hot water can make a home unsafe.

Chavous has bad knees that ache if she stands too long. In October, she had both knees replaced.

“I prayed as I walked up,” Chavous said, recalling one day she felt sick. “As I walked up the stairs, I said, ‘Lord, please deliver me out of this.’ I said, ‘Help me, Lord,” she said.

After months of trying her patience, chasing her building manager, the maintenance workers, anyone who would listen, Chavous decided to do something different. Something she knew she would get her landlord's attention.

She decided not to pay her rent to her landlord, but hold out to see if the elevator would get fixed.

Chavous decided to set up an escrow account. Escrow accounts allow tenants to leave their rent money with a neutral third party until conditions are met.

You can’t set up an escrow for just any reason, according to Tonya Myers Phillips, a lawyer and organizer with Detroit’s Right to Counsel. She said escrow is a good line of defense for people dealing with problems like missing porch stairs or no hot water, conditions that make a home unlivable or unsafe.

“We’ve seen cases like that of the furnace is broken…mold, this is not a matter of preference,” she said.

“So if your property is not habitable or if you're not sure what in the world habitable means, what is the threshold? Call to get an inspection,” Myers Phillips said.

There are a few options to set up an escrow account. You can create a separate escrow account with a bank or credit union. It's best to let your landlord know what you're doing in writing. After that, pay your rent on time, but into the escrow account instead of to the landlord.

Landlords may sue a tenant with an escrow account for nonpayment of rent, which could lead to an eviction.

Earlier this year, Chavous spent months in court as her landlord tried to evict her.

“No one wants to go to court. And I was nervous and uncomfortable and I had other things going on in my life. You know, you're working... everybody has a life,” she said.

A recent University of Michigan study showed non-payment of rent was the most common reason landlords filed eviction cases. But rental agreements are a two-way street.

Landlords also have to follow the agreement, including fixing problems that make a rental home unsafe. Detroit’s rental ordinance requires that all rental units in the city be up to code and have a Certificate of Compliance. Despite Mayor Mike Duggan’s pledge to bring all rental properties into compliance by the end of 2019, only 8% of Detroit rental properties had a certificate of compliance as of July 2022, according to a University of Michigan researcher.

“Not complying with the law, not taking the law seriously has been the status quo for too long. That has to change,” Myers Phillips said.

Fortunately, Chavous had documented the conditions of her home and her escrow account. Having that documentation, and getting legal advice, worked in her favor. Eventually, the case against her was dismissed.

Nisa Khan
Michigan Radio
Donna Chavous said she struggled to get up and down the stairs when her apartment's only elevator broke down.

“The reason why you go through all of that is because ultimately, if you end up in court and it's just your word as a tenant against the landlord, you know, I cannot tell you the number of times in my career where I've stood in court and had a landlord say, 'Well, oh golly, this is the first time I've ever heard the tenants say anything whatsoever,” said Ted Phillips, the director of the United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents stay in their homes.

Chavous did end up moving out of the New Center Plaza Apartment in April 2022. There was still no working elevator.

Chavous’ new apartment is on the first floor so she doesn’t have to take the stairs or worry about a broken elevator. Once she heals from surgery, her doctors tell her that her knees will be like they were when was 20 years old.

Now, she said, she is paying twice as much for rent than she did at her old place that she was otherwise happy in.

But to her? It feels like a win. She said she had the courage to face her landlord in court, to withhold her rent. In the end, Chavous got to keep her rent money.

Briana Rice is a reporter/producer operating out of Detroit.
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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