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'Right to Renew' could be a line of defense against Detroit evictions. How does it work?

Detroit Cityscape with Condominiums at Sunset
Espiegle / Adobe Stock
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With pandemic-era benefits winding down and the eviction moratorium ended, Detroit tenants are seeing more evictions — and housing activists and residents are demanding a series of policy efforts to better protect tenants.

One priority for the new year is the Right to Renew, an ordinance that gives tenants a chance to continue their lease before it ends. Detroit Tenants Association founder Steven Rimmer called the potential ordinance their “first goal for legislation.”

At a Detroit Tenants Association meeting Tuesday night, the group announced that there will be a petition seeking support for the Right to Renew next Monday.

A group of renters in Detroit has been exploring the possibility of expanding their tenants' association to a citywide coalition.

“People having to move, having to pay these costs to move and the trauma that they go through, being evicted and having to move out within a certain time with other things going on in their life,” Rimmer, who is facing eviction himself, said. “I think it creates a better sense of community in Detroit for the tenants.... That's something this administration [says] they want: to keep Detroiters in Detroit, but they keep letting these landlords evict Detroiters.”

What does it cost to rent in Detroit?

Eviction filings in the city were projected to reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022, according to a November report by the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions. The report said the rate of court filings suggested 61,000 people would face the threat of eviction in 2022.

Eviction-Machine-November2022-policy-brief-1024x480.png
Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan

Robert Day, an attorney with Detroit Eviction Defense, described the current rental landscape as a “battle.”

“It's gotten uglier and uglier. More people are getting evicted. We got seniors who are homeless. We got single parents with kids who are homeless. Not a few — lots and lots more than there were even a few months ago.”

Day said advocates have noticed in recent years that more landlords are bypassing eviction proceedings when tenants don't pay, and terminating tenancy — which is a different, quicker court process — instead.

“They're just saying, ‘I want you out. And part of the idea there is so they can re-rent (the unit) at a higher price,” he said. “But the other thing we're seeing is landlords are using that to retaliate. So if tenants make complaints about conditions or request repairs or complain to the city about conditions or try to organize with other tenants, try to work together, landlords will bring termination actions in retaliation to evict them in the courts.”

Detroit also still has a lot of renters. Mayor Mike Duggan proudly announced late last year that a little more than half of Detroiters owned their homes — reversing, however tenuously, a decades-long drift away from homeownership.

(The American Community Survey data Duggan cited has some caveats, wrote University of Michigan researcher Alexa Eisenberg in a Bridge Detroit op-ed. ACS is an estimation of population trends, and Black, Latino, elderly, and poor low-income people tend to be undercounted. Detroit also is suing the U.S. Census Bureau for the 2020 count.)

How does Right to Renew help?

Advocates for the policy say the presumption that a lease will be renewed creates stability for tenants. Robert Day, the lawyer, added that public and government-subsidized housing have similar practices.

“And if (the landlord does not) want to renew your lease, they have to have a good cause. In other words, they have to say there's a serious lease violation,” he said. “And so that means you're not going to be retaliated against because you made a complaint…. You've got a right to make a complaint. You've got a right to speak up. You've got a right to organize with other tenants.”

“The need for stable housing trumps the landlord trying to get rid of somebody they perceive to be a troublemaker,” Day said.

Have other cities done this?

The Ann Arbor city council passed a Right to Renew ordinance this past October, in which landlords must make a “good faith” offer to renew tenant leases 180 days before the end of their current lease. The tenants then have a month to make a decision.

This applies to apartments with leases that are eight months or longer.

The ordinance was pushed by the University of Michigan's Graduate Employees' Organization and other housing advocates in the area.

Stateside talked to a member of the GEO Housing Caucus after the ordinance was passed. Listen below.

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Richa Mukerjee, chair of the GEO Housing Caucus, said the interest in Right to Renew started during the pandemic when members were facing "acute housing insecurity," including threats of evictions and landlord not renewing their leases.

When trying to focus on this problem, Mukerjee said GEO members saw that Ann Arbor's city code allowed landlords to ask for a renewal 70 days into a lease. Mukerjee said this forced people to make long-term decisions too quickly. 70 days into a lease was not enough time for a tenant to see if living in the unit was working out and if a tenant would even have the income to continue a lease, since grad students could be waiting to hear back about grants and applications.

For a lease that started in September, “by mid-November, my landlord could ask me whether or not I wanted to renew my lease for the next leasing cycle. And if I didn't know, they could kind of lease my apartment under me to someone else,” she said.

Right to Renew helped extend the timeline for tenants and gave them better protection against losing a place they wanted to stay in, she said. Landlords who don't comply are subject to fines between $500 and $1000.

Mukerjee, who is also on the Renters Commission with the city of Ann Arbor, said enforcement is a work in progress. (Some Ann Arbor tenants filed complaints to the city about landlords not following the ordinance or finding workarounds.) She said the commission is making recommendations in the next few months. One of them could be adding staff to look into complaints.

Could Right to Renew catch on elsewhere?

Since the passage of Right to Renew in Ann Arbor, the graduate union housing caucus has been connecting with advocates from other cities like Yspilanti, Lansing and Detroit to share the ordinance language they spent so much time on.

The Detroit activist, Steven Rimmer, said he presented the idea to a Detroit city council member and is figuring out how to get the ball rolling in his city.

“It's not just us, and a couple of your neighbors. This is all of Detroit. Pretty much all of the country. Everybody's going through this,” he said. “I just really think this needs to happen now…. This will provide a lot of protection for people, including myself, in the city of Detroit.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Rimmer is the founder of the Detroit Eviction Defense. He is the founding member of the Detroit Tenants Association.

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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