Tenants who try to fight an eviction can quickly get caught up in bewildering legal issues. According to recent reporting from The Detroit News's Christine MacDonald, only 4.4% of renters show up in court with a lawyer. That’s compared to the 83% of landlords who have legal representation in eviction cases.
That has some housing advocates calling on the city of Detroit to provide attorneys to renters who have been evicted.
Ted Phillips is the executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, an organization that supports people experiencing housing issues.
He says that eviction cases tend to move through the legal system fast. Without an attorney, tenants may end up with a hearing that only lasts around a minute.
“It’s very difficult to get your rights heard when you’re in a situation like that. Everybody’s moving quickly [and] having an attorney gives you a chance to step back, look at the legal issues, and try to get things resolved,” Phillips explained.
The United Community Housing Coalition prioritizes cases that involve low-income tenants or those that live in subsidized public housing. Phillips says that’s because tenants who are evicted risk losing their right to access subsidized housing, which can result in “long-term homelessness.”
Phillips is optimistic that Detroit officials recognize how providing tenants with legal representation could ultimately save the city money. In addition to addressing homelessness, helping tenants stay where they are could cut costs for homeless shelters and permanent supportive housing programs, Phillips says.
“There’s a whole slew of costs that are very, very calculable [and] that can be saved if you can prevent somebody from getting evicted on the front end,” Phillips said.
Bill Morris says it's important to also consider how landlords are impacted by delays in the evictions process. Morris owns and rents 31 houses in and around Battle Creek. He says evicting tenants is already a drawn-out, costly process, particularly when legal aid gets involved.
Morris says the worst eviction he's ever gone through lasted around 9 months and cost him $15,000. He doesn’t think that equipping tenants with legal representation will change anything about the final outcome in these cases.
“The person simply can’t pay. If you don’t want them to move out, then society needs to pay money so that they don’t move out. It shouldn’t just be all me. Why should I pay for somebody to live free for seven months all by myself?”
Morris says that it's unfair to force landlords to continue renting to people who can't pay. Instead of making evictions more difficult for all landlords, Morris says that tenants whose landlord won't keep their property safe and functional should sue.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.