By Ted Phillips 

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield and other councilmembers are considering introducing a new ordinance that would provide Detroit residents facing eviction with a right to legal representation. 

These types of ordinances, known as right-to-counsel laws, have been enacted in cities throughout the country, including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Toledo. While it’s been implemented differently in each municipality, legal service agencies like local nonprofits United Community Housing Coalition and Lakeshore Legal Aid, have provided counsel. These programs have also been funded largely with public dollars.

I spoke with attorney Tonya Myers Phillips, of the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, for insight into how a right-to-counsel law might work in Detroit. 

NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tonya Myers Phillips Credit: courtesy photo Credit: courtesy photo

Ted Phillips: What is a right to counsel? 

Tonya Myers Phillips: Simply put, it’s the right to have legal representation in a legal proceeding. If you’re charged with a crime in this country and you can’t afford your own attorney, you’re provided with a lawyer — that’s a constitutional right. But unfortunately, we don’t have that equivalent on the civil side of the law. So we’re advocating that individuals in Detroit who are facing eviction be provided with an attorney.

Ted: What are the benefits?

Tonya: With a right to counsel, families facing eviction have the immediate benefit of legal representation to plead their case — to make sure it’s a fair process and that they have their day in court. We know from numerous studies, including one here in the city of Detroit, that individuals facing eviction are 18 times more likely to stay in their homes when they have legal representation. So that’s a huge benefit — not just to the families, but to our community. Where we’ve seen right-to-counsel laws implemented in cities all across the country, eviction rates fall. 

In the city of New York, evictions have dropped by 37%. So it’s a housing-stabilization tool. It keeps families safely housed, and it would help keep our population base intact in the city of Detroit. It reduces poverty, crime, mental health trauma and blight — and the best cure for blight is to have families stay in their homes.

Ted: Why is legal representation so beneficial to people facing eviction?

Tonya: Eviction is a legal process, but it’s not necessarily an equitable process. If you’re a layperson going before the court, the odds are against you. You need to know what to say and how to say it — and you need to say it fast. It’s more likely that you’re going to be outmatched, outgunned and you’ll probably lose. When people’s housing security is on the line, a lot is at stake: families are facing homelessness, children may have to change schools in the middle of the school year.. 

Before the pandemic, eviction filings averaged over 30,000 a year, and over 94% of plaintiffs who were filing cases had legal representation, compared to only about 4% of individuals facing eviction. That’s inequitable, and we need to change that. 

Ted: Have these laws been successful in other cities?

Tonya: Yes, they have. Right-to-counsel ordinances have been implemented in 13 cities, large and small, including New York, L.A. and Toledo. Numerous studies have shown that, over and over again, eviction rates fall when legal representation is provided — and that’s good for everybody.

Ted: How would it change the landscape in Detroit?

Tonya: A right-to-counsel ordinance would be a game-changer in the city of Detroit. As I already stated, you’re nearly 18 times more likely to stay in your home when you have an attorney. Other studies have shown that evicted tenants often leave Detroit and not come back. We’re losing our population and losing the tax dollars associated with our citizens. So having evictions occur at this level in Detroit is costing us. I believe that if a right to counsel is implemented in Detroit, it will help stabilize our population and our neighborhoods. 

Because lending institutions are reluctant to issue mortgages to people of color in the city, a lot of individuals purchase their homes on land contracts. Unfortunately — and I’ve seen this many times in my work — an individual can make their land contract payments, pay their taxes for years, make major repairs for years, and arrive at the point when they expect to have the deed. But because there are unscrupulous actors who take advantage of others, the seller will refuse to turn over the deed and just file papers for eviction. And if you don’t know the law and you don’t have an attorney, then you’re facing the loss of everything you have.  The money you’ve invested — the future you envisioned for your family — is gone.

It’s also a matter of equity. Most of the individuals that are disproportionately impacted by eviction are elders, senior citizens, disabled individuals and Black women with children. We have a moral responsibility to enact equitable public policies to protect our most vulnerable citizens. 

Ted: How would this affect housing conditions in Detroit? 

Tonya: Unfortunately, there are many people today who are renting properties that are just not habitable. They don’t have utilities, they need major repairs, they’re dangerous. There’s a two-way obligation in a rental relationship: The tenant pays the rent, and the landlord is responsible for providing a safe, secure, decent place to live — that’s the law. A right-to-counsel law would make sure that both ends of that deal are upheld and provide our community members with the tools to push back on these predatory actions. 

For more info, visit the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition page on Facebook or email rtcdetroit@gmail.com.