Jai Kiser moved to Detroit with her teenage son last October from North Carolina to start fresh in a new city. Kiser, 31, who makes music and is a spiritual healer, found a rental in the Bagley neighborhood on the city’s west side. An acquaintance who lived in the upper unit of a house rented her the lower unit.
But the rental was a scam — the acquaintance didn’t have the authority to rent out the lower unit because she wasn’t the owner. Instead of relying on the courts to carry out an eviction order against Kiser, the property manager turned to the police. Kiser was arrested in April by a little known unit of the Detroit Police Department called the Squatters Action Team. She spent a night in jail and is facing a charge of “occupancy of building without consent.”
Only sheriffs or bailiffs, not police officers, have the power to enforce all court-ordered evictions across the state. Enforcing an eviction is not a criminal matter. A sheriff or bailiff is there representing the civil court and to take possession of the property. There is evidence of what that looks like — belongings piled onto the curb or in a dumpster before the former tenant is locked out — in many Detroit neighborhoods.
But in Detroit, the DPD’s Squatters Action Team is not waiting for the courts to act and is making arrests, even when residents like Kiser dispute that they are “squatting.” The team says those arrested are trespassing without permission, but attorneys say the arrests unnecessarily criminalize and punish people.
Kiser’s trouble started when two representatives from a property management company tried to enter her home to show it off to a potential client last fall. When they found Kiser in the home, they called the police.
Kiser showed the police receipts for rent payments to the person who lived upstairs but couldn’t produce a lease. Kiser’s “landlord” had illegally sublet the apartment and was being evicted herself. That person left the house in January after a court issued an eviction order; eviction proceedings against Kiser began that same month. Kiser was the victim of a fake landlord scam, but the Squatters Action Team arrested Kiser — not the person who rented the unit to her.
If found guilty, Kiser could be fined up to $5,000 and spend 180 days in jail.
“There was absolutely no reason why the police had to come to Ms. Kiser’s home without warning, put her in handcuffs and take her to jail in front of her son,” said Joe McGuire, an attorney who works with low-income tenants and started representing Kiser after her arrest. “The dispute between the parties was better resolved through the normal court process.”
DPD declined to be interviewed by Outlier Media and chose not to respond to more than a dozen questions submitted by Outlier about the Squatters Action Team, including general questions about its process for resolving complaints, statistics on how those complaints are resolved or even how many people work on the team. DPD also didn’t respond to specific questions about Kiser’s arrest.
A problem without an easy solution
Landlords and residents across Detroit have long complained about squatters engaging in illegal activity in vacant homes. There is some evidence that crime and vacancy are connected. Mayor Mike Duggan has said squatting contributes to crime and endangers residents and that he has made demolishing and boarding up vacant homes a priority.
DPD is typically the first city department to field complaints about illegal activity in an abandoned property. The Squatters Action Team may have been formed in response to the large volume of calls the department was receiving.
But if Kiser’s case is any indication, the team doesn’t just intervene in cases when there is a threat to public safety.
The lower level of the home that Kiser was living in was unoccupied but not abandoned or unsecured. Instead, the owner, Bok Tin Property Group LLC, planned to sell the home. It recently sold for $80,000.
Sandra Gibson-Reed, owner of the property management company Land Contract Detroit and the property manager for the home, wanted the police to evict Kiser when they first arrived on the scene in November. She told Outlier she called the police “every other day” for weeks to try to get them to remove her from the property. Gibson-Reed maintains Kiser broke into the space, but Kiser showed Outlier a handful of Cash App receipts that indicate the payments were for rent.
“(The police) knew she had broken in, but instead of putting her out for trespassing, they did not,” Gibson-Reed said.
A police report says that when police first arrived at Kiser’s home in November, they informed the property manager that the police are not empowered to evict tenants and that an eviction case would have to be filed at the 36th District Court.
“This is a civil matter due to a sub-lease without authorization,” the police report says.
But a few days later, Kiser got a call from Sgt. Lestine Gilbert, the head of DPD’s Squatters Action Team. The police department declined to make Gilbert available for an interview. Kiser said Gilbert threatened to pursue her arrest if she didn’t leave, and Gilbert called Kiser multiple times over the next few weeks. The landlord did not file an eviction case for several more months.
“She was trying to bully me out of the house,” Kiser said. “I was feeling harassed by this officer.”
Land Contract Detroit finally filed for an eviction in late January. Kiser didn’t leave because she had questions about the ownership of the property.
“I wasn’t staying there knowing I wasn’t authorized,” she texted Outlier. “I was confused and wanted the courts to sort it out!”
In April, a judge issued a judgment of eviction and gave Kiser until May 10 to leave the apartment. Kiser said she wasn’t happy but was planning to comply.
But a few days after the judge issued the order, and well before May 10, DPD officers showed up without warning and arrested Kiser. She spent 24 hours in jail and got out on bail for a $4,400 bond. When her boyfriend and son showed up at the apartment the next day to collect her belongings, the locks had been changed. Her belongings were in a dumpster with a locked lid.
“I lost everything,” she said. “My laptop, products for my business, items from deceased people we love — everything. I wasn’t able to get a single piece of paper out of the house.”
Even Gibson-Reed was upset with DPD for the lack of communication with her and conflicting messages regarding how to get Kiser out.
“When they finally did arrest the woman and put her out, I had no idea,” Gibson-Reed said. “They just called me and said we arrested her, come and secure your property.”
Very little is known about the scope of the Squatters Action Team. The team was launched in 2017 to coordinate responses to complaints involving squatters and to provide guidance to officers, according to a DPD presentation obtained by Outlier Media. DPD claimed the team reduced hours spent responding to squatter calls by more than 66%.
But DPD would not say how many arrests the unit has made or how many involve disputes already being addressed by the civil court system.
Gilbert did respond to questions by the Detroit City Council Public Health and Safety Committee on Sept. 26. She told the committee the action team fields about 40 to 50 complaints a month from owners or residents about potential squatters. She said the team “resolves” about half of those but did not go into detail about the number of arrests made.
She also told councilmembers the taskforce doesn’t participate in evictions.
“Evictions are done through the 36th District Court,” she said. “My unit and the rest of the officers that are part of the Squatters Action Team. We only remove individuals that are in a property illegally and that have been proven to be there without consent or permission from the owner or broker.”
Gilbert’s description of the unit’s activity did not clarify how it determines whether someone is squatting, what criteria they use to determine whether to intervene or what they do in cases without a formal rent agreement.
Gilbert also said the team requires landlords to prove ownership of the property “before we can represent you.”
“Kiser’s case is a particularly egregious example of a larger phenomenon: landlords using police as an end run around the eviction process,” said McGuire, Kiser’s attorney. “There’s no reason why the police should be doing landlords’ dirty work for them.”
Councilmember and Committee Chair Gabriela Santiago-Romero’s office did not respond in time for publication about why Gilbert was invited to speak to the committee.
Detroit’s rental market is notoriously informal. It’s common for landlords and tenants to not have written lease agreements and for tenants to pay for rent in cash without getting receipts. Previous reporting by Outlier and NBC News has shown that Detroiters are regularly victims of scams, where people claim to be the lawful owners or landlords of a property and rent it out to unassuming tenants like Kiser. All these people are technically “squatting” even if they believed they were lawfully renting.
“It’s very common for tenants and landlords to not have written lease agreements in Detroit,” McGuire said. He added that “there is no requirement for leases to be written down in order for them to be enforceable or legal in the State of Michigan.”
Kiser is currently living in a hotel in Dearborn, which she says is being paid for by the State of Michigan through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program. She also started a GoFundMe to repurchase some of her lost possessions, pay for transportation to take her son to and from school, and to get a new apartment.
She says it’s been incredibly difficult to find a place to rent given the eviction and charge for squatting now on her record. She’s been told she has to move out of the hotel room by Oct. 31.
“I have an open eviction case on my record and now a squatting case,” she said. “Who’s going to rent to me?”
The past year has not been easy for Kiser, and she would like to move away. But because she was arrested and has a pending criminal case against her, she cannot leave the area until at least the next court date for her case, which is in April.
“I really regret the day I came to Detroit,” Kiser said. “I thought I was coming here to expand myself, but my life has been a living hell since.”
Reach AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.