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There are many good reasons to know more about your landlord. Detroit has seen a legion of rental scam cases and landlords failing to maintain their properties. Information about a property’s tax status and history of blight violations can help protect renters from an eviction or signing a lease with an unscrupulous landlord.
Thanks to resources made available in the last few years, like the city’s Open Data Portal, there are now more and better ways to research landlords in Detroit. And a recent report from Detroit Future City (DFC), “Understanding the Rental Landscape,” has given researchers, city officials and renters more information about who owns rental housing in Detroit.
Detroit has an estimated 42,000 landlords and 142,000 rental units. Most of those landlords (87%) own just one or two properties, and very few have passed a city-approved inspection. The majority of these homes were built before 1940, well before lead-based paint was banned for residential use in 1978.
“Detroit is a majority renter city, and that means the majority of our households are living in rental housing,” said Ashley Williams Clark, vice president of the Center for Equity, Engagement and Research at DFC. “So if we care about their health and their well-being, we really need to look at ensuring that our rental housing is safe and high quality.”
So how do you go about researching a landlord — and what can you find out before you sign a lease? Here are the most important questions and how to answer them.
Who is your landlord?
DFC’s report found a majority of the city’s landlords own two or fewer properties. So in many cases, renters may know their landlord on a first name basis.
But much of the time, a renter does not personally know their landlord. A tiny percentage of landlords (5%) own 33% of all units in the city. This type of investor tends to be more savvy, operate in higher value neighborhoods, charge more for rent and register properties with the city.
The DFC report explicitly doesn’t “place a value judgment on specific kinds of landlords,” said Edward Lynch, senior program manager at DFC and lead author on the report. “But I can use my personal experience and say that I’ve had good and bad landlords at all ends of the spectrum.”
Learning your landlord’s official taxpayer name and address is an essential first step to finding out more information about them.
One simple way to access your landlord’s name is through the city’s parcel viewer. Type your address into the search bar to see who the taxpayer is. This tool will provide other interesting information that may be useful to a renter. If it says “PRE % 100,” that means your landlord is getting a principal residence exemption, which provides a discount on property taxes and is for people who reside in a home they own. In other words, your landlord shouldn’t be getting the exemption on a renter-occupied home.
The city’s parcel viewer is not always up to date, so if you suspect the taxpayer might be different than what is indicated, you have a few more avenues to accessing this information. Parcel data company Regrid has a free search tool that provides much of the same info as the parcel viewer (and more). A search through the BS&A Online Detroit portal costs $2 to reveal the property’s information — it also provides the property’s sale history.
Or, you can go to the most definitive source, the Wayne County Register of Deeds, either online or in person. It has a free online search tool that provides previews of all documents registered with the county since 1986. But to view and print the source documents themselves, it costs $6 per 15 minutes to search online and $2 per page for copies of documents.
Does your landlord own multiple properties?
Now that you know who your landlord is, you can learn a lot about them.
The above search methods will tell you whether the owner is an LLC, often an investor or company that might own multiple properties. The DFC report found that 62% of investors who owned multiple properties have issued an eviction in the last two years and 79% have gotten a code violation in the last three years — higher rates than any other type of landlord.
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many properties your landlord owns, it’s not hard to find out whether they’re a small- or large-scale investor.
You can again use the free search tool at the Register of Deeds. Put your landlord’s name into the “grantee” search bar to see all the properties they’ve acquired. You can save this search for free by selecting “printable version” in the upper right side of the page.
A free but slightly cumbersome way to find out is to download the complete parcel list in the City of Detroit, load the data set into Excel or Google Sheets, and search or filter by your landlord’s name. But you need to know a bit about spreadsheets to go this route.
One caveat: This might also not be the only LLC your landlord uses. Owners of multiple properties sometimes hide their holdings under multiple LLCs, making it difficult to determine the true scope of their acquisitions.
Have they been issued blight tickets?
Seeing whether your landlord has gotten blight tickets can tell you a lot about them. If they’ve been cited several times across multiple properties, their properties are likely to be in subpar condition.
You can search your home quite easily in the Blight Violations dataset through the city’s Open Data Portal. Just type your address into the search bar on the right side of the map — not at the top of the page which searches the portal itself. (It can take a few seconds to load. Then click on your property on the map and you’ll see what, if any, violations it’s accumulated.
To find out whether your landlord has acquired blight violations across multiple properties, download the entire dataset, load the data set into Excel or Google Sheets, and search or filter by the landlord’s name.
Have they filed evictions?
You can also look up how many evictions your landlord has filed against previous tenants. Multiple evictions suggest they might not be willing to work with tenants who are late on rent.
You can search for evictions at the 36th District Court website. Go to the “services” tab and select “look up a case / balance.” Scroll to the bottom and click “accept – view case / balance.” In the search tool, you’ll enter the name of the landlord.
The search results will be filled with jargon, but a quick scan will tell you most of what you need to know. Eviction cases will be labeled “LT” in the “type” column, which stands for “landlord-tenant.”
Multiple evictions could mean they’re aggressive in pursuing evictions. If this is your landlord, as a precaution make sure you get receipts for all your rent payments, catalog any repairs that need to be made and be up-to-date on your lease. These pieces of documentation can help you in the event you’re facing an eviction.
Is there more you need to know about renting in Detroit? Text “Detroit” to 67485 for critical housing info or to talk directly to an Outlier Media reporter.
Are they facing tax foreclosure?
If a landlord isn’t paying taxes or mortgage payments, that’s potentially a major problem for the tenant. The home could go into foreclosure and then land in the hands of another owner who isn’t interested in renting it. There is a program that helps occupants of tax-foreclosed homes in Detroit become owners, but there’s no guarantee you or your home will qualify and a recent legal decision will likely make it less available.
Another reason you should know if the county has foreclosed on the property is because your landlord shouldn’t be collecting rent at that point because they’re no longer the legal owner. While you may be legally allowed to withhold rent, you should place it in escrow — something you can also do if the property is not up to code.
You can check the tax status of the home through the Wayne County Treasurer by typing in the address into the “pay taxes online” page. It will tell you if the landlord is delinquent (behind) on property taxes or in foreclosure. You can also text “Detroit” to 67485 — an Outlier Media service — and follow the prompts.
If a home is facing foreclosure, the owner will be notified in November, and a notice posted to the property, after three consecutive years of not paying taxes. It is then officially foreclosed on April 1 the following year and becomes the property of the county. But until that time, an owner can pay their taxes or get on a payment plan. It’s advisable to continue paying rent until a home is officially foreclosed.
Are they registered with the city?
All rental properties are supposed to be registered with the city and then pass an inspection to receive a certificate of occupancy. In reality, very few are.
The inspection will determine if there are any code violations, like damaged windows, chipped paint or insufficient smoke detectors. The landlord must also get a lead clearance.
While a landlord having a certificate of compliance can give a renter some peace of mind, not having one doesn’t mean the landlord is completely negligent. For landlords who own just one or two units, it can be prohibitively expensive to remediate every issue that can arise during an inspection. The DFC report also found that small-scale landlords collect less rent, which is one reason why compliance numbers are so low.
Another thing to know: the 36th District Court hasn’t been evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent for properties that aren’t registered with the city.
You can find out whether your rental is in compliance by going to the dataset in the Open Data Portal, typing in your address, then clicking on your home in the map. If your home is not on the map, that means it doesn’t have a certificate of compliance.
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.