A worker evicts Detroit resident Jeanette Shannon from her home in the Winship neighborhood on the city’s west side in June 2016. Photo credit: Jim Dwight/Detroit Eviction Defense

By Ted Phillips 

After more than 76 million COVID-19 cases in America and nearly 1 million deaths, the push is on to return to “normal.” But with respect to housing issues in Detroit and Wayne County, advocates are hoping for anything but “normal.”  

Prior to COVID-19, Detroit saw annual eviction filings of around 30,000 cases a year — one of the highest per-capita rates in the nation among cities with a population over 200,000. At the same time, tenants and others facing eviction had legal representation just 4.5% of the time. In contrast, landlords were represented about 85% of the time, and approximately one-third of all cases filed resulted in a bailiff eviction. Many others moved before the bailiff and dumpster arrived.  

When a bailiff eviction occurs, all of the tenants’ possessions in the home are removed, thrown into a dumpster and, if not taken by passersby, hauled away. Most of the 10,000 evicted households in Detroit lost everything: their furniture, appliances, medicine, clothes, medical records, family photos and more.  

Evictions cause far more than financial setbacks — and they have a lasting impact. Residents who’ve had a judgment rendered against them often struggle to find new housing, and sometimes they even face litigation to collect back rent. Those with federal subsidies who could only afford $50 or $100 a month lost their subsidies and were often rendered homeless.   

Dating back to 2014, Wayne County typically saw around 50,000 foreclosure cases filed every year for back taxes. The overwhelming majority of these cases were in Detroit.  

Every year in mid-June, county treasurers across Michigan file a foreclosure petition, with a redemption deadline being the following March 31. While the number of homes going to auction in Wayne County has been declining, even in 2017-2019, there were 13,167 homes foreclosed, according to the Wayne County Treasurer’s Progress Report. This resulted in many homeowners, tenants, family members of deceased owners and others being displaced.  

In pre-COVID times, this was our “normal.” We can’t afford to go back to the way it was. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it showed the city and region a path for how we can greatly reduce evictions.

Since the major changes in Michigan’s tax-foreclosure laws in 1999, tax foreclosure has absolutely devastated Detroit. For all the devastation and destruction wreaked by COVID-19, the pandemic compelled our policymakers to re-examine the effects of evictions, as they no longer resulted in just the “normal” harm of the past, but instead they became potentially life-threatening. Evictions that would’ve crowded homeless shelters or forced families to double or triple up were no longer safe, and COVID-related funding opened new possibilities. 

In the wake of COVID, attorney staffing for eviction cases more than tripled in Detroit, as did related support for legal representation. In-person court hearings turned into virtual hearings with three or four attorneys and a similar number of legal assistants in four virtual courtrooms. It was an upgrade from having three or four attorneys in a crowded one-room clinic at 36th District Court several days a week.

More than $200 million in rental assistance became available, along with substantially more rental assistance counselors.  More relocation assistance also became available for those where a court resolution could not be obtained (where the law did not allow them to stay in their homes or where the homes were not habitable and could not be made so). Moratoriums on some types of evictions also reduced eviction numbers, as did a reduction in case filings (fewer than 18,000 cases in Detroit in 2021).  

In addition to this new assistance for court work, there was also a substantial increase in help for tenants who were not yet in court.  

According to the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, there have been no tax foreclosures of occupied homes in Wayne County since March of 2020. And despite limits created by COVID-19 precautions, there’s also been a continued aggressive effort by the City of Detroit and its many partners to approve poverty tax exemptions, which can be obtained through Detroit’s HOPE program

Combined with the Pay As You Stay program and funding from the Gilbert Family Foundation, about 10,000 low-income households in Detroit have avoided property-tax foreclosure. Because there were no foreclosures of occupied homes in 2020 or 2021, the Make It Home program — a collaborative project of the United Community Housing Coalition, the City of Detroit and the Rocket Community Fund — was not able to operate. From its inception in 2017 through 2019, 1,167 homes were purchased after foreclosure (but prior to the county’s fall auctions), and their occupants (mostly tenants) were able to become owner-occupants.  

So where does this leave us? Since the moratoriums were lifted last August, there have been more than 1,300 orders signed to evict tenants in Detroit. As of this writing, outreach efforts at the application stage have stopped 344 requests, which reduced potential evictions by over 25%. The numbers could be much worse — but they’re still growing. Funds for paying judgments will no longer continue at the level they have been. Eviction case filings are likely to start heading back toward the annual average of 30,000, and special federal funding to provide counseling support will likely be reduced.  

It’s imperative that we find new ways to provide support to tenants and use the lessons learned during the pandemic to prevent more evictions to and stabilize Detroit families and neighborhoods. Other cities and states across the country have found creative ways to address their evictions, and we can, too.  

We’ve learned to address property-tax foreclosures with massive outreach, coordination with city and county efforts, and strong support from local nonprofit service providers and community-based groups. These efforts in the heart of the COVID era from 2020-2021 resulted in more than 27,000 low-income households in Detroit obtaining poverty tax exemptions and about 10,000 households enrolling in Pay As You Stay to help avoid foreclosure before March 31, 2022.  

But with the March 31 deadline approaching, there are still more than 16,000 households in jeopardy of foreclosure across Wayne County, the majority of which are in Detroit. We must continue to find ways to reach homeowners in foreclosure and tenants facing potential displacement. We’ve learned what works in Wayne County — now we just need to apply it.

Ted Phillips is executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition. Get in touch at tphillips@uchcdetroit.org.