For the last 13 years Jerome Butts has been living downtown next to Grand Circus Park in the Fyfe Apartments. His apartment near the top of the building has unparalleled views down Woodward Avenue and Washington Boulevard.
“This view is so unique,” he said. “That’s why I’ve never left.”
The location also let Butts walk to work, a rarity in Detroit and a necessity for him. He has never owned a car, but before retiring several years ago, he could walk or take the bus to his job at the DMC Children’s Hospital. Rent for his one-bedroom apartment was $875 when Butts first moved in, but it’s now $1,285. Thanks to his pension, Butts could afford the rent, but last month his landlord evicted him anyway.
The 73-year-old lifelong Detroiter has until Jan. 15 to vacate.
Butts’ tenancy was “terminated” by building management, a type of eviction a landlord can use to recover their property after a lease is up without cause on a 30-day notice.
Outlier left multiple messages with the owner of the Fyfe Apartments, Wellington Commons L.C., but did not get a reply.
Butts believes the eviction was retaliatory after years of complaining to the building’s management and the city about conditions in his apartment and complex.
“They were upset that they got fined,” he said.
A retaliatory eviction is illegal but difficult to prove. It’s equally possible Butts’ landlord had completely legal reasons for wanting him out, like renovating the apartment to command higher rent.
The specifics of Butts’ situation may be unique, but the increasing difficulty of navigating Detroit as a renter is more and more common. Living in homes in disrepair and then being forced out are ordinary occurrences for the nearly 300,000 Detroiters living in rentals. Other renters also struggle with a rapidly changing rental market, a lack of affordable housing and a court system that’s difficult to navigate. The city and advocacy groups are trying to adapt.
Are rents too high or not high enough?
Most renters in Detroit start their rental journey already at a disadvantage. Even as the city has an estimated 55,000 vacant housing units, it is still hard to find affordable housing. Rental rates have gone up in the city during the pandemic, though not as sharply as other U.S. markets.
Online real estate sites put the median rent in Detroit somewhere between $945 and $1,176. Nearly 60% of Detroit renters already spend more than 30% of their income on rent, a proportion that housing advocates would say makes them rent-burdened.
Lower rents in Detroit keep real estate agents and brokers from having much financial incentive to connect renters to places to live, a common practice in other large cities with higher rents. Instead, renters here need to rely on their own networks or online listings with little information about the quality of the unit or threat of fraud.
Tiffany Shoate was without stable housing for herself and her 14-year-old son for two months after being evicted in September from a home on the city’s westside. Her landlord also used a termination of tenancy proceeding. She and her son had to sleep on the floor at the home of her boyfriend’s parents while they looked for a new place. Shoate said it was hard to find a place by herself. She searched online for hours, unsure what websites were trustworthy, and found very few places that suited her income and personal needs. She’s disabled, low-income and wanted a two-bedroom apartment.
“It took a while, but I’m just glad we’re not on the streets this winter,” Shoate said.
Renter tip: The City of Detroit is stepping in to try to simplify this search process by creating a centralized database of affordable housing in the city. Renters can search for units based on location, unit size and rental rate, and apply straight from the website.
The city said there are currently 175 buildings in the database. It’s looking to add more as landlords opt in and will be continually updated.
Homes in disrepair
Low rents also keep many landlords from wanting to invest in expensive repairs. Shoate and Butts were both able to afford their rent, but the conditions of their homes made them feel they weren’t getting what they paid for. Both needed their landlords to make repairs and both say their landlords were not responsive.
An estimated 90,000 Detroiters live in substandard housing, with renters having it worse than homeowners. Despite the scope of the problem, trying to force a landlord to make repairs as a renter can be difficult if not impossible in Detroit.
Renter tip: Renters should call the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department to file complaints at 313-628-2451 or file a complaint online.
Butts filed a complaint with BSEED and his building failed two separate inspections in October 2021 and March 2022. In theory those violations and fines should drive up the cost for landlords who don’t make repairs.
It’s not easy keeping rentals in good condition and rents affordable, said Nathaniel Phillips, property manager for Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp. The nonprofit developer tries to keep all of its units, even ones that aren’t subsidized affordable housing, below market rate at around $900 so its tenants won’t be rent-burdened. But property taxes, insurance and water cost around $600, leaving little left for maintenance.
“There’s not a lot of wiggle room,” said Phillips. “But we’re a mission-based organization and don’t have to worry about shareholders or running a profit.”
Central Detroit Christrian also renovated or built most of its properties in the last decade, so it won’t worry about major repairs like a roof replacement for some time. The homes don’t have mortgages either.
The city has tried using both carrots and sticks to urge landlords to improve the conditions of their properties. BSEED issued 18,000 blight tickets to rental properties from January to September this year. It also tried to incentivize landlords to bring much of the city’s deteriorating rental stock up to code by withholding 20% of COVID rental assistance funds to landlords that didn’t have a certificate of compliance, which requires a rental unit pass an inspection and be up to code.
The threat may have made a difference — a majority of the compliant properties in the city got certificates after March 2020. The overall number of complaint properties, however, is still small. Of the estimated 82,000 rental properties in the city, around 8,300 are compliant. The city is planning on spending $5 million on repairing rentals to bring an additional 1,000 properties into compliance.
Michigan law does allow renters to put their rent in escrow where a third party holds the rent until a landlord performs basic repairs. Putting rent in escrow should protect renters from eviction for nonpayment but would not protect them from a termination of tenancy case.
The City of Detroit offers an escrow program for renters, but few people have successfully used it. Georgette Johnson, a spokesperson for the Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED), said that only four residents currently have open escrow accounts and just 116 have been approved since 2018.
Renter tip: Renters can also set up an escrow account with a private bank or use a practice called “repair and deduct.”
A landlord-friendly court system
Some tenants, likely the vast majority, try to force their landlords into making repairs without putting money into escrow and instead just refusing to pay until something is fixed. But by withholding rent in this way, tenants can make it more likely they will end up in housing court for a nonpayment of rent case.
Renter tip: Once a court notice shows up on their door, tenants can greatly increase their chances of not being evicted by simply just showing up to their hearing.
After the COVID-19 pandemic began, Michigan courts held cases virtually and offered pretrial hearings, both of which drastically reduced the number of default judgments given out when a party doesn’t show up to their case. The Michigan Supreme Court Administrative Office is considering making some of these rules permanent.
Most evictions are for nonpayment of rent, but landlords have increasingly turned to “termination of tenancy” cases like the ones Butts and Shoate were involved in. Those cases don’t require the tenant to miss a rent payment or violate a lease. Instead, it allows a landlord to repossess their property without cause so long as the terms of the lease have expired.
In Detroit’s notoriously informal rental market, many renters don’t have leases at all or pay month-to-month, making it easy for landlords to terminate tenancy.
Butts was on a month-to-month lease making termination of tenancy almost a constant threat. He had little recourse when his landlord wanted them out.
“It’s much more likely to end up in an eviction if it’s a termination case,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition.
University of Michigan researchers found termination of tenancy cases increased 70% during the pandemic.
Having a lawyer can still be a huge help. The city council has passed a right-to-counsel ordinance so all low-income tenants in housing court get representation as well as establish an office that will coordinate programs and services to reduce evictions in Detroit.
Renter tip: You should be offered a lawyer to help you in your hearing. If not, ask for one. Or, you can call Lakeshore Legal Aid at 888-783-8190.
A report commissioned by the Rocket Community Fund on the cost and impact of the ordinance estimated tenants represented by lawyers are almost 18 times more likely to avoid an eviction.
But the city is behind in funding the program. It has committed $6 million so far out of a potential $18 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, and the Gilbert Family Foundation pitched in another $13 million over three years. Fully funding the ordinance is estimated to cost $16.7 million annually, leaving a sizable shortfall at the moment and no long-term funding guarantees.
“Our agreement with City Council was to spend $6 million dollars over three years,” said Conrad Mallett, the city’s lead attorney, in a written statement. “We will get the program up and running, then get the data back to Council as to the number of persons served and at what cost.”
In the meantime, evictions are on the rise in Detroit after being nonexistent or far below normal levels during the worst of COVID-19. Eviction filings are projected to be at or near pre-pandemic levels soon, according to a policy brief from University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions. An estimated 61,000 renters will have a case filed against them by the end of the year.
“We’re basically ticking right back up to where we were before the pandemic,” said Alexa Eisenberg, a postdoctoral research fellow at U-M and a co-author of the report.
Avoiding the pitfalls
Butts, the retired DMC worker, got luckier than many other Detroit tenants in being set up to avoid the pitfalls of renting in Detroit again. A friend of his has been organizing renters through the Detroit Tenants Association, a recently formed group pushing the city to enact reforms to increase renter protections. This friend connected Butts to information and resources he could use.
Butts found a lawyer through the tenants association for his eviction case. While that didn’t prevent the eviction, his lawyer did buy him more time to find a new home.
The association also put him in touch with another downtown apartment building for seniors with rent based on income, the Himelhoch Apartments. He’s on the waiting list, but management told him he’ll be able to move in by his eviction date.
He also won’t be on a month-to-month lease.
“It’s been a stressful few months, but I’m so glad I found a place,” Butts said. “Mentally I’ve already moved over there.”
Correction: This article originally stated the city had committed $6 million annually for three years to fund a right-to-counsel ordinance. It has committed $6 million so far with the potential to spend $18 million total over three years.