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By the time Jessica Coleman heard a knock on her door in December, she was already in a protracted fight with her new landlord over her right to stay in the house in Regent Park. When she answered the door, she saw a man wearing a bulletproof vest and a badge around his neck standing on her porch. He said he needed to make sure Coleman was a lawful renter.
Coleman, her fiance and five kids — aged one to 14 — had been renting the home on Detroit’s northeast side since April. But the man on the porch said the landlord was accusing her family of squatting.
“I thought he was a police officer at first,” Coleman said. “It was very intimidating.”
The man left after Coleman gave him a copy of the lease from their old landlord to review.
The next day, Dec. 20, Coleman found a note taped to her door signed by “Whole Armor Protection LLC, squatter removal service.”
The note read: “YOU ARE ILLEGALLY Possessing this property. You have 24 hours to evacuate the premises or a removal team will return to bring out your property. If you are still here you can be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Coleman was afraid of losing all her possessions or going to jail, so her family left their home and took just what they could pack into their car.
Landlords cannot forcibly remove anyone from a property; only a court sanctioned bailiff or sheriff can do that after a landlord has won an eviction case. In cases where a person is breaking the law by trespassing, law enforcement can intervene.
Coleman had no idea that her landlord was trying to bypass the legal eviction process by sending a private service to her door without court authority. The threats worked.
Detroit’s notoriously informal rental market — where leases are often month-to-month or not in writing — give landlords an opening to remove occupants of homes without going to court. They sometimes resort to these kinds of “self-help” evictions, and use services like Whole Armor Protection or even the Detroit Police Department, to do what is the exclusive job of the courts when there is a lawful renter in the home.
“When a landlord just wants to get someone out, they’ll claim they’re a squatter rather than go to court,” said Joe McGuire, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center.
McGuire defended Coleman’s sister-in-law in a previous case and she put the two in touch. Coleman contacted him the day after they left the house. He’s been providing the family with legal counsel.
A legal gray area
Since 2014 landlords in Michigan have been able to remove people unlawfully occupying their property, or “squatting,” without going to court and through the eviction process. If Coleman was squatting, her landlord would have been within their rights to force her out by throwing out her possessions and changing the locks when she wasn’t in the house. The law only requires property owners to get rid of squatters in a nonviolent way.
The law also opened up the doors for landlords to employ others to do this work for them, like the “squatter removal service” that showed up at Coleman’s door. It’s unclear how many of these companies operate in Detroit. McGuire, who has been a defense lawyer in landlord-tenant court for over a decade, has heard of services like this for years but never encountered one in a case before. A quick online search can identify other companies offering squatter removal services in Michigan.
The outsourcing of landlord duties might be an emerging trend. Detroit landlords, especially large ones, routinely hire other companies to take care of many of the core functions of property management. Four of the top five evictors in the city are property management companies, according to data collected by the Eviction Machine, an advocacy and research project that studies evictions in Detroit.
The issue, from Coleman and her lawyer’s point of view, was that she was not a squatter. Coleman was on a month-to-month lease with the couple who owned the home, Antonio Turnage and Robin Crossley. The couple sold the house in November to a company called B and B Development LLC, which owns one other home in Detroit. Outlier Media could not identify the individual owners of B and B using corporate and property records. B and B also declined to respond to interview requests sent through Lenox Property Management, the company it hired to manage Coleman’s home.
When B and B bought the home, it did not give Coleman a new lease to sign but did ask her to pay rent. Coleman decided not to pay because her new landlord had allowed her gas and electricity to get shut off. She wanted to withhold rent to get it turned back on.
DTE declined to comment citing customer privacy but verified the utilities were disconnected after B and B purchased the home.
Anne Deleo, a representative for Lenox, disputed this in a brief statement by email.
“This person does not have a lease with our company or the owner of the property,” she wrote. “The power was never in our name.”
Backed by Michigan’s ambiguous squatter laws, Lenox was able to create a situation where Coleman’s family appeared to be squatting, potentially giving it the right to legally remove them.
“When the law lets people make a legal determination themselves over whether or not someone is a squatter, there’s going to be mistakes,” McGuire said.
After several weeks of complaining about her utilities, Roland Arrington, the owner of Whole Armor Protection, showed up at Coleman’s door.
Who is a squatter?
Arrington told Outlier in a lengthy conversation that he has worked for about 10 property management companies and another seven private homeowners in the two years he’s been in business. The cost for him to remove alleged squatters is usually equal to one month’s rent for the property.
Arrington makes the process of removal sound simple.
“It all comes down to who has the right paperwork,” he said.
Coleman presented both Arrington and Outlier with a copy of the lease, signed electronically by her and the previous owner. Arrington deemed it illegitimate, saying the previous owner denied renting out the home.
McGuire said that’s insufficient to determine the legitimacy of a lease.
“If all you’re doing is asking the previous owner if there was a renter, that’s hardly an investigation,” he said. “An owner would be incentivized to deny there was a renter if they never disclosed that to the buyer.”
Buyers of a home occupied by a renter are legally obligated to honor the terms of the lease the renter made with the previous owner. Month-to-month renters like Coleman still have to be evicted in court.
The previous owners declined to respond to multiple messages left by an Outlier reporter.
Once Arrington believes someone is squatting, he says a conversation is usually enough to get them to leave.
Intimidation is also a tactic. The notes Arrington leaves on properties are strongly worded and threaten jail. He shows up at homes wearing a bulletproof vest and a badge around his neck. Arrington describes the badge he wears as a “security badge” and said it is not meant to emulate a police badge. He said if anyone asks him whether he’s an officer he always says no.
Arrington denied trying to intimidate homes he’s investigating.
“I have a civil conversation without intimidating anyone,” he said. “I wear a vest for my own protection. I’m going into situations where people don’t want to be put out. It’s a dangerous job.”
But if there’s a standoff and the occupants refuse to leave, he’ll call the police.
“They can be arrested for trespassing and charged,” he said.
Coleman thinks the tactics have gone even further. Someone reported her family to the state’s Children’s Protective Services. During our interview, Arrington, unprompted, said he thought Coleman’s family should be investigated by CPS.
“What any responsible adult should do — though I haven’t — is call child protective services because you don’t have any heat in there,” Arrington said. “I told her when I come to a house like this, I’m supposed to call CPS.”
Arrington emphatically denied calling CPS.
A CPS representative said names of people who report child abuse can’t be disclosed without a judge’s order.
Without a home
Coleman’s family went to a motel in Warren after they left their home. McGuire connected Coleman’s family with the city’s new Housing Services Office in advance of its public launch in the coming weeks. The Housing Services Office is able to pay for hotel stays in emergencies.
All seven family members are living in one room with just three beds. Coleman’s fiance works at a warehouse in Detroit and uses the family’s only car to commute.
Coleman misses the convenience of their old house. Four of her children attend schools just blocks away, and Coleman works at another elementary school also within walking distance of their house. Now Coleman needs to arrange for transportation to and from school and work. She fears her children will miss days and she’ll lose her job.
One source of stress, however, has receded. She is not worried about losing her children. Coleman said CPS visited the family at the motel and decided to close the investigation.
After calls from McGuire, Lenox stopped contracting with Whole Armor Protection. It recently submitted a “notice to quit” — the first phase in an eviction case. If the family doesn’t remove their belongings by Jan. 23, then Lenox will file for an eviction.
DTE said it recently resolved the issue keeping the utilities off, but Coleman isn’t sure if she even wants to return to the house. She is worried that the eviction will be successful and the whole family would need to move again in about a month.
“I don’t want any more disruption for my kids,” she said. “We’d have to move our whole life around yet again.”
Instead she’s working with the city to try to find a new place.
“I just want my kids to be comfortable, go to school and live a regular life,” she said. “Everything is very overwhelming right now.”
Jessica Coleman has set up a GoFundMe page to help with the cost of moving.
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. Sign up for The Dig.