As eviction crisis looms, this Detroit group is clamoring for tenants to organize

This past month has been a stressful time for Detroit resident Derrick Horne. He's facing potential eviction from his unit in a multi-family home near Dexter Avenue and Davison Street on the city's Northwest side. And because the Southeast Michigan housing market is so tight right now, it's been difficult for him to locate another place to stay. 

"Finding a place is a number one priority, and it's really difficult right now," he says. "Trying to find a house or rental property to buy is a huge problem. I didn't know it was that bad."

The 38-year-old Detroiter has a part-time job at an automotive parts factory and also works a number of side jobs, including music production. Since he moved into his current residence in 2017, Horne has experienced numerous problems, including home maintenance concerns, pests, and poor insulation.
 
Horne says he has contacted his landlords, Michelle and Courtney Sanders of MCS Community Investments, about these issues. But, he says they've been unresponsive in dealing with his concerns, and, as a result, he's had to foot the bill for upkeep issues. MCS Community Investments did not respond to Model D's requests for comment. 

Horne further alleges that his landlords reacted to his requests by first raising his rent and then sending him a letter telling him he was being evicted.

"She sent me the letter, Aug. 31. I sent her a text asking her, ‘Can I have another month?’ She agreed and then sent me another text three minutes later, saying, ‘No, we're done with this relationship, it'd be better if we just speed up the process’. And that's where I am now." 

A Looming Crisis

Rather than give up, Horne has been taking steps to remedy his situation. He's been putting rent money into a savings account. He has also been in touch with the advocacy group Detroit Eviction Defense (DED). It's a grassroots organization dedicated to helping homeowners and tenants facing issues like his.

Horne is particularly interested in learning more about the legality of his eviction notice, which he alleges was drawn up by his landlords themselves. Members of DED are working with him to review it and to discuss his options. He's happy for the assistance and excited to be part of a group dedicated to renters’ rights.

"I want to be involved," he says. "I want to be an advocate. I just want to get in and stay there because I like that type of energy. Why not help somebody if you can?"

Joe McGuire, an attorney who's been involved with DED since its early days, says it's good for Horne to be asking questions about his eviction notice. 

"Landlords don't have to go through the courts for that first eviction notice. They can just write something up themselves and send it to tenants," he says. "But if they do, I would definitely get an attorney to look it over to make sure it has all the information it's distinctly required to have, because the landlords making it themselves might have slipped up in some way." 

According to McGuire, a lot of landlords are interested in finding ways to remove their present  tenants right now, because the competitive housing market makes it easier to find new occupants to pay higher rental rates. The situation is further complicated by the U.S. Supreme Court's August ruling overturning the federal eviction moratorium, put in place because of COVID-19 and the termination of federal pandemic benefits in September.

Citing court data, Ted Phillips, director of the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), tells Model D there are currently over 13,100 eviction cases involving Detroit residents currently on file with the 36th District Court, as of Oct. 1. While the outcome of most of these cases remains undetermined, some of the tenants involved may qualify for federal financial assistance through the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program (CERA). Phillips expects the number of Detroit eviction cases to grow by the end of the year and warns that there are also city residents who are now in direct jeopardy.  

"Right now, there are 225 writs [of eviction] that were signed in the last month," Phillips says. "These are people who are potentially days away from being sent out [onto the streets]."

As an attorney, McGuire is familiar with the moratorium-related backlog the court system is facing right now and feels it's a situation that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. 

"We're facing a real crisis," says McGuire. "We're already in a crisis because of the economic strain and public health impact of the pandemic, and now the few cushions that were there from the government to soften the blow are being removed. So it's up to us to act before we just get a tsunami of evictions and displacements that will really be bad for everyone." 

Origins with Occupy

DED is no stranger to crisis situations. The organization started a decade ago as a project of Occupy Detroit, assisting residents deal with displacement issues connected in part to the 2008 U.S. housing market collapse. 

In keeping with these Occupy origins, DED has no centralized leadership. Individual members take turns facilitating meetings and important decisions are made by the group's membership. Much of the DED's work is based on grassroots organizing; people having issues connected to mortgages or pending evictions draw on relationships with friends, family members, and neighbors, as well as institutions like churches and unions to bolster their efforts to stay in their homes. Members also rely on a variety of tactics to achieve their goals, including social media, protests, and even direct actions like the blockading of dumpsters to physically prevent evictions. Beyond that, the organization also puts tenants and homeowners in touch with organizations like UCHC and Lakeshore Legal Aid.

In its early days, DED focused mostly on working with homeowners fighting against institutions like banks or Fannie Mae. More recently it's seen an increase in renters reaching out to them, which organizers say is likely connected to the decline of homeownership in the city of Detroit.

Over the last 10 years, the anti-eviction organization has collaborated with more than 300 people fighting to remain in their homes. Dianne Feeley, a retired autoworker and one of DED's founding members, says the work isn't always easy, but with perseverance, it can pay off. 

"We can't guarantee a win. We win more than we lose, but we’re fighting big [institutional] structures," she says. "A lot of it depends on a certain tenacity, the person's capacity to keep going."

A Contentious Campaign

Evictions are, by their very nature, emotionally-charged subjects. Struggles around them can often be contentious and multifaceted. 

That's certainly true of a recent campaign involving a Detroit resident named Geraldine McKissick. Her efforts to reclaim a home she once owned saw her in conflict with a nonprofit called Storehouse of Hope, which is headed by Rev. Joan Ross, a prominent local pastor known for her work with progressive causes. 

In 2015 Storehouse of Hope launched a crowdfunding campaign aimed at helping families dealing with foreclosure; which raised over $108,000. The nonprofit used that money to purchase 15 homes, which were placed into a community land trust. Storehouse of Hope then reached out to families that had formerly lived in the homes and offered them the opportunity to become tenants in them again with a path towards homeownership.

McKissick was one of the people invited to join the program; Storehouse of Hope had bought her family home in Wayne County's public auction after it had been foreclosed on due to tax issues in 2015. After McKissick enrolled in the program, however, a disagreement arose between her and the nonprofit over home maintenance issues that Ross has stated she was unaware of until being contacted by city inspectors. Storehouse of Hope did not respond to Model D's requests for comment.

McKissick began withholding rent due over these concerns in 2019. She also reached out to a number of local organizations for assistance but was unable to find any meaningful support until she connected with and became a member of DED.

With the support of Detroit Will Breathe and the Charlevoix Village Association, DED waged a vocal campaign — that included marches, door-to-door-canvassing, and social media outreach — to return ownership of the home to McKissick.

According to McKissick, an agreement was reached to transfer the home back to her in July, though she's still engaged in a dispute over unpaid water bills. She's thankful for what the campaign has achieved and for the support of fellow DED members.

"It's been a joy [working with DED], and I'm standing in solidarity with them, for each and everything that they're standing for. Because they came to bat for me and my family. They were able to move mountains that I couldn't."

Organizing for Change

McKissick's case is just one of many, and DED members expect there will be a marked increase in evictions in the coming months, due to the end of the pandemic-related moratorium. In preparation for that, DED members will be holding a free legal and organizing clinic next month on Saturday, Oct. 9 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Stewart Park in Detroit.

Beyond that, the organization has been active with a local coalition pushing for increased access to legal counsel to tenants facing eviction, a right that isn't automatic for people involved in civil cases. And more broadly, McGuire says DED is working to organize people who reside in low-income housing into a movement that can collectively address common grievances and bring about change. 

"It's a scary situation right now, and what we're pushing for is a tenants movement," he says. "Tenants have power. It needs to be wielded."  

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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