By Rasha Almulaiki
Last Tuesday, the Detroit Tenants Association (DTA) held the first general assembly meeting of the year. An estimated 70 people gathered at the Laborers’ International Union building to organize a citywide organization to fight against housing insecurity and slumlords for renters’ rights.
DTA is campaigning for several issues, including drafting a “Right to Renew” city ordinance, mobilizing to repeal Michigan’s ban on rent control, and coordinating defense actions for residents vulnerable to evictions.
“We need a right to renew in Detroit,” said Steven Rimmer, the lead DTA organizer. Rimmer is also the coordinator of both the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor and the Seward Avenue Tenants Association.
“The fundamental principle is simple. Renters deserve the right to remain stabl[ly] housed. Today, renters in Detroit who are current on rent, good neighbors and members of the community are still at risk of being suddenly displaced by eviction at the end of their lease. A right to renewal requires landlords to offer lease renewals to current tenants or compensation for relocation.”
The general assembly held a panel led by Rimmer with other housing advocates, legal experts and tenants, including Joe McGuire, staff attorney and legal hosing justice activist at Detroit Justice Center; Deborah Patrick, founding member of the Sherwood-Heights Tenants Association; Evan Villeneuve, member of the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition; and Mike Shane, organizer of Moratorium Now!
Patrick said the Sherwood Heights Tenants Association began six months ago after several conversations with a neighbor about the myriad of issues affecting other tenants. The new management company, based in New York and Tel Aviv, made a list of promises to fix the deteriorating conditions to no avail.
“To many of us, these spaces are our homes,” said Patrick. “We didn’t want to go anywhere. This is where we lived. This was our home and we loved it, but we know it could be a whole lot better.”
The forming of the DTA builds on a trend of new tenant organizations springing up across the country amid a nationwide housing crisis. In Detroit, organizing around housing justice continues to escalate since the beginning of the pandemic, exposing multiple systemic issues within a largely renters’ economy in the city.
According to extensive research on the Detroit housing crisis by University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions Center, a 2022 report found eviction filings rose to 60 percent of the pre-pandemic levels and continued to rise to an estimated 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2021.
In 2022, led by the Right to Counsel Coalition, residents succeeded in getting an ordinance passed for low-income tenants and homeowners to allow access to counsel in legal proceedings. However, city officials are still undecided on how to sustainably fund the new policy.
The city has invested in several housing projects that require some units to be reserved for people who earn up to 80 percent of the average median income (AMI). For a one-person household, 80 percent AMI is a renter that earns $44,000 a year and for a five-person household it’s $81,813 a year.
According to the U.S. Census data collected between 2017 and 2021, most Detroiters live in a two- to three-person household with an average annual income of $34,762.
Mike Shane is a local activist and community organizer of Moratorium Now!, a Detroit-based grassroots organization working to prevent mortgage foreclosures and utility shutoffs. He called for “real, low income affordable housing” as there is a glaring disparity in the cost of affordable housing units and residents’ average income.
Shane said the organization will stand in solidarity with DTA’s mission of housing justice for Detroiters. Shane emphasized the need to connect on other interrelated issues of water shut offs and connect with local homeowners facing the ongoing eviction crisis.
For over 20 years, property tax foreclosure has exacerbated housing insecurity and blighted neighborhoods for thousands of Detroit residents. According to Rocket Community Fund’s Neighbor to Neighbor study, from 2002 to 2016 an estimated one in three Detroit properties ended up on the auction block due to tax foreclosure.
The study found that since 2005 135,000 Detroit properties have been tax foreclosed and 86,000 of those properties have yet to be sold at auction and remain owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.
“We’ve encountered just the most despicable conditions this past year in the city of Detroit,” said Shane.
“Slumlords control the city, and they control the housing market. And I am really frustrated because without a broader political movement, and one with programmatic demands on the system, we’re going to be floundering and going from one crisis to another. I would really like to see us as we grow this tenants’ movement, that we make demands on the city, state, and federal government that has been wasted on other activities.”
DTA is working with Detroit Eviction Defense and other advocacy organizations on intervention tactics to protect tenants currently facing eviction. The group encouraged attendees to take part in a call to action to band together in support of residents currently facing eviction.
“I think we’ve got something to fight for as a group,” said Rimmer in closing, followed by applause. “Because we have the power in numbers and I’m sure ya’ll know how to get things done in this city and that’s public pressure.”
Organizers say DTA will continue to meet on the second Tuesday of every month and build on various efforts to secure renters’ rights in Detroit.
To learn more about the Detroit Renters Association, follow them on Facebook or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.