Kyleigh Mathewson refused to stay silent any longer, so she grabbed the microphone and told bundled up protestors standing outside a church about how she’s endured squalor ever since she signed her apartment lease.
“We’ve been living in a safety and fire hazard for five years, and they refuse to do any repairs,” Mathewson said of the management company. Now, she and her husband are facing eviction after calling city inspectors over damage wrought by a recent cold spell — an action she described as a form of retaliation. “It is wrong. They know it’s wrong.”
Mathewson, 27, is a fine arts college student who has an auto-immune disease, asthma, and chronic pain. She currently stays in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. Mathewson was among the dozens of tenants and housing justice activists who initially flocked to Redmond Plaza located on the corner of Selden Street and Second Avenue late Sunday morning as the city’s eviction crisis is escalating. In a recent analysis, University of Michigan researchers found eviction filings in Detroit were rising, on track to return to 75% of pre-pandemic levels and estimated about 21% or roughly 61,000 tenants faced the danger of eviction last year.
Tenants and housing justice activists from across the city rallied against what they claim are retaliatory evictions, defamation lawsuits, and other intimidation tactics taken by landlords that have reached an “unprecedented” boiling point. These actions, activists argued, aim to thwart tenants rights organizing and silence renters who fear displacement and are left with little to no mechanisms to fight back.
“Free speech is not just the right to speak but the right to be heard,” said Steven Rimmer, the coordinator of the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor and a founding member of the Detroit Tenants Association. “Speech is essential in the Detroit fight for housing justice. It provides a platform for the voices of the Detroit tenants facing extreme housing challenges, including gentrification, retaliation, homelessness, and discrimination.”
The threat of homelessness looms large for some Detroiters, said Derek Grigsby, a retired Water and Sewerage Department worker, who braved frosty temperatures and joined the rally to protest bad landlord practices. His own sense of stability is fading quickly as apartment rental costs across the city rise. Living off social security and pension benefits may no longer keep him financially afloat. The threat of getting priced out of his home lingers. “Every day I worry about that,” Grigsby said. “And I imagine people who are living day to day trying to pay their rent. It’s horrible.”
The protestors’ chants of “People over Profits!” thundered along the sidewalk, as they marched and passed restaurants Honest John’s and SheWolf, and headed toward the doorsteps of Cass Community United Methodist Church. Some brandished brown, cardboard signs over their heads or carried them like shields. “They promised home ownership. They delivered eviction,” one sign read. Another defiant message etched in black marker: “NO TO SLUMLORDS.”
Testimonial after testimonial broadcasted their outrage over the city’s housing woes as well as demands for solutions to alleviate these hardships: a stoppage of evictions, a tenants bill of rights, and a “right to renew” leases, which would give tenants an opportunity to renew their leases or require landlords to compensate them to relocate. Tenants rights advocates have also pushed for rent control, which would allow governments to limit the amount of rent landlords can charge but is currently prohibited by Michigan law. Last month, Detroit city council proposed a resolution calling for the adoption of rent control, as many residents struggle with poverty.
Treasure Jackson, who cares for her teenage son and her father who has a disability, has been battling an eviction from her apartment located on the city’s northwest corner, despite previous efforts to pay down her balance. She remains incensed by her management company’s poor communication and what she deems a callous disregard by landlords for her dilemma and so many others. “I’m not the only tenant going through this. The other tenants don’t want to speak up,” Jackson told the crowd. “You’ve got to fight for your rights. You’ve got to fight for your family. You just want to come home to have peace.”
Taura Brown, who’s been embroiled in a contentious dispute with anti-poverty nonprofit Cass Community Social Services over their move to evict her from her 317-square-foot tiny home in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood, also spoke before the crowd of protestors. One man, who emerged from the church, called her claims untrue, and Brown rebuked him. A little later, a police car arrived and monitored the rally. There were more protest chants and more protest songs until the crowd slowly dissipated around noon.
“There’s just a lot of tenants that are facing unlivable housing conditions. Some of them have rats and mice and roaches and things like that,” said Sammie Lewis, a community organizer with Detroit Eviction Defense, after the rally. “Others have fire hazards. They can't even get doors open. Some of them have things falling apart, ceilings caving in, mold, water damage, pipes bursting, all sorts of damage that is not properly being addressed or repaired. And then these landlords, instead of fixing it, they double down and they retaliate against those who speak out.”
When bitter cold and snowfall blanketed the city last Christmas, Mathewson remembered how she felt scared as filthy waters poured down from the ceiling and seeped through walls already contaminated by black mold. She was scared again when the waters drenched the lights in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and hallway. Then the circuits began to spark, and Mathewson dreaded the possibility that her apartment would ignite in flames. The lack of repairs, Mathewson suspected, meant the building’s already aging pipes couldn’t withstand the harsh weather. She couldn’t use her shower or toilet, and didn’t have heat for several days because the furnace broke. A few of her drawings, part of her artistic portfolio, were destroyed. Afterwards, she and her husband broke out in heavy rashes. They chose to withhold $1029 in rent and an additional sum owed hoping the apartment would get fixed, but Mathewson said no major repairs have happened yet.
A summons for an eviction hearing is scheduled in the coming days. Right now, Mathewson wants her unpaid rent forgiven because she’s been living inside a damaged home. She also wants the alleged harassment by her management company to end. “They’re making us scared to be in our apartment,” she said. “There’s no peace.”
Coming soon: Metro Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Detroit stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter