Tensions flare over Detroit ordinance to provide lower-income tenants with free legal representation

The ordinance is intended to protect tenants from lawless slumlords

click to enlarge Spirit of Detroit at city hall. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Spirit of Detroit at city hall.

Detroit City Council is considering a measure that would provide lower-income residents with free legal representation when facing eviction.

But Mayor Mike Duggan’s top attorney called the proposed ordinance “horrifying” and “unconstitutional,” and was ordered to leave the council table at a committee meeting after disrupting the hearing Thursday morning.

At issue is a city program introduced by Council President Mary Sheffield that is intended to help tenants who are victimized by slumlords.

About 3,000 tenants are evicted from their apartments every year in Detroit, and many of them can’t afford an attorney.

The Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition says tenants are 18 times more likely to avoid eviction if they have an attorney.

“At every single city council district throughout this city, right to counsel was a priority,” Sheffield said. “This issue impacts all of us. I think it’s a solution to stabilizing our neighborhoods, and it also has an economic return to the city of Detroit.”

New York City has a similar ordinance.

Acting Corporation Counsel Charles Raimi, however, insisted the ordinance is “fundamentally flawed” and “would threaten the city’s finances” because it’s “unlawful.” He said residents shouldn’t automatically be given a right to counsel unless their case has been determined to be viable. He also said it would hurt small landlords who are trying to evict tenants who don’t pay their rent.

“There is no question of the good intentions that underlie this ordinance,” Raimi said. “But the way that this is presented is very dangerous to the city. It provides an open-ended right to a lawyer, and anybody in the city who is in that lower-income (bracket) will now have a right to a lawyer.”

Tonya Myers Phillips, an attorney with the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, disagreed and said legal experts from the ACLU and Michigan Poverty Law Program have vetted the ordinance and concluded it’s “legally sound.”

“Mr. Raimi should be ashamed of himself,” Phillips said. “We have a solution, and we need to act.”

Sheffield responded that the council has plenty of time to work out any problems with the ordinance, noting that there hasn’t even been a public hearing on it yet.

“I’m very disappointed in your comments,” Sheffield told Raimi. "You said you are horrified by the ordinance. You should be horrified by the amount of individuals facing evictions in this city and the deplorable conditions they are living in.”

Raimi disrupted Sheffield and said twice, “I appreciate the lecture.”

“You’re out of order,” Council Pro Tem President Pro Tem James Tate told Raimi. “Attorney Raimi, please leave the table.”

Raimi left, and the meeting was adjourned.

Detroit City Council plans to schedule a public hearing on the issue on Tuesday.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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