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Detroit to make changes to its rental registry ordinance due to limited compliance

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The city had hoped to bring all rentals into compliance in two years, but that timeline has proved unrealistic

Aerial view of Lafayette Park. There are a couple of narrow towers, plus a number of smaller buildings and a park filled with trees. Photo by Michelle Gerard

This story was reported in collaboration with Outlier Media.

When Mayor Mike Duggan announced the city’s rental registry ordinance in May 2017, he set a two-year timeline for bringing all Detroit rentals into compliance with the new rules. Instead, over two years later, the city is likely to introduce changes to the program due to limited compliance and enforcement.

The ordinance requires all landlords to have their rental properties regularly lead tested and inspected by the city to check on the condition of the property, inside and out, in order to rent them legally.

When it was rolled out district-by-district two years ago, the city got a lot of pushback. Landlords ignored the law, complained publicly about the cost of repairs, and some even sued the city over the rules. Fewer than 10,000 rentals are currently registered with the city.

The benefit of the law was also blunted when the 36th District Court, where landlord and tenant cases play out, refused to enforce the part of the ordinance with any teeth. Under the rule, if landlords didn’t bring properties into compliance before the city deadline, renters could hold back their rent in city escrow accounts. The 36th District Court didn’t enforce this law and allowed evictions against tenants in the program to go forward.

Instead of scrapping the law, the city is using a 2018 planning grant from the Kresge Foundation to run focus groups to get input on how the registration program can be more protective for tenants and more palatable to landlords. The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED), which is responsible for the ordinance, will then make recommendations for changes.

Julie Vande Vusse, a BSEED Project Manager, says most of the issues with the program were a result of the sheer number of rentals in the city—more than half of Detroit residents are now renters—and the amount of work necessary to bring Detroit’s aging housing stock in compliance.

“The goal of the program is to have compliant properties for residents throughout the entire city regardless of what neighborhood you live in,” Vande Vusse says. She emphasized that the changes BSEED ends up recommending will hopefully support both tenants and owners.

Some changes to how the rental registration program plays out are coming from the courts. In February, Lakeshore Legal Aid argued and won a case in Wayne County Circuit Court, Rogers v. Rosman, that ruled tenants should not be evicted for holding back their rent in the city’s escrow programs.

Still, BSEED’s Vande Vusse says one issue that comes up in the focus groups consistently is how few informational and legal resources are available to tenants in the city. Gwendolyn Ray, a Detroit resident who showed up at a focus group last month on the city’s westside, agrees.

“Renters go into a place and rely on the information given to them by whoever has the key to that place,” she says. “But if that information is wrong or they don’t do what they say they’re going to do, there is no clear path. I want to see a clearer path for renters to understand what needs to happen.”

Ray says her landlord has been “cooperative” when she’s insisted on repairs, but that the rest of her family has not been as lucky.

Still, she understands the pressures on landlords. “I know this property was vacant for a long time,” she says of her home, which is why so many “issues” came along with it.

“I don’t think they should let a property get so run down,” she says of the city. “There are so many of these vacant properties ... it takes so much money to fix them up. The only people who can really afford to do it are investors.”

Vande Vusse says that under the terms of the Kresge Foundation grant, any changes to the rental registration process or policy need to be proposed by May. But she anticipates BSEED will make recommendations before then.

Upcoming focus groups are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on November 14 at Farwell Recreation Center, November 19 at Coleman A. Young Community Center, and Thursday December 12 at Heilman Community Center.

Renters that have property complaints should call (313) 628-2451 and property owners that need more time to bring properties into compliance should email: bseedcompliance@detroitmi.gov.