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9 Detroit renters’ rights your landlord doesn’t want you to know

Know your rights

Detroit might have a reputation for being a city of homeowners, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of renters here.

Renter-occupied households now make up about 44 percent of living spaces in Detroit, according to a December 2019 estimate by the apartment listing site RentCafé. In an even more dramatic finding, a Detroit Future City study found that around 2017 the number of renters actually surpassed the number of homeowners in Detroit for the first time since 1950.

But due to the historic popularity of homeownership in the Motor City, there’s not a huge framework of city law governing rental units compared to more renter-centric cities like Chicago or New York City. Instead, many of the rules concerning tenants’ rights fall under Michigan state law, though there have been some efforts by the city to expand its jurisdiction over this area in the last few years.

In 2018, Detroit rolled out a new rental registry ordinance that requires property owners to register their properties and bring them up to code, undergo inspections and regular lead testing, and get a letter of compliance from the city. In the wake of that announcement, Mayor Duggan stepped up code enforcement, intending to get all the city’s rental properties in enrolled within two years. But there have been hiccups along the way, which have forced his administration to revise its timeline and reevaluate how to best move forward with its efforts.

Last year, Detroit City Council passed a “Ban the Box” ordinance which prevents landlords from asking about possible tenants’ criminal histories until they’ve determined whether they’re qualified to rent otherwise.

Despite these efforts to enact tighter regulation of rental properties in Detroit, there’s also an issue of awareness. Detroit Justice Center staff attorney Joe McGuire says a lot of tenants don’t understand the rights they have and feels government agencies, along with neighborhood and community groups, should make a more forceful effort to educate them.

”They’re the ones who are actually living in the homes and buildings that populate the city,” he says. “If they know their rights, they can help keep these buildings up to code and occupied and keep neighborhoods from being transitory, where people are moving and being evicted every year. It’s better for everyone.”

With that in mind, Curbed Detroit has compiled a list of nine things renters should keep in mind regarding their rights as tenants.

Look into your landlord’s background.

Rental fraud is a real thing in Detroit. A man named Curtis Markray paid out $550 a month for over a year to a scammer claiming to be a landlord before finding out from the Detroit Land Bank that he was a fake. Markray later worked out an agreement with the land bank to get an unrestricted deed to the property, but only after paying more than $7,000 to the con man (who was eventually arrested by Detroit police).

To avoid being scammed by a con artist, do your best to confirm your landlords identity. Detroit residents can check online with the Wayne County Register of Deeds to see who owns a property and get in touch with the Wayne County Treasurer to make sure a home or apartment is in good standing with regards to property taxes. If you find out the person who wants to collect rent from you has a different name than the owner or the property taxes are not paid up, that should definitely raise a red flag for you.

Read your rental agreement thoroughly.

Michigan law recognizes two types of tenant arrangements: at-will tenancies which are indefinite in duration and typically renewed on a month-to-month or week-to-week basis, and fixed-term tenancies that are based around a written (or verbal) lease.

Renters who enter into a fixed-term agreement need to be mindful about the contract they’re making with a landlord. Both sides are allowed to bargain over the terms of the lease. It’s preferable to have a written document that both parties sign, as that will spell things out if a disagreement arises or if the two parties end up in court.

Be sure to read the fine print, though. Be wary of agreements that stipulate the renter is responsible for maintenance and repair. Similarly, even though there is a state law on the books permitting residents to keep up to 10 ounces of marijauna in their homes and grow up to 12 plants there, renters can still be evicted if doing so violates the terms of their specific lease.

Be mindful of your security deposit.

Most renters are probably acquainted with the idea of a security deposit. It’s a sum of money that landlords ask from new tenants in addition to their first month’s rent. That cash can later be used to cover the costs of unpaid rent or utility payments or damage to their property. In Michigan, landlords are forbidden from asking more than 1.5 times the cost of a month of rent for a security deposit. What’s more, this mandated security deposit limit includes all refundable fees that the property owner attempts to request from a tenant, for example a refundable snow removal fee.

In a legal sense, however, that money is still considered as belonging to the tenant under Michigan law and needs to be returned to them when they move out, unless certain conditions are met. To retain a security deposit, the former renter needs to provide their former landlord with a forwarding address within four days of moving out. They also need to be on the lookout for a letter from their ex-landlord, who has 30 days to either pay or send a list of damages to them at their new address. If a letter outlining alleged damages is received, former tenants have seven days (including the day of mailing) to provide a response detailing why they disagree. From there, either party may file a lawsuit to resolve the issue in court.

When subleasing, it pays to be selective.

Let’s say you have a fixed-term lease, but have to leave the state for a while to care for an aging parent. You still have six months left in your contract, but don’t want to pay rent when you’re not physically in your apartment. What do you do?

Michigan residents have the right to sublease their apartment out to another person. Although it’s a good idea to notify the original landlord this is happening, it’s not required unless specifically laid out in the lease. While subleasing a property, the tenant is treated as a proxy landlord except for the responsibility to repair and maintain the property. This means they’re on the hook for collecting rent. So it’s important to take the time to choose a reliable subtenant, because the original tenant must pay any unpaid rent on time to the owner of the property or face a possible eviction.

A notice on your door doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being evicted.

Landlords are required to follow a specific state-mandated procedure when attempting to evict a tenant. The first step in this process involves giving the person renting their property an eviction notice, which is usually labeled as either “Demand for Possession” or “Notice to Quit.” That notice needs to include the tenant’s name, address, reason for eviction, specified time for corrective action, date, and landlord’s signature.

Once the eviction notice is delivered, the tenant will have a designated period of time to respond before a lawsuit is filed. If the reason for the eviction notice is something simple, like paying rent that’s past due, the tenant can remedy the problem before the date on the notice and the process should end there. If they do not, the property owner has the option of filing a lawsuit. From there, a tenant who properly received a court summons and other required paperwork would be obligated to show up on the correct day for a trial. Even then, it’s worth noting that the parties can come to an agreement before their trial date and settle out of court or during the trial itself.

If you’re thinking about withholding rent, have a plan.

Detroit has run into its fair share of challenges in its efforts to more closely regulate its rental properties. But perhaps the most frustrating one involved the creation of a special city bank account (known as an escrow account) for renters to withhold rent from landlords who allegedly aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities to properly maintain their properties.

Under the city’s rental registry ordinance, landlords are required to have regular inspections and lead testings. Early on in the enforcement effort, tenants whose landlords didn’t comply with the rules were informed they could put their rent money in the city’s escrow account to encourage their landlords to meet their obligations. Unfortunately, when these cases started coming before the 36th District Court, judges refused to enforce the ordinance. They reasoned that they’re only obligated under state law to determine whether a property is habitable as a defense when considering the rights of tenants to withhold rent.

For Detroiters considering withholding rent because of poor maintenance by a landlord, McGuire offers the following advice. “Utilize everything the city has to offer,” he says. “The city has stepped up on enforcement and inspection, and that’s a good thing. But don’t rely on it entirely. You have to do your own legwork to prepare for court.”

He suggests renters take their own photos to document the conditions of their homes, communicate with their landlords in writing so they have evidence that’s admissible in court. As for escrow accounts, he recommends tenants set up a separate account with their own bank or through the United Community Housing Coalition. Taking that route offers more flexibility than storing money in a city escrow account, he says, and carries a better chance of getting an abatement from a judge that could result in a reduction in the cost of rent.

Landlords are not permitted to forcibly remove tenants.

The law is pretty clear about how evictions are supposed to proceed in Michigan. Landlords are not allowed to physically force tenants off their properties, nor remove them through actions like changing locks or shutting off utilities. That’s illegal behavior and punishable in a court of law.

The only one authorized to remove a tenant and their possessions from a rental property is an agent of the court acting on a judge’s order. These agents typically come from the sheriff’s office and should place the former tenant’s belongings in a construction dumpster, so they can be picked up for future use.

Take advantage of your right to belong to a tenant union.

If you’re living in an apartment or home with multiple renters, you have the option of organizing together to form a tenant’s union to address grievances. From a strategic point of view, it makes a lot of sense, since other tenants are likely to have similar issues and working together increases the chances of getting common demands met.

It’s also worth noting that organizing a tenant’s union is a form of activity that is protected under the same state law that makes it illegal for a landlord to retaliate against a renter who calls for a city inspection of their home.

Don’t be shy about reaching out for assistance.

While dealing with issues as a renter can be a supremely frustrating experience, it’s important not to forget there are resources out there to help tenants. If you can’t afford a lawyer to answer your questions, consider contacting the United Community Housing Coalition or Lakeshore Legal Aid for free assistance.

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