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Q&A: Renters rights group on why Detroit needs a moratorium on rent

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We spoke with two members of Detroit Renter City, which is calling for a suspension of rent citywide

Photo by Michelle Gerard

Detroit has been called one of the epicenters of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States. This is especially worrisome because Detroit is a city with a high poverty rate, making its population more vulnerable—and not just to the physical effects of the virus.

People of less means are also susceptible to the economic impacts of COVID-19. With millions filing for unemployment over the last two weeks, many are wondering how they’ll be able to pay rent. While traditionally a city of single-family home owners, Detroit became a majority renter city in the last decade due to high rates of tax and mortgage foreclosure.

In late March, Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill that will provide direct payments of up to $1,200 to Americans and an additional $600 per week, up to 39 weeks, for those who are unemployed.

Nonetheless, many renters rights groups around the country are calling for a moratorium on rent. While the calls haven’t been as loud in Detroit, one group, Detroit Renter City, is demanding such a suspension.

We spoke with two members of the group, Rachael Baker and Tristan Taylor, about their intentions and why it should be instituted in Detroit. (Alexa Eisenberg also helped draft the group’s demands.)

Curbed: Could you run down your list of demands?

Rachael Baker: First, we’re calling for a suspension of rent.

The moratorium on evictions will keep people in their homes until April 17, but tenants in Michigan are still expected to pay their rent. So if I missed my rent for April, I could get evicted once the moratorium on evictions is lifted. Even if I strike up a deal with my landlord, I’m still responsible for paying rent eventually—I’ll also owe back rent and fees. That’s going to lead me down a road to eviction.

So we’re calling for full a suspension of rent and back rent, for 60 days after the end of Michigan’s State of Emergency. The reason for that timeline is that if you’ve lost your job, or have a job that has severely reduced hours right now, you’re not going to be in a position to pay rent, plus all the back rent you owe, once the State of Emergency is over.

Second, we’re calling for a moratorium on utility shutoffs in homes for 60 days after the State of Emergency. In order to be in homes and be safe, you need to have functional utilities and water. You may be housed, but if you can’t wash your hands—that’s really defeating the purpose of being sheltered in place.

Lastly, the current moratorium on evictions is based on timelines set in the third week of March. There’s now over 15,000 identified cases in Michigan; the situation is completely different and needs to be reassessed. This is a moment when people have to stay inside—that’s the safest thing anyone can do right now—but there could be a flood of eviction cases when the moratorium is lifted in April 17. At the very least, the moratorium deadline needs to be extended to reflect the extended stay-at-home order to April 30.

Why are you advocating for this to be applied across the board as opposed to just for those who are financially insecure?

Tristan Taylor: We just don’t know what one person’s stable situation might look like a month from now. Just imagine if you got sick; now you have to pay for treatment. People can’t afford to both recover from an illness—assuming you do—and afford rent and utilities.

It’s really important that as long as the State of Emergency is in place, as long as there’s a pandemic, for there to be a cancellation of rent across the board. It’s only going to get worse unless people are kept out of danger and provided some stability.

Baker: Renters are the people most at risk in this situation. When we’re about to go into global depression, when there’s really high rates of unemployment that are only like to get higher, we don’t want people spending money on rent and burning through their savings.

If no one’s paying rent, how will property owners be able to pay their taxes and mortgages?

Taylor: Property owners have already been provided several mechanisms of support. Many federally backed mortgages have been deferred and Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree said that there will be no tax foreclosure for 2020. Renters should be afforded those same assurances. Renters don’t even have an assurance that they won’t be kicked out during the State of Emergency.

Baker: We also have to consider that the stimulus emergency checks distributed by the federal government will bypass whole groups of people—the same groups that are most likely to be renters. You’re not going to receive a check if you’re here on a visa, if you’re a seasonal migrant worker who’s making sure there’s food in grocery stores, if you work under the table, if you haven’t filed taxes. In addition to not getting that check, you’re less likely to be able to pay rent when there are multiple intersections that keep precariously employed people in unstable housing situations.

Taylor: And even if you are a renter who’s getting that assistance check, it’s most likely going to your landlord. Meanwhile, landlords will not only get forgiveness on their mortgages, but are almost certainly getting those assistance checks as well.

Baker: But if the state wants to do the right thing and make sure people stay housed right now, we’re open to the idea of landlords getting a tax credit for the rent they’re losing.

What about emergency repairs? It’s going to be hard to keep a home up to code with no income stream.

Taylor: Rental properties in Detroit are already in need of major upkeep. That’s one reason why the city’s rental registry ordinance was passed—to make sure landlords are in compliance and offer livable conditions. So it’s really funny how things that normally aren’t a concern become one when it’s convenient.

Also, the days of the mom and pop landlord are fading away. The vast majority of the rental property in Detroit is owned by a small group of highly resourced people.

What other actions are you taking?

Taylor: We’re establishing connections with other housing advocates and tenants rights groups to be better prepared for next month. There’s organizing that has taken place and initiatives that people have started on their own, and we’re plugging into that. But we’ve yet to call for a citywide rent strike.

Baker: We’ve also put up a website with resources people can access and are responsive to people who contact us with questions. On the website you’ll also find a script for people who want to call Gov. Whitmer’s office directly with those demands, as well as a petition people can sign.