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UCHC Affordable Housing Journal

Distinctly Detroit stories with a focus on homelessness prevention.

Before the virus: A day in the life of Detroit's bustling eviction court

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Today, Detroit’s eviction court operates in hybrid fashion, with first hearings taking place virtually over Zoom. But before the outbreak of COVID-19, things were vastly different. In January of 2020, we spent a day shadowing UCHC's hard-working attorneys as they tried to prevent low-income Detroiters from losing their homes amid the chaos of 36th District Court. By: UCHC Staff

Published: September 10, 2023

[image credit: KEO Associates] City of Detroit 36th District Court
Eviction hearings are held in 36th District Court in downtown Detroit. (image credit: KEO Associates)

When judgment day comes, if you don't have a good attorney, you could very well find yourself without a home. Historically, that's what happens all too often in eviction courts across America. And in Detroit, just walking into 36th District Court can be intimidating — especially if you’re the one being summoned to court.

On this particular day, we arrive at the courthouse at 8 a.m. If you're lucky enough to find a place to park (the nearby lots all charge to park, and street parking is limited), you must then enter the court's revolving doors into a small, glassed-in vestibule, where you’re forced to stand in line behind the metal detectors and X-ray conveyors.

By 8:15 a.m., the lines are hugging the wall on either side of the room. On one side, a large TV screen displays a list of prohibited items — each one depicted and covered with a circle and a slash.

A looping audio recording announces the prohibited items for further emphasis — no weapons of any kind; no holsters, knives, matches, lighters, or any of the things that airports typically ban.

And absolutely no phones allowed.

The courthouse used to ban writing implements, as well, but they’ve apparently relented on that. But banning phones?

In our technology-driven society, this seems cruel and unexpected. What are you supposed to do? Go hide your phone in your car? What if you caught a ride from a friend or took the bus? What about people who worry about their kids or their elderly parents or who need to check in with their employers or to call for a ride home?

“Gentlemen, drop your hoods.”

As we step into line, a security guard announces, “Gentlemen, drop your hoods.” Half of the people in line push their hoods back and take off their hats. The guard glares at a man who doesn’t understand and directs him to remove his hat.

Two security guards stand at the front of each line; one directs you to place your purse and items from your pockets in a gray plastic tray, and the other ushers you through the metal detector. The guards are brusque and efficient, using hand signals and brief commands to herd the masses.

“Wait.” “Walk through.” “Have you emptied your pockets?”


“Walk through.”

“Have you emptied your pockets?”

Guards stand behind the conveyors and watch the people walking through the metal detectors stop to gather their belongings. Two more guards stand as sentries near the main lobby.

Attorneys enter a separate vestibule to the left through another set of revolving doors. They still have to go through metal detectors, but once they show their bar cards they’re allowed to keep their phones.

In the main lobby, electronic signs indicate the locations of the different courtrooms. Landlord-tenant cases, or evictions, are heard on the fourth floor. The elevators are located across the lobby past a row of counters, where clerks sit behind bulletproof glass.

Stock photo: A gavel resting on a pile of books.

Here comes the judge

As you step off the elevator, you enter a large hallway that extends the width of the building. Along the hallway to the left, angled concrete-block walls open into a wider space with large metal doors that lead into the courtrooms. Here you’ll find the four courtrooms where judges process Detroit’s landlord-tenant cases.

On the opposite side of the hall sit long, black-stained, wooden church-style pews, which by 8:30 a.m. are already beginning to fill up with people. Two small rooms outside the courtrooms have been commandeered by a couple of the attorneys representing local landlords. Other attorneys stand in the hall, some talking with opposing counsel, some conferring with clients, others looking for their clients.


At UCHC, we believe that housing is a human right. Your generous support helps us keep our low-income neighbors safe and secure in their homes throughout the year. To help support UCHC, click here.


Across the hall, in room 417, UCHC attorneys arrive and take off their coats. Chairs bolted to the floor fill a small waiting area in front of six cubicles and a copier. On this day, there are four UCHC and Michigan Legal Services staff attorneys and a Jesuit Volunteer paralegal, who starts signing people in. Two of the attorneys meet with their assigned clients for the day in the cubicles. Two senior attorneys arrive later: one for a 9:30 case she’s handling, the other for a ruling on a previously tried case. The staff attorneys have prepared for five other cases, and they’re looking for their clients. Only five clients have signed in, which is an extremely light day.

Inside the courtrooms, people fill the pews, and the judges begin to assess the cases before them. In contrast to the noise in the hallway, the courtrooms are quiet; the main noise is the sound of the big metal entrance doors opening and closing. The doors are unrelentingly loud, and people are constantly moving in and out of the room. When people speak, it’s in whispers. One of the court officers replaces a wad of tape over the door latch in a futile attempt to muffle the noise.

There’s a clerk and recorder for each judge, as well as a security guard — or court officer — who helps direct people. Attorneys, obviously known to the court personnel, meander in and out of the gated area to sign in, examine files, and whisper requests to the clerk. It’s all very distracting and continues even after the judge begins to call the cases. The door continues to click, and it’s difficult to hear her.

People periodically rise from the pews and walk up through the gate to a podium, where the judge addresses them and asks them to identify themselves. She then reads mostly pre-arranged judgments. These are consent judgments, where the landlord’s attorneys and the tenants have agreed on terms for move-outs or payments.

The judge asks each person in succession if this is what they’ve agreed to. They stand there alone and say yes. The judge enters the judgment and instructs the tenants that because they don’t have legal representation, they have three days to change their minds.

Despite the judge’s reassuring demeanor, it’s nearly impossible to have a good enough reason to successfully challenge the judgments. The judge calls more names, but it’s still hard to hear her. A man seated nearby raises his hand when his name is called, but no one recognizes him. A woman nudges him to tell him he needs to announce his presence. He approaches the court officer and they have an exchange. The judge holds up a stack of 10 to 15 files and says these cases are being dismissed. This seems to be pre-arranged.

She reads them into the record and holds up another stack of 10 to 15 files. She announces that these cases are being entered as default judgments because the tenants are not in attendance. She reads them into the record.


Making the Case

On this particular morning, we’re following three cases. UCHC attorney Barbara Katzman has picked up a walk-in client who just received a judgment. The client is a no-income renter living in subsidized housing. She’d moved to a larger apartment in the same complex because she had another child. She and her manager had discussed what additional charges she’d have to pay to move to a larger unit, but what she apparently didn’t understand is that while her late fees had been forgiven, the security deposit on the larger apartment wasn’t waived, and the difference hadn’t been paid.


At UCHC, we believe that housing is a human right. Your generous support helps us keep our low-income neighbors safe and secure in their homes throughout the year. To help support UCHC, click here.


Our client realized her mistake when she received her court papers just a few days before her court date. She was unclear at first about why the additional funds were needed and asks to see a ledger. After looking at the ledger, she agrees that the additional security deposit is owed, but it should only be $209.26, calculated against the ledger. UCHC attorney Katzman knows the plaintiff’s attorney and starts negotiating with him to persuade the landlord to accept the reduced amount and settle the case.

Next up is a ruling on a previously tried case. Before the scheduled ruling, UCHC attorney

UCHC Attorney Charlene Snow
UCHC attorney Charlene Snow.

Charlene Snow picks up a walk-in case. The tenant’s sister enters Room 417 and says her sister, who has five kids, is sitting in the courtroom across the hall, just got out of the hospital, and the judge is about to be asked to sign a writ of eviction. That will allow the landlord to move her things out of the house immediately. Due to her illness, the tenant experienced an interruption in her Social Security benefits, but her funds are scheduled to be restored. If she can get until the first week of February, she’ll have the money to move.

UCHC attorney Snow isn’t optimistic about being able to help but asks to see the woman anyway. Her new client then comes limping across the hall, leaning on a cane and hobbled by a knee brace, and tries to explain her situation: Her landlord had come to her house on December 14, a Saturday, and told her that he’d sold the property; she begged him to let her stay until she recovered from her surgery and got her Social Security benefits reinstated. He accepted a $400 partial payment — after he started the eviction process. Snow asks her client if she has a receipt; the client digs through her bag and pulls it out. It’s dated December 14, 2019.

The client then informs attorney Snow that there’s $132 in escrow from a previous case, where she’d paid and satisfied the judgment, and she needs the funds returned to her. UCHC staff quickly researches the property’s ownership and discovers that it hasn’t been sold. Then Snow realizes that the landlord hasn’t produced his deed. She enters an appearance in the case and agrees to stand with her new client in front of the judge and raise these issues.

Since there’s already a judgment, the judge might not be willing to consider the extenuating circumstances, and so attorney Snow tries not to give her client false hope.

Snow needs to get down the hall to the courtroom where the judge is scheduled to issue his ruling, but first she signs in to represent this woman. We go to the other courtroom and wait. The judge is busy with the previous case and is waiting on an attorney to obtain a needed document from his landlord client. Finally, the judge decides to wait no longer and calls our case.

The client is an older gentleman, a veteran living in a subsidized rental who was being evicted because his nephew had caused a disturbance when the landlord sent a handyman to the house to make a repair. The landlord claims that the nephew was living in the house with his uncle, which is not permitted under the terms of his lease. But the tenant counters that he merely needed his nephew’s assistance, as he struggles with diabetes and other health problems. It quickly becomes clear that considerable time was taken during the trial, in which at least three witnesses were called, in addition to the principals of the dispute.

The police representative and the management representative had both suggested that the handyman who argued with the nephew apologize for his actions. The judge carefully reads the lease and discovers a clause that states if there’s a disturbance that violates the terms of the lease, it would have to be a persistent violation. The judge finds no evidence of persistence after the notice of the violation had been given. After a 30-minute oral review, the judge rules that there has been no persistence and rules in favor of the defendant.

In the meantime, the court officer from the other court comes in with a note for UCHC attorney Charlene Snow, who writes back that she’ll arrive shortly. UCHC attorney Barbara Katzman arrives and gets briefed by Snow and dashes off to the other courtroom while Snow finishes her paperwork on the older gentleman’s case.

It’s after two o’clock when attorney Katzman arrives in the first courtroom, but the judge is on break. Katzman is prepared to ask the court to have the landlord produce a deed, to discuss the funds the landlord accepted after he initiated the eviction process, and to ask for time for her obviously disabled client.

Attorney Snow arrives in court a few minutes before the judge, and the case is called. As Snow predicted to her client, the judge is reluctant to consider any new information. But Snow persists with questions about the deed, since the landlord himself has raised the issue of a possible recent sale. The landlord says he’s never had to produce the deed, and the judge doesn’t press him on it.

Then comes the issue of the first case and the $132 in escrow. The landlord claims he’s entitled to the money, but Snow and the tenant argue that the entire judgment from the first case has been paid. The judge agrees.

Snow then raises the point that the landlord, in addition to accepting the funds for the judgment in the first case, has accepted an additional $400 after the initiation of the second case and therefore should not be able to evict the tenant without starting the process over again.

Snow’s client shows her receipt to the judge, who lets the landlord look at it, as well. The landlord claims the funds were for the previous year, but when Snow points out that the date is clearly December 14, 2019, he accuses the tenant of doctoring the receipt. The judge is not convinced.

Snow argues that her client wouldn’t have known the rule about accepting money invalidating the eviction process. The tenant had simply pulled the receipt out of her bag when Snow asked her for it. The judge, who would be within her rights to send the landlord back to the beginning of the eviction process, instead opts to sign a writ of eviction, but with the stipulation that it cannot be executed until after February 5. Snow asks to give her client until February 8, after the weekend, but the judge stands firm.

Another one of UCHC's attorneys is juggling two cases on this day. In the first one, the tenant hadn’t paid rent because the landlord had failed to make some needed repairs. The tenant received an adjournment in December. At a January 3 hearing, our attorney attempted to negotiate time for the tenant to move, but the property manager refused to negotiate.

At the second hearing, the landlord was in Florida, and his attorney agreed to a second adjournment. It’s unlikely the judge would’ve granted a second adjournment if not for our attorney’s negotiation. (Before the third scheduled hearing, the landlord agreed to give the tenant a month to move.)

In the second case, the tenant had been living in a house with a significant roof leak and a defective furnace and water heater. Previous court hearings had resulted in her paying her rent into a court escrow to pressure the landlord into making needed repairs. The owner fixed the furnace and the water heater, and some of the escrow funds were released to him.

But the leaky roof persisted, and other repairs were never completed. The landlord brought a termination of tenancy case in the fall of 2019, but the UCHC attorney was able to show then that the client’s lease gave her an automatic renewal, and the case was dismissed. The repairs were still not completed. We advised our client to save her rent and, in January, as expected, a new non-payment case was filed.

Our attorney is now able to negotiate a reduction in the back rent as part of a settlement. The client now has the option to pay the reduced back rent or move by the end of January.


The critical need for good counsel

Before COVID, there were approximately 30,000 filings of landlord-tenant cases at 36th District Court every year. Three or four judges were holding nine sessions a week in each of three courtrooms. UCHC was able to represent about 30 clients in a typical week. Other legal-services organizations were there to help tenants, as well, but in 2019, 46 percent of cases still resulted in default judgments.

Each client represented by our attorneys gained something through representation. The woman with recent surgery and five children got time to receive her restored Social Security check, so that she will have funds with which to move. The Vietnam veteran got his case dismissed entirely. The tenant in the home where the landlord failed to make repairs got time to move. The woman with the roof leak and broken furnace and hot water heater got repairs and a settlement.

These outcomes were made possible with the help of our attorneys. The attorneys listened to the clients, looked at their paperwork, and understood what to ask for that would help the clients.

UCHC’s attorneys and our colleagues know from experience on days like this just how important good counsel is for our low-income clients facing eviction. And our belief is that everyone in this situation deserves legal representation.


At UCHC, we believe that housing is a human right. Your generous support helps us keep our low-income neighbors safe and secure in their homes throughout the year. To help support UCHC, click here.

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