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UCHC Affordable Housing Journal

Distinctly Detroit stories with a focus on homelessness prevention.

Who's Zooming who?

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

How UCHC's attorneys help low-income Detroiters navigate the city's virtual eviction court in the wake of COVID-19.


By: UCHC Staff

Published: September 10, 2023


United Community Housing Coalition Attorney, Charlene Snow, spends her days fighting for low-income residents’ rights in 36th District Court’s busy virtual courtrooms.
UCHC attorney Charlene Snow spent the last three years fighting for low-income residents’ rights in 36th District Court’s busy virtual courtrooms. (Photo by Kim Stroud)

After the coronavirus pandemic struck Michigan in 2020, Detroit’s 36th District Court decided to move its courtroom hearings online for the safety of everyone involved. For the next three years, its landlord-tenant courtrooms operated via Zoom five days a week.


Today, 36th District Court operates in a hybrid fashion, with first eviction hearings taking place virtually over Zoom. Last summer we shadowed some of our attorneys to see what it’s like to spend a day in Detroit’s virtual eviction court.

 

Charlene Snow is plugged in. On this particular day, a Thursday, Detroit's five eviction courtrooms are scheduled to hear myriad cases. On this day we’re following UCHC attorney Charlene Snow, who’s representing two clients in a morning session of Termination Court.


There’s the main Zoom room, where the judge is calling and hearing cases; there’s a chat room, where legal assistants are organizing the cases; and there are breakout rooms, where the attorneys are speaking with their clients. Snow enters the chat room to gather the intake information for her first client at 9:30 a.m. Intake sheets and other supporting documents have been uploaded, and she quickly reviews them.


Snow finds her client, and they head into a breakout room to talk in private. Snow asks him when he first found out about his eviction, and he says he'd only learned of it just a few weeks prior, on June 8, by mail, after the court case was filed. It turns out the seller filed the case with the court on June 7, but the client never received his one-month notice, which should’ve been sent to him in early May.


The client tells attorney Snow that he’d received 15 months of rent through a local nonprofit’s federally funded COVID-relief program, for which he has receipts, and which kept him current through April. He subsequently made payments for May and June, including $100 over the rental rate because he was afraid of being evicted and wanted to show good faith.


Snow asks him if he wants to stay in his unit, even though his landlord is not in compliance with the City’s rental registration requirement. He says he’d like to, but there are still some repair issues that need to be addressed. The landlord had finally sent someone over the previous night to repair the water heater, which has been broken for two months. He’s in an upper flat, and it turns out that both units in the building get their hot water from the same water heater — the neighbor let him know this morning that he has hot water today. 


Even before the water heater failed, there was very little water pressure in his bathroom; it takes him 40 minutes to run a bath, and until last night there was no hot water in the shower. There’s been no hot water in his kitchen for some time either. Sometimes he even resorts to carrying hot water up from the basement. 

 

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.

 

There’s only one water meter for both units. The water bill goes to the landlord, who doesn’t show our client the bill but asks for money to pay it. Other repairs he’s made include the bathroom and living-room ceilings, which he patched after leaks, and a new front door, which he replaced after it was kicked in. Our client knew it was the landlord’s responsibility, and he lived without a front door to his unit for several months. Finally, he bought one himself. 


There’s only partial electrical power in his unit. In the kitchen, he has a hot plate, but there’s no hookup for the electric stove. And he can’t run his hot plate at the same time as his microwave and refrigerator without tripping the circuit.

 

One musician’s housing plight


Our attorney asks the tenant about his income. He’s a musician who sings and plays keyboards. He was bringing in around $1,000 a month, but COVID cut off his income. He was self-employed, so he doesn’t receive any benefits. But he’s getting more work now, his income is improving, and he can afford the rent again. 


The owner lives two doors down and was the person who originally showed our client the property and let him move in. A property manager let him know that she runs things for the owner, and so she’s actually the plaintiff in this case. Our client talked with the owner about his May and June payments and was referred to the property manager. He sent the two payments through a cash app and has the receipts to prove it.


Our attorney explains what could happen in court. It’s a termination case, so repairs such as the water heater aren’t relevant, and it’s possible our client will simply have to move. How much time he’ll get could range anywhere from 10 to 50 days. Our attorney can raise the issue of improper notice, and she can ask for more time for him to get her copies of his receipts from his May and June payments, which were also accepted.

 

Case Dismissed


Our attorney gives the tenant her phone number and instructs him to call back in to the court if they get disconnected. She goes back to the courtroom and notices that there’s no one there to represent the plaintiff. When the judge finally calls the case, neither the manager, nor the owner, nor an attorney are present for the plaintiff. Since the landlord and his representatives have failed to appear, the case is dismissed. Our attorney goes with the client back to the breakout room to explain what happened.


The plaintiff will now have to file a new case and send out a one-month notice. Our attorney advises her client to pay his July rent and to be ready to pay for August, as well, because they can’t evict him if they accept a payment after they’ve sent out an eviction notice. 


She tells him to save his receipts for all his payments and to contact the City to inspect his electrical problems. The seller can’t penalize him in retaliation for contacting the City. Our attorney also advises him to contact the funding agency and get copies of his paperwork for the 15 months of rent that were paid and determine which months the funds covered.


It helps our attorney to know that her client can pay the rent going forward, but she’s concerned that the agency that paid the 15 months of COVID relief money didn’t escrow some of the rent funds that they’re required to because of the repair issues. The landlord should’ve received only 50 percent of the funds until he could show that the repairs had been made.


The case takes our attorney over an hour. There are 51 cases on the judge’s docket today. There’s another UCHC attorney handling cases in the same courtroom. In the four other courtrooms, with two attorneys assigned to each, there are 62, 57, 61, and 56 cases on their dockets. Morning court times often roll over into the afternoon, with dockets sometimes running as late as 4 p.m.


 

Was there a one-month notice?


Our attorney takes a second case from the list. A woman is being evicted from her home of 22 years because she and her 22-year-old son haven’t been able to keep up with the $850 monthly payments. She received COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) last year and applied for an extension through last December but doesn’t know if she got it. She may owe from January 2022 forward, but she isn’t sure which months her CERA grant covered. 


She and her son went without a furnace last winter, relying on space heaters for warmth. She didn’t know that half of her CERA grant should’ve been withheld until the furnace was fixed. The space heaters ran up her DTE bill; now in July, she’s just $49 away from bringing her bill current.


She works two jobs for about 30 hours a week, and her gross income is just $504. She’s on a waiting list for relocation, but there are hundreds of others on the list. She’s resigned to losing her house; she mostly just wants time to file for her income-tax refund so she has enough money to move.


Our attorney refers her to a free accounting service to help with her taxes. But then our attorney learns that her client didn’t receive a proper one-month notice before the case was filed and the summons and complaint were issued, and so she might be able to use that to negotiate the extra time our client needs.


Before the case is called, the court breaks for lunch and announces it will resume hearings at 2 p.m. Our attorney Charlene Snow has a trial on another case in the afternoon, which may now be rescheduled because of the overflow of cases. 


“The bottom line is that tenants who are represented in court have significantly better outcomes than those who appear without an attorney,” she says. “The current need for representation is much greater than our capacity to take cases, but UCHC and our colleagues are working to expand attorney representation so that more low-income Detroiters can receive the legal assistance they deserve in their eviction cases.”


Prior to COVID-19, UCHC and its colleagues in Detroit's legal advocacy community provided free legal services to about 4.5 percent of tenants with cases in 36th District Court. Since March of 2020, we've been able to quadruple our attorneys, and together we're now able to represent about 20-25 percent of tenants with court cases.

 

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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