Gilbert Foundation donates $13 million to help Detroit tenants facing eviction

Detroit — The Gilbert Family Foundation on Monday announced a $13 million commitment to fund and study the City of Detroit’s Right to Counsel initiative, which was established earlier this month to provide free legal services to tenants in low income facing deportation in Detroit.

The foundation announces that it will invest $12 million over three years in three organizations that will represent tenants in eviction proceedings in Detroit’s 36th District Court: United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid.

The funds are expected to help about 6,000 tenants a year, the foundation said. The program supports families with one child at home who earn 50% of the region’s median income or less. In Detroit, these income levels for a family of two are $35,800, $40,300 for a family of three, and $44,750 for a family of four.

Another $1 million will be used “to fund a long-term study of the program’s effectiveness, as well as the eviction defense ecosystem in Detroit,” the foundation said.

The Detroit City Council on May 10 unanimously approved the Right to Counsel Ordinance, led by its President Mary Sheffield and nearly two dozen organizations.

Detroit joins 14 other cities and three states that have already adopted the right to an attorney.

The city plans to provide $6 million in federal COVID relief funds to the effort.

Proponents had said more than $17 million was needed in the first year to launch the initiative.

United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid have been inundated with requests for help since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium in August 2021.

The foundation noted that only 4% of tenants in landlord-tenant cases in Detroit have attorneys, while 83% of landlords have legal representation.

Jennifer Gilbert, co-founder of the Gilbert Family Foundation with her husband Dan Gilbert, owner of Rocket Mortgage, said in a statement that the Detroit Eviction Defense Fund “will level the scales of justice for vulnerable tenants, who deserve the opportunity to stay in their accommodation and enjoy lasting housing stability.”

Ashley Lowe, CEO of Lakeshore Legal Aid, added that “without such interventions, less than five percent of tenants are represented by a lawyer in eviction proceedings.”

Sheffield said in a statement that the right to counsel is a “step forward” in securing Detroiters’ right to housing.

“Housing is a human right,” Sheffield said in the statement.

Mayor Mike Duggan thanked the Gilberts for the donation and urged the Detroiters to take advantage of it.

Duggan said “6,000 Detroit families with children a year can know they are not alone and will have legal support to help them stay in their homes.”

“The resources are here,” Duggan added. “We just need people to enjoy it.”

Not everyone celebrated the move.

Detroit Action, an activist group, said that while it supports the right to an attorney as an idea, the measure should be publicly funded, not a private donation. The Gilbert Foundation donation, the group said, amounted to “privatizing” the right.

“Mayor Duggan cannot allow this important political issue to be funded by philanthropists, when it is the city that has let unscrupulous landlords destroy our communities,” said Branden Snyder, co-executive director of Detroit Action. , in a press release. “We urge the mayor to stand up for working class communities and secure vital public funding for the right to an attorney.”

Since August 2020, more than 22,700 new eviction cases have been filed in the 36th District Court, including 17,900 cases filed in 2020 alone. That averages about 1,500 new cases filed each month, according to a February report from UM’s Poverty Solutions.

Detroit estimates that 82% of its residents are low-income and 52% are renters.

A University of Michigan study on solutions to poverty found that tenants are nearly 90% more successful in winning cases when provided with an attorney.

The announcement follows another $20 million pledge made by the Gilberts and their partners earlier this month. The Gilbert Family Foundation, alongside ProMedica Health System and DTE Energy, presented the Detroit Home Repair Fund which is expected to help more than 1,000 Detroit owners over the next three years.

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