The Detroit City Council has unanimously approved the “Right to Counsel” ordinance. The legislation will pay for attorneys for low-income residents facing eviction, foreclosure and legal issues related to land contracts.
Council President Mary Sheffield proposed the ordinance. She spoke at a press conference Monday that included advocates who helped draft the legislation.
“Out of the 30,000 eviction cases in Detroit, only 4% of those tenants had an attorney,” Sheffield said. “Also, half of all of the evictions that took place in Detroit could have been avoided if they had an attorney.”
“A Right to Counsel ordinance shifts the balance closer to justice.” —Sara Habbo, an attorney and president of the Detroit and Michigan Chapters of the National Lawyers Guild
Between 2014 and 2018, Detroit averaged 29,330 eviction filings per year, according to a report published by University of Michigan Poverty Solutions in May of 2020. According to Eviction Lab, there were 6,664 evictions in Detroit in 2016.
Sara Habbo, an attorney and president of the Detroit and Michigan Chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, says the ordinance is one way to address systemic racism Black Detroiters have faced in the past.
“When investors buy homes in our neighborhoods and don’t maintain them, we don’t get safe communities,” Habbo said. “We get blight. We have homelessness, and in a city that still owes Black Detroiters reparations for their overtaxed and foreclosed homes, a Right to Counsel ordinance shifts the balance closer to justice.”
Initial funding to pay for representation will come from the American Rescue Plan Act. Detroit’s budget includes $6 million from ARPA for the first year. City Council wants a total of $18 million in ARPA funds to go toward paying for the right to counsel over the next three years. It’s unclear where funding will come from when ARPA money runs out.
Attorneys for Mayor Mike Duggan have said the general fund cannot be used to pay for attorneys for low-income people since it would be a private expense. However, Sheffield and legal advocates for the ordinance believe that the general fund is a viable option.