Rocket Mortgage Founder Dan Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer, are creating a charity fund to cover the legal fees for Detroit renters facing eviction. The $12 million donation is expected to help 18,000 families over the next three years.
The Gilbert Family Foundation commissioned a study that found only 4% of Detroit tenants are represented by attorneys during eviction hearings compared to 83% of landlords.
“Renters today are vulnerable,” says Jennifer Gilbert. “Even those that pay their rent regularly are susceptible to the whims of their landlord. They are often put in a position of having to decide whether to live in unsafe conditions or risk eviction after advocating for routine maintenance.”
The Detroit Eviction Defense Fund will pay for legal costs for families with children who make 50% of the Area Median Income or less, which is $35,800 for a family of two, $40,300 for a family of three and $44,750 for a family of four. The donation will be split between United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid.
“We were faced as a city with legal challenges that limited the city from actually allocating the full amount to fully fund [the Right to Counsel ordinance]. So, we are just honored and grateful for this partnership to really be able to fill in the gaps.” —City Council President Mary Sheffield
“The Detroit Eviction Defense Fund will allow us to continue the critical work of defending Detroiters and their families from landlords who too often try to take advantage of them,” says Ashley Lowe, CEO of Lakeshore Legal Aid.
The donation follows the passage of Detroit’s “Right to Counsel” ordinance, which uses federal pandemic relief aid to pair at-risk renters with lawyers. Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield sponsored the legislation. She says “Right to Counsel” needs about $17 million to fully operate, even though City Council allocated $6 million from its budget for the program.
“We were faced as a city with legal challenges that limited the city from actually allocating the full amount to fully fund this initiative,” Sheffield says. “So, we are just honored and grateful for this partnership to really be able to fill in the gaps to really be able serve the most vulnerable in our city.”
The city, which is creating an Office of Eviction Defense in the Housing and Revitalization Department, will start the program by Oct. 1. The ordinance will provide legal representation to renters at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.
The economic impact of eviction defense
Housing analysts say for every dollar Detroit invests in legal representation for low-income renters facing eviction, the city will see $3.52 of economic benefit. Neil Steinkamp authored a report on the economic impact of eviction defense in Detroit.
“Prior to the pandemic, over 30,000 Detroit households, likely 90,000 Detroit residents were impacted by eviction every year,” Steinkamp says.
That’s about 15% of the city’s population annually. Steinkamp says evictions are a systemic crisis, disproportionately effecting Black and female-head of households in Detroit. He says legal representation would help drive down that trend.
Residents can contact UCHC, Michigan Legal Services and Lakeshore Legal Aid to participate in the program.
The Gilbert Family Foundation recently gave millions to cover renovation costs for poor Detroit homeowners and created a loan program for city-based construction companies. Last year, the Gilberts pledged to donate $500 million in Detroit.