How one Detroiter withheld her rent money and got to keep it

Donna Chavous lived in a one-bedroom apartment that she loved, until the 2021 floods left her without an elevator.

Donna Chavous smiles in front of New Center Plaza Apartments

Renters in Detroit who are dealing with ongoing, unsafe housing conditions do have some options.

Michigan Radio’s Briana Rice talked to one tenant who withheld her rent money — and got to keep it — when her building wasn’t up to code.

After her kids moved out of the house, Donna Chavous downsized into a one-bedroom apartment at the New Center Plaza Apartments. She loved it. It was affordable at $550 a month. Close to Wayne State, restaurants and stores.

But last year, Detroit’s historic floods reached Chavous’s apartment building, damaging the building’s elevator and leaving Chavous to trek up four flights of stairs at least once a day.

“I would walk up as far as I could and I’d stop and rest,” Chavous shared. “And there were many times when I would have several bags and I’d have two or three on this shoulder and two or three on the other. I mean, it was really tough.”

Chavous’s landlord says that the parts he needed to fix the elevator were backordered. That elevator was out for almost a year.

And Chavous has bad knees, the kind that ache if she stands too long.

“I prayed as I walked up. I remember one day I said I didn’t feel well. And as I walked up the stairs, I said, ‘Lord, please deliver me out of this.’ I said, ‘Help me, Lord.’”

After months of trying her patience and chasing her building manager, the maintenance workers and anyone who would listen, Chavous decided to do something different: She decided not to pay her rent to her landlord, but hold out to see if the elevator would get fixed.

“I didn’t want to have to do that. I was just hoping they’d do the right thing. But they wouldn’t.” — Donna Chavous, Detroit resident

What Chavous decided to set up is called an escrow account, which is where a renter leaves their rent money with a neutral third party until conditions are met.

Tonya Myers Phillips is a lawyer and organizer with Detroit’s Right to Counsel Coalition. She says you can’t set up an escrow for just any reason. Phillips says it is a good line of defense for people dealing with problems that make their home unlivable or unsafe. She sites lack of hot water access, missing porch stairs, broken furnaces and mold as potential factors that would justify an escrow.

“This is not a matter of preference,” she clarifies.

She says one of the first things a tenant should do is document the problem and ask a landlord to fix it. Get it in writing. And if you can, get legal advice.

Ted Phillips is the director of the United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents stay in their homes.

“The reason why you go through all of that is because ultimately, if you end up in court and it’s just your word as a tenant against the landlord, I cannot tell you the number of times in my career where I’ve stood in court and had a landlord say, ‘Well, oh my golly, this is the first time I’ve ever heard the tenants say anything whatsoever.’”

There are a few ways to set up an escrow account. For one, you can set it up with a bank or credit union. There are also options with the 36th District Court and Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department.

After that, make sure you pay your rent on time, but into the escrow account instead of to the landlord. It’s best to let your landlord know about the escrow in writing.

It’s also important to note that escrow can sometimes lead to a landlord suing for nonpayment of rent. That’s what happened to Chavous. She spent months in court as her landlord tried to evict her.

“No one wants to go to court. And I was nervous and uncomfortable and I had other things going on in my life,” Chavous says.

But Chavous had documented everything, and that worked in her favor.

Chavous did end up moving out of the New Center Plaza Apartment last April. There was still no working elevator.

“I didn’t want to have to do that. I was just hoping they’d do the right thing. But they wouldn’t,” she says

The good news is, Chavous’ new apartment is on the first floor so she doesn’t have to take the stairs or worry about a broken elevator. She also had surgery in October to get both of her knees replaced. Doctors tell her that when she’s done healing, her knees will be like they were when she was 20.

The bad news? She says she’s paying twice as much for rent than she did at her old place that she was otherwise happy in.

But to her, it still feels like a win. She says she had the courage to face her landlord in court, to withhold her rent. And in the end, Chavous got to keep her rent money.

Reporter Nisa Khan contributed to this story. You can find more information about escrow accounts here.