University of Michigan: Nearly 9 in 10 Detroit eviction cases filed during pandemic involved illegal rentals

Despite pandemic-related eviction prevention measures, thousands of Detroit renters were evicted in the past two years due to loopholes in policies and enforcement.

Analysis of court data by University of Michigan researchers shows nearly 90% of eviction cases filed in Detroit during the pandemic came from landlords whose properties were not in compliance with the city’s rental ordinance. Eviction case filings are on the rise in 2022, signaling the potential return to a cycle of mass evictions.

Researchers say enforcing existing rental laws and making some pandemic-era interventions permanent will be key to maintaining housing stability for more Detroiters, especially as the state’s COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program closes at the end of June.

“Even with unprecedented eviction prevention measures in place, major policy and enforcement gaps meant that landlords and the court still forcibly uprooted thousands of renters from their homes and neighborhoods during the pandemic,” said Alexa Eisenberg, a postdoctoral research fellow at U-M’s Poverty Solutions initiative. “As federal rental aid expires and the affordable housing crisis escalates, mass evictions will continue unabated if city, state and court officials do not act.”

Eisenberg was part of a team of researchers that reviewed more than 59,700 residential eviction cases filed from January 2019 through March 2022 with the 36th District Court that serves Detroit. In 2020, the number of residential eviction cases filed in Detroit fell to 36% of the pre-pandemic level, which was roughly 30,000 eviction cases each year—the equivalent of 1 in 5 Detroit renter households facing displacement annually.

Eviction filings rose in 2021 to 60% of the pre-pandemic level and continued to increase to about 75% of the pre-pandemic level as of April.

The analysis found nearly 90% of the 25,500 eviction cases filed in Detroit between March 2020 and March 2022 were for properties that did not have a certificate of compliance at the time. The city of Detroit’s rental ordinance requires landlords to register their properties and obtain a certificate of compliance before they can rent out their properties. As of March, data from the city of Detroit’s Open Data Portal indicated that just 6% of Detroit’s rental properties had a certificate of compliance.

By enforcing evictions for landlords whose properties violate health and safety codes, the courts reinforce an unjust power dynamic between landlords and tenants that privileges the landlord’s income over the tenant’s right to a safe and habitable home, Eisenberg says.

The research uses data from The Eviction Machine, an organizing, advocacy and research tool that was developed by the Urban Praxis Workshop with support from U-M Poverty Solutions and Data Driven Detroit.

In addition to tracking the number of eviction filings—the first step initiating an eviction in court—this latest research also gathered data on the type of complaint that prompted the eviction filing, the outcomes of the cases, and whether the landlord and tenant had legal counsel:

Common causes of eviction: Similar to 2019, most eviction cases filed during the pandemic (66%) were for nonpayment of rent. No-cause eviction cases—where the rental agreement allows the landlord to terminate tenancy at any time—rose during the pandemic. This may indicate landlords’ reluctance to go through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance application process with their tenants, as no-cause eviction cases are not eligible for the rent assistance program and were not covered by the federal eviction moratorium. No-cause eviction filings accounted for 28% of all cases filed after the CERA program began in April 2021, compared to 17% previously.
Common outcomes of eviction cases: Prior to the onset of COVID-19, 77% of closed eviction cases resulted in a judgment, compared to 29% of cases since. The most common type of judgment is a default—meaning the tenant did not attend a scheduled court hearing, so the judge ruled in favor of the landlord by default. Default judgments accounted for 24% of closed eviction cases during the pandemic, compared to 43% prior to the pandemic.
Trends in legal representation: Pandemic relief funds allowed local legal aid organizations to provide free legal advice to all tenants who attended their hearings, but the funds did not cover full representation to all who needed it. Tenants in 22% of cases closed during the pandemic had lawyers, a proportion seven times higher than before. Still, 92% of landlords had attorneys during the pandemic, up from 85% before.
Distributing COVID Emergency Rental Assistance: Slow distribution of CERA payments disparately impacted Detroit’s majority-Black renters. CERA payments reached just 36% of Wayne County applicants in 2021, compared to 50% statewide. Wayne County is home to 18% of Michigan’s population and 50% of the state’s Black population; it accounted for 32% of statewide CERA applicants between April 2021 and March 2022.
“The past two years have demonstrated that mass evictions are a policy choice. Our findings show that COVID-19 eviction response measures reduced the scale of Detroit’s eviction crisis relative to 2019 and prevented many cases from reaching the most violent and disruptive stages of the legal eviction process,” Eisenberg said. “Lawmakers can stop unjust evictions if they act urgently to enforce existing laws, make pandemic-era changes permanent and strengthen tenant protections.”

The U-M researchers identify several steps that state and local policymakers can take right now to prevent evictions during the remainder of the pandemic and beyond:

Enforce Detroit’s rental code by requiring that landlords have a certificate of compliance in order to file an eviction case.
Enact just-cause policies that would reduce no-cause evictions by establishing a list of valid reasons for evictions that landlords must prove while filing an eviction case.
Increase tenants’ access to court proceedings and reduce default judgments by permanently adopting pandemic-era changes like requiring pretrial hearings before a judgment can be issued.
Address racial inequities in the distribution of CERA funds by making sure the housing stability of tenants is not further jeopardized by application backlogs.


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