Case study 4 – Detroit’s Right to Counsel Victory Shows the Power of the People

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Photographer is Adrienne D. Warren, Mrktg Consultant & Publicist

People in the photo are Rea Maci, Bonsitu Kitaba, Tonya Myers Phillips, Mary Sheffield, Chinelo Onuigbo, Banke Llori, and Evan Villeneuve

Political power. 

The Right to Counsel Movement is an inspiring and continuing story of how the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition and ordinary Detroiters activated our collective power and won one of the most significant rights in Detroit’s history, a right to legal counsel for low-income Detroiters facing eviction. 

The first Declaration of Rights in our Michigan Constitution states, “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal benefit, security and protection“. The Detroit Right to Counsel Ordinance is a win for all who believe in democracy and people-centered policies. It is a win for all who believe housing is a human right. It is an inspiration for transparent, inclusive, and systemic problem-solving. Our movement acknowledges the root of Detroit’s eviction crisis as a by-product of racialized and inequitable systems. Thus, we advocated for the Right to Counsel as a systemic solution- a change in the law. 

Inspired by Black and Brown organizers who won the first Right to Counsel Ordinance in the nation in New York City, Detroiters set out to obtain its Right to Counsel ordinance in 2019. We shared a vision to acquire power, resulting in racial equity and justice, and where everyone in Detroit- a major city where the majority of residents are Black – has stable, safe, affordable, and accessible homes. We were on a mission to help Detroiters gain community control of housing policies to ensure all Detroiters are treated with dignity, respect, and equitably in respect to their housing. The Right to Counsel is the foundational change for Detroit to embark on the path to becoming a housing-secure city for all. 

We Won’t Go Back

Before 2020, the eviction crisis had become so dire that it was often referred to as a tsunami without water. Evictions had become normalized in Detroit as the de facto end of how society treated those without means. Over the past decade, Detroit’s eviction filings averaged over 30,000 per year. In 2017, landlords and mortgage servicers had legal representation for approximately 92% of the time. On the other hand, tenants and struggling homeowners only had legal representation approximately 4.4% of the time, and of this pool, only five lawyers represented 72% of the total tenants that were represented and nearly 90% of all tenants that were represented by only ten lawyers. Most of the displaced people were Black, female, poor–and mothers. Instead of residing in comfort in their golden years, senior citizens were often targeted for predatory loan instruments. Reverse mortgage companies and lenders claiming to offer loans for desperately needed home repairs, door-knocked and canvassed our neighborhoods with the brazenness of a political candidate looking for votes, but these predators were looking for homes. These instruments ultimately led to the eviction of our elders, who had nowhere else to go. Children were abruptly uprooted in the middle of the school year. Families’ lives were uprooted with as little as ten days to vacate or risk their most intimate and precious moments being forcibly taken and placed in a metal garbage dumpster on the street’s curb. The negative impact of evictions on Detroiters include, but are not limited to, homelessness, education disruption, mental trauma, destabilization of communities, crime, joblessness, hopelessness, and the loss of generational wealth. 

In the 2000s, a steadily growing influx of marketeers and corporations began touting Detroit as a “blank slate” and a place of “opportunity rising,” failing to acknowledge the nexus of vacancy, blight, and cheap real estate to the forcible and steady displacement of its long-term residents. The lack of aggressive action from top “stakeholders” to stop the eviction machine spoke volumes. Whether it was lack of knowledge, indifference, or other reasons, we knew no one was coming to save us. If we were to have the kind of systemic change Detroiters needed and deserve, it would have to be initiated and fought for by the people. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately devastated Detroiters. “Sheltering in place” was one of the few strategies governments initially employed for protecting people from this airborne and deadly virus. Detroit housing justice advocates and organizers fought for and won historic moratoriums on evictions at the local, state, and federal levels. During this time, we demonstrated that stopping the eviction machine was possible, and yearly mass evictions did not have to be the inevitable by-product of just existing in Detroit. While some politicians pined to “get back to normal,” the acceptable “normal” for most Detroiters represented life under laws and policies that perpetuate racialized disparities in housing and disparities in political power. 

A Right To Counsel Is A Systemic Change

The landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, guaranteed a right to legal counsel for indigent persons facing criminal charges; if a person cannot afford legal counsel, then the defense will be provided, or paid for, by the state. In Gideon, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Before the Detroit Right to Counsel Ordinance, there was no equivalent for civil cases. Legal help was embarrassingly rare for Detroiters facing the loss and security of their home; the fortunate 4% with legal representation fared well, but the majority got displaced. The Right to Counsel Ordinance is a systemic solution that addresses the structural inequity of our adversarial legal system. It is a local “Civil Gideon,” providing publicly funded lawyers for indigent Detroiters facing eviction. One person’s case did not bring about our Right to Counsel. It was the outcry and demand from every corner of the city, and Detroiters of all ages and walks of life, who recognized it was time for a just change. 

Detroiters Raised Their Voice and Won A Right to Legal Representation 

The Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition grew with intentionality to over 20 member organizations and hundreds of supporters. Our movement is centered around the lived experience of those most impacted by the eviction crisis, especially black women. The coalition centers its analysis and advocacy around the lived experience of Detroiters who have been evicted, face eviction, and are vulnerable to the threat of eviction. The power of Detroiters’ voice, unfiltered through the lens of corporations, institutions, or political convenience, takes precedence. Detroiters called, emailed, attended meetings, and made public comments consistently to get our ordinance passed. We passed out literature, talked with neighbors, shared our stories, and documented our needs and priorities. 

Detroiters organized, fought for, and won powerful provisions in the Detroit Right to Counsel Ordinance. First, there is a robust legislative finding section to establish the problem-solving lens, which is not one that blames individuals. Instead, the ordinance names the eviction crisis before 2020, the tax foreclosure crisis, the majority of landlords who do not have certificates of compliance to rent their home, the strained capacity of court dockets, and points to the proven return on investment in the right to counsel. The ordinance covers all Detroiters facing eviction whose household income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Our most vulnerable community members have a right to full legal representation, not just a consultation, by an attorney. The ordinance arguably provides the broadest coverage in the nation because it covers all types of eviction cases for tenants and homeowners. The ordinance also provides legal representation for illegal lockouts, and some appeals are included. Knowledge is power. Thus, we fought for and won community outreach as an activity for funding. 

Change for October 1, 2022

As ever, structural problems require structural solutions. Thus, the Detroit Right to Counsel Ordinance mandates the formation of an Office of Eviction Defense, so there will be a permanent place and purpose in City government dedicated to this issue. The ordinance requires extensive data gathering and an annual public report and meeting that is easily accessible to all Detroit residents without language or disability barriers. Program reporting and evaluation must be inclusive and transparent. Further, the ordinance mandates that the Office’s annual budget be prepared based on court data, not politics, to ensure Detroiters’ needs are being met. The ordinance provides a start date of October 1, 2022, so resources can reach the community with a sense of urgency. 

The Detroit City Council voted unanimously on May 10, 2022, to approve the Detroit Right to Counsel Ordinance. The City Council also separately approved three resolutions directing funding to the Right to Counsel. First, the Detroit City Council, in its closing budget resolution, called for $6 million dollars in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for the next three years to fund our ordinance for a total of $18 million dollars. Second, the Council passed a companion resolution calling for full funding using ARPA funds to ensure every eligible Detroiter receives full legal representation. The third and final resolution calls for an additional $12 million dollars in ARPA funding. The burden and responsibility of releasing ARPA funds and executing the administrative components of the ordinance are upon Mayor Mike Duggan and his administration. Detroiters and the nation are watching. 


Detroiters rejected the status quo and pushed back against political hostility. We fought hard and achieved victory. The power of the people can and will change the tide and stop decades of institutional bias and equity against poor renters and homeowners in Detroit, starting with the Right to Counsel. 

The Detroit Right To Counsel Coalition thanks our member organizations: ACLU Michigan, Coalition for Property Tax Justice, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, Congress of Communities, Detroit Action, Warriors On Wheels, We The People Of Michigan, Detroit Eviction Defense, Detroit Justice Center, Detroit People’s Platform, Joy Southfield CDC, Lakeshore Legal Aid, Michigan Legal Services, Michigan United, MACC Development, Moratorium NOW, MOSES, National Lawyers Guild, Revive Detroit CDC, Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, United Community Housing Coalition, and Wisdom Institute. We commend Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield and all members of the Detroit City Council, and all brave and bold Detroit residents, supporters, and allies who raised their voices for change.