On Tuesday, January 10, about 70 people gathered at the International Laborers Union hall to announce the formation of the Detroit Tenants Association (DTA), a newly formed citywide tenants union. Speakers at the event included housing justice activists, lawyers, and tenants who have formed their own association in the buildings that they live in.
The basis for the new tenants union is the organizing of two separate tenants associations, the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor and the Sherwood Heights Tenants Association. Leaders of both organizations spoke and shared their experiences organizing other tenants and about the power of collective action. The Detroit Tenants Association began in the Spring of 2022 out of a collective struggle by renters to share information and resources and resist abusive landlords. DTA has shown solidarity with other housing struggles across the city including eviction defense and housing policy changes.
Deborah Patrick, founding member of the Sherwood Heights Tenants Association, spoke on the origins of the association. What began as two neighbors complaining with one another about issues that they had with their apartments turned into a tenants association that recruited 75 members within a few months. A dedicated core of ten members carry out the association’s activities.
Steven Rimmer, founding member of the Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor, spoke about efforts to stop the illegal eviction of a long-time neighbor and removal of her belongings while she was in the hospital. He prevented the eviction using a legal technicality, but pointed out how the landlord used a verbal agreement with the tenant (a common tactic) to convince them to work off past due rent by cleaning the building’s hallways, common areas and elevators, then reneged on the agreement and attempted to illegally evict them anyway. Steven said that one of the things that motivated him to organize is that he didn’t feel like he could trust his landlord to do right by him and his neighbors.
While the DTA is new and still in the initial stage of development, they have some goals that they seek to immediately address, like working to repeal the statewide ban on rent control and the immediate launching of a petition campaign to give tenants a legal right to renew their lease. In Detroit, landlords can effectively retaliate against tenants by refusing to renew the lease. The law in Michigan currently does not require landlords to give a reason for refusing renewal.
The forming of the DTA follows a pattern of new tenant organizations springing up across the country amidst a national housing crisis as renters face multiple threats to housing stability. The organization adds to the momentum of housing justice activism and organizing that has been escalating in Detroit, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. Detroiters secured the passage of a right-to-counsel ordinance for low-income renters and homeowners in 2022. However, the fact that the City of Detroit has delayed and massively underfunded this new law, despite promising otherwise, greatly undermines the implementation of this newfound right. It also underscores the need for tenants to organize themselves independently of the Democratic Party, who controls city government in Detroit. Only by exerting their power directly and collectively will they be able to win any of their demands in a meaningful way.