In Washtenaw County, mutual aid projects are providing housing and tenant rights support for renters as the end of the eviction moratorium looms
By Katie Prout
Washtenaw County, in southeast Michigan, holds two of four state universities and a not insignificant portion of Michigan’s wealth. Located forty-five minutes or so west of downtown Detroit, it includes both rural and urban areas, and the county seat, Ann Abor, is home to the flagship campus of the University of Michigan (U-M). Historically, visitors on any autumn weekend could see multigenerational tailgates and exuberant U-M students playing beer pong while a porch TV blared the Wolverines. This COVID autumn, people gathered in front of homes in Ann Arbor and neighboring Ypsilanti to shout, cheer, and protest for a different kind of defense: keeping tenants facing court-ordered eviction safe in their rented homes.
Ypsilanti is a diverse, working-class community where approximately seventy percent of residents are renters. “Outsiders are increasingly referring to Ypsi as ‘East Ann Arbor,’ as it’s in the middle of gentrifying,” Amber Fellows, an organizer with Defend Affordable Ypsi (DAY) wrote to me in an email. DAY was born in 2017, in response to the rising rent, displacement, and gentrification experienced by longtime residents. On New Year’s Day, 2020, the group began the year by outlining and committing to a Tenant Protections petition calling for, among other things, rent increases to be capped at three percent annually, and for rental property owners to be barred from refusing to renew a tenant’s lease without meeting “Just Cause” requirements.
Fellows knows firsthand how unstable and tenuous housing in the county is. “Personally, I’ve been displaced three times” while renting in Ypsilanti, she said, most recently this year, when Fellows and her roommate asked their landlord of four years to consider allowing them to go month to month when their lease terms expired on October 31. Fellows is in the process of purchasing her first home, and—knowing that the previous tenants had worked out a similar agreement with this landlord—wanted to remain in stable shelter until her purchase was finalized, rather than seek out temporary housing during the winter. Perhaps she was also counting on four years of prompt rent payment and quiet, stable living to vouch for herself and her roommate as tenants.
Their landlord refused, Fellows said. So Fellows and her roommate, like so many people across the country, were abruptly uprooted in late autumn, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, and amid a moratorium on evictions. “I earn a higher income than the average in Ypsi, I work in affordable housing, and I know landlord/tenant rules,” Fellows said, “and I couldn’t stop it.” She told me she feels lucky that she and her roommate were able to find temporary shelter with friends. She also said she was able to get their whole security deposit back, after numerous emails with her landlord in which she pointed out that his attempt to keep it was illegal.
The coronavirus pandemic has layered on top of already-existing structural problems when it comes to economic and housing inequality in Michigan (and elsewhere). In light of this ongoing housing crisis, activist groups like DAY have organized to support renters and try to keep as many people as possible housed. “Most people call me to ask for help and advice to negotiate with their landlord or find EDP [Eviction Diversion Program funds], and I do try to help and am sometimes successful,” Fellows said. But “I think that it’s emblematic of how terrible things are that I couldn’t keep my housing, either.”
Shortly after the pandemic began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), instituted an eviction moratorium on (some) evictions. The order, which was set to expire December 31, has been extended by Congress for exactly one month, to January 31. In Michigan, an additional layer of eviction protection, the Eviction Diversion Program, ends December 30. But the extension merely delays the inevitable. Come February 1, renters in Michigan and across the country face a potential tsunami of Notices to Quit—the formal notice that a landlord is required to give a tenant before they initiate the eviction process—putting some thirty or forty million people in the U.S. at risk for potential mid-winter houselessness.
Pre-pandemic numbers paint a portrait of a wave already here. According to the Michigan Eviction Project (MEP), in 2018, one eviction case was filed for every six rental housing units in the state. During that same year, one was filed for every nine in Washtenaw County (for a regional comparison: Washtenaw’s rate was three times the rate in Chicago). While lower than the state average, this rate belies circumstances that are simultaneously unique to the county and indicative of housing patterns throughout the rest of the Lower Peninsula, where, for decades, housing was deliberately segregated along economic and racial lines.
The overwhelming majority of Washtenaw County eviction cases in the MEP sample—ninety-two percent—were filed for nonpayment of rent. These cases, much like the county’s wealth, are distributed unevenly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Ann Arbor, the largest in the county and home to U-M, had a medium income of $63,956 from 2014-2018. In 2018, that city’s eviction filing rate per one hundred rental households was 2.2 percent. Ypsilanti, eight miles to the southeast, is the county’s second largest city and home to Eastern Michigan University (EMU). There, the median income was $36,982, with an eviction filing rate of more than twenty percent. (Not incidentally, in 2018, there was a nine-year difference in life expectancy between Ann Arbor’s 48104 ZIP Code and Ypsilanti’s 48198.)
Eviction filings, regardless of whether they result in an actual eviction, are a matter of public record, one a nervous new landlord can see when determining whether or not to rent to a new tenant. Not every eviction case filed by a landlord turns into an eviction, but housing organizers and researchers find tracking filing rates useful in understanding the insecurity tenants are facing—and, in some ways, perhaps more accurate in determining who actually ends up leaving their home. “The actual number of evictions filed gives us a better estimate of just how many people have been forced to flee,” said Anya, an organizer with the Ann Arbor Tenant Union (Anya asked that her last name be withheld for fear of reprisal from landlord or employer). “We know this happens. You get those terrifying first notices and you’re like, OK, I guess I have to quit. I guess I have to move.”
Move: into a new place, into a home already crowded with friends or family, into a shelter, onto the street or one of the many wooded areas of the county, perhaps sheltering in a sleeping bag or tent, or perhaps—if you’re lucky—crashing temporarily in a motel. It’s been an “absolutely horrific and indescribable,” time to be a renter in Washtenaw county, Fellows told me. “Most of my peers and comrades…suffer frequent moves, overcrowding, and [are] being pushed into further unstable conditions.”
In late April, Washtenaw Camp Outreach (WCO), a mutual aid group focused on shelter, sprung into effect. WCO provides things like sleeping bags and tents, and, for a while, supported fifty or so people living in an Ann Arbor-area Red Roof Inn, which had temporarily re-opened so houseless people in the area could access safe and stable housing. (You can contact WCO at 734-238-3639, or via email: email@example.com.)
Later, in what WCO organizer Lindsay Calka called “a multi-party disaster, where no one was taking responsibility,” the inn closed and WCO and partner groups called an eviction. Residents of the inn were forced to leave their private, stable, single rooms by early November. A “collage of different facilities” were tapped to house the former inn residents in shifts. None accepted residents twenty-four hours a day, meaning that there are hours in the early morning which former hotel residents have to spend outside with their belongings, or travelling between shelters.
“[T]here’s a great network of aid in Ann Arbor, and in Washtenaw County in general,” said WCO’s Calka—so much so that the county appears to “rely upon donation and resources that are not part of [their] budget” to shore up crisis funding for housing and other issues. Calka pointed back to the county’s response to the Red Roof Inn’s closing; its proposed solution relied on the availability of nonprofit congregate shelters and area churches to open their doors. (Jason Morgan, chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, pushed back on the notion that the county “relies” on mutual aid groups. “Washtenaw County directly partners with our housing and human service nonprofits, directing all of our local and federal resources to provide short-term and long-term shelter for county residents,” he said.)
Earlier this year, The Ann Arbor Tenant Union (AATU) formed to support renters organizing for leverage across Washtenaw County. “[Washtenaw County is] a beautiful place,” said Anya, the organizer. “Sometimes we go to canvass in apartment complexes with intense, life-endangering poverty, and I just gasp at the natural beauty all around—rolling meadows, big open skies. And then [there’s] this crumbling apartment complex with gun violence, lots of health issues, child PTSD, and extreme neglect by landlords and the city.”
One example Anya cited was the Sycamore Meadows complex in Superior Township, north of Ypsilanti. Earlier this year, AATU was invited by Sycamore Meadows residents to help create a new tenant association—Tenants & Families United—independent of an existing tenant group, created in 2018 and officially supported by the county, which some tenants felt did not represent their interests. One organizer, HH Gonzales, grew up in the complex. This summer, with the support of some complex residents and the AATU, Gonzales laid the foundation for “a movement to demand improvements, to do something more than the kind of city-led tenant association was able to do,” Anya said.
In August, Gonzales was arrested on an alleged parole violation, which some organizers say was retaliation for his organizing work and directly connected to a a trespassing ticket Gonzales was issued at the alleged behest of Sycamore Meadows management. After Gonzalez’s arrest, Tenants & Families United stalled. “I think people really truly got freaked out when HH went to jail,” Anya said.
But AATU’s work continued. Since the pandemic’s start, more than seventy-five individuals have contacted AATU via the group’s intake form, Facebook page, phone number (440-482-1968), or email (firstname.lastname@example.org), looking for information and support on issues ranging from lease breaks and insect infestations to eviction court cases. In addition to supporting those contacts, Anya said AATU worked to organize other tenant associations at large mixed- or low-income housing complexes across Washtenaw County.
This week, Congress renewed the eviction moratorium (for thirty days, until January 31) during its second pandemic emergency bill, more than nine months into the crisis. The extension prevents evictions for nonpayment of rent—as long as renters meet certain criteria—and adds an additional $25 billion in rent relief. (The previous CARES Act also made funds available to cover up to ninety percent of rent owed.) But the moratorium doesn’t prevent landlords from initiating proceedings ahead of time, and courts aren’t required to inform tenants facing filings that it might apply to them. And an overburdened state workforce and a Kafka-esque application process that can only be initiated with a landlord’s agreement mean weeks of backlogged applications while rent continues to accumulate.
So, in an attempt to alert tenants of their options and rights, the AATU has distributed flyers sharing information about pandemic evictions, EDP, and the CDC moratorium to more than six thousand households at risk of eviction in Washtenaw County. “With Washtenaw General Defense Committee, we protested pandemic evictions at 14B District Court. We have pressured officials and landlords with phone zaps, email campaigns, and media events,” the AATU update wrote. The goal is to improve tenant conditions, stop eviction proceedings, and, ultimately, keep as many people housed as possible, for as long as possible, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than twelve thousand people in the state.
Meanwhile, in Washtenaw County as everywhere in Michigan, temperatures continue to drop, rates of coronavirus continue to rise, and the clock on eviction moratoriums ticks down.
If 2020 has been a crucible of stress and loss, it’s also demonstrated the potential power of ordinary tenants, neighbors, and activists operating largely outside of traditional nonprofit and city-appointed structures. “A particular strength of our organizing is coalition work: No Rent MI, Autonomous Tenant Union Network, Huron Valley DSA, Washtenaw Camp Outreach, and Washtenaw General Defense Committee have been our collaborators,” wrote AATU in its December update. “We learned so much from them.” WCO plans to continue to push U-M to provide stable emergency housing in Washtenaw County—and, eventually, for a community land trust, supported by multiple county stakeholders but intended for the people.
Washtenaw may be known for its major institutions, but there’s a long history here of people organizing collective power and offering forms of mutual aid. “Less widely known [are] Ypsi’s indigenous roots and ties to the Underground Railroad and early and mid-century factory labor organizing,” Fellows wrote in an email. “Ypsi [also] has one of the last long-standing Black neighborhoods in the state, and although that neighborhood remains majority Black, it’s changed steadily in the last twenty years.”
Housing advocacy in Michigan can often feel like a steep uphill battle, and the wins can be few and far between. Looking ahead to 2021, Anya—of AATU—aadmits the picture on the ground feels grim. The end of the CDC moratorium, EDP’s slow and limited dispersal of emergency funds, organizational burnout, and a general mistrust of local government officials to “do the right thing” all contribute to that feeling. But they remain motivated, she said, by a spirit of mutual support and a vision of collective power that can change the underlying structural forces maintaining inequality.
“Even when we can’t do anything for a person—their case is lost, they’re going to be evicted, they have nowhere to go, we don’t know where, and we can’t find a place for them to go—even then, people will tell us things like ‘Thank you for believing my story, and thank you for being on by my side,’… Just the fact that there’s this activist army that believes you and hears you out and pops up for moral support, for a phone call, for research to address your problem—it just means a lot to people,” she said.
“Those kinds of things, I think, plant seeds.” ■
Katie Prout is a freelance writer in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Longreads, LitHub, and elsewhere.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.