A young woman sitting on a worn wooden bench in 36th District Court clutched a white plastic grocery bag.
Inside, the antennas still twitched on the cockroaches she had captured in glue traps that morning. She hoped to show them to a judge and tell her about the mold covering her son’s bedroom wall as reasons why she hadn’t paid rent.
A few rows over, another woman held a stack of photos: mice droppings coating the top of her refrigerator. She packed away all her food in the freezer because it was the only place the rodents hadn’t tunneled through. One had jumped on her teenage daughter from a baker’s rack. Her 10-year-old son had bludgeoned another with an ice scraper.
Her landlord paid for poison, but the tenant said it was eaten in only a few days and the mice returned.
“People want you to pay rent and to live in their house, but they don’t want to fix it,” said Miesha Reed, 32, who faced eviction when she stopped paying $500 a month in rent because of the mice. “They are charging way more than the house is worth.”
When landlords file an eviction case, they sign court paperwork attesting that their rental is “fit for use” and “kept in reasonable repair.” That’s what judges use as a standard when they hear complaints from renters about poor conditions.
“A lot of the renters think there are only two options — move or pay the rent,” said Joon Sung, litigation director of Lakeshore Legal Aid, a nonprofit that represents tenants. “There is also a third option: have the landlord fix these things and have the rent abated.”
If a tenant argues the rental is run down, the judge can hear testimony in a trial-like hearing, then use his or her discretion on whether rent should be abated and by how much. Sometimes the judge orders the tenant’s rent held in escrow until the landlord makes repairs.
The handful of attorneys who work for nonprofits that defend renters for free work out of office space provided by the court on the fourth floor.
But the majority of renters are on their own.
“These are people with low incomes and they have no representation,” said Charles Hobbs, a staff attorney for the Detroit nonprofit Street Democracy, which advocates for renters.
“They essentially have no voice. It’s overwhelming. It’s like hitting a brick wall, especially when the landlords are represented by an attorney and are threatening them with being homeless.”
Reed, with the mouse problem, opted to fight, presenting the photos in court to Judge B. Pennie Millender, the chief landlord tenant judge, who called it one of the worst infestations she’d seen. The judge discounted Reed one month’s rent and ordered the return of her $750 security deposit. She moved soon after.
But Chanell Flemming, 28, who also faced eviction in front of Millender, told the judge she wanted to move rather than have a hearing to prove repair problems: a bullet hole in her bedroom window, a broken front door and a steady stream of water that flowed from her laundry tub in the basement.
It had run so long it created a milky yellow sediment running toward a floor drain, she later showed The Detroit News. The moldy smell from the basement was noticeable from her kitchen.
Millender gave her three weeks to move. In the official court record, it shows Flemming owed the landlord $1,275 — half of September’s $700 rent, October’s rent and court fees.
Two weeks later as Flemming prepped to move without a new place, she regretted not making her case in front of the judge. She also worried that the debt, which is often included on credit reports, would discourage new landlords from renting to her.
“We need a system where we are not living this way,” said Flemming, a single mom with a young daughter who has faced eviction before.
“I don’t want to fall in the same situation. When I was looking before, I was homeless.
“I don’t want to have to start over again. It just makes me feel like I was going in a circle.”