Latasha Tucker sat at her dining room table, exhausted from her eviction hearing and feeling stuck.
Below her, sewage and sludge was backing up in the basement, as it had done daily for almost five months. She was desperate to get her two sons out.
But she had no place to go, having run into a series of dead ends while trying to find a new rental. She called the city for help almost three months earlier. An inspector came out in November, as did his supervisor in December, issued an emergency repair order for the back up and wasn’t heard from again.
Since the Detroit landlord refused to fix the sewage backups in the basement, Richard Johnson Jr. helped tenant Latasha Tucker suck out a mix of sewage and black sludge three times a week.
And now she had nine days. That’s what a judge gave her to find a nonprofit lawyer before she’d be due back in court to face eviction from a house she knew wasn’t livable, according to the city’s own standards.
“I had promised my kids I would move in for Christmas (to a new home),” Tucker said in February. “They didn’t even want to come home. ... I live for my children. It’s hard. I am just lost.”
Tucker’s sons, Kei’Sean, 9, and Richard III, 5, both have asthma and Tucker believed the basement backups and other problems with the rentals, including mice and windows that wouldn’t completely close, were making them sick, causing such problems as stomach aches, coughs and headaches. She’d have them stay at her mom’s house when she could.
She showed a video of one of the rentals she had toured in hopes of escaping.
“I dream about this house,” Tucker said, playing the video on her cellphone. “See those built-ins.”
But that landlord wanted $700 for the first month’s rent and a $1,000 security deposit. It was out of reach for Tucker, a single mom, on disability for several health problems including a heart condition.
Data show Metro Detroit has lost an alarming amount of low-income housing. Wayne County, for example, had the second largest drop among the nation’s 100 largest counties in affordable rentals for extremely low-income families, dropping to about 40,453 units from about 53,509 in 2000, according to a 2017 Urban Institute report.
Tucker had lived in the rental for about a year when the basement backups started, mainly when it rained. Her landlord, Tanisha Hines, was a friend from whom she had rented before. After the first rental she lived in flooded, Hines offered to move her to another house she owned down the street in the 11000 block of Ward.
The backups in the second house became more intense last summer. Hines had the drain snaked two or three times, after Detroit water department officials declared it wasn’t a city problem. Tucker said Hines refused to have anything else done to fix the problem. That’s when she and her son’s father began using a sump pump and a hose to clean out the basement.
Tucker said she was forced to wash clothes by hand in the tub when the backups ruined the washer and dryer.
Hines blamed Tucker for the backups, saying she had never had similar problems in her other rentals, and that Tucker never told her how bad the flooding had gotten.
Tucker stopped paying rent in November. Hines said that she was trying to help Tucker by not filing an eviction case until February.
Through a neighbor, Tucker found another rental in November and put $900 down, which covered the first month’s rent and a security deposit. Her son’s father did some work on the home, including plastering and some painting, to lower the price.
But when it came time to move in, they found that DTE had a hold on the electrical service because of a debt from the previous tenants. Tucker wouldn’t be able to move in until that was paid.
Tucker said the landlord told them that it wasn’t his fault and he was going to keep their money for his trouble.
“It’s a Greek tragedy,” said Richard Johnson Jr., the father of Tucker’s youngest son. “We are ready to move, prior to the eviction; now all of the sudden this guy takes our money and he doesn’t want to give our money back. Now all of a sudden we are being evicted.”
Tucker found a lawyer through Lakeshore Legal Services to delay the eviction until she found a new place in March with the help from another nonprofit, United Community Housing Coalition.
Each boy now has his own room.
“My kids haven’t been sick over here,” Tucker said. “We can breathe.
“Over there, there was always a smell. Now we can breathe.”