Ernest Bell took the megaphone to plead for help in his fight against eviction before he entered the courthouse. His landlord has moved other people into his house and made him do repairs, he said, without deducting rent.
“I’m just trying to make it,” Bell said. “I have two kids and I have a special needs student that I just started taking care of at my home.”
Bell and around 75 community members descended on the 14B District Court in Ypsilanti Township to protest the 49 eviction hearings at the courthouse Wednesday afternoon. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer placed a moratorium on evictions due to the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that executive order expired July 15.
The Washtenaw General Defense Committee, which organized the protest, called the evictions “a testament to the failures of for-profit housing” in a press release. The release also took aim at the local and state governments and the “lack of rental assistance supposedly available for tenants.”
Protesters marched back and forth near the entrance of the courthouse, shouting chants like “No pay, no rent, no evictions in a pandemic.” Tenants approaching the building throughout the afternoon to attend their hearings were greeted with offers of legal assistance and collective action networks to join.
John Paton, one of the tenants with a hearing Wednesday, said the protest was important because landlords typically have more rights than tenants in the eviction process, as well as a financial leg up.
“Landlords are usually of a different class,” Paton said. “They have more money for attorneys and tenants who are already in eviction court are obviously struggling with money, so it’s not an equal footing and it’s not fair when it goes to the court system either.”
Though Paton works six days a week and saves as much as he can, he’s been evicted despite on-time rent payments because his landlord wanted to renovate. He said having an eviction on a permanent record can begin a negative spiral that leads to housing insecurity for years to come.
“How do I get a rental history if nobody will rent to me?” Paton said. “It puts you in a catch-22, and it causes some people just to be stuck at the bottom, so if they had that first issue it can just keep rippling out in the community.”
Paton said he’s surprised to see people become “contentious” with one another over rent during the pandemic. He and his partner are being evicted by a close family member, but he said the protesters outside the courthouse lifted his spirits coming in and out of the hearing.
“It’s one of those things where you feel like you’re in it alone even though you know a lot of people are going through it,” Paton said. “When you actually see people out here trying to do something about it, force a policy change, it’s really uplifting.”
Ann Arbor resident Tony Scott, who has been homeless for more than 30 years, commented on the timing of the evictions.
“The pandemic is still going on,” Scott said. “People are still getting sick and losing their jobs. Restaurants are still closed, a lot of places are still closed and we’re not in full swing.”
Scott said he appreciates the aid organizers provided tenants Wednesday, as he doesn’t want to see any more people on the streets not knowing where their next shower or bed will be.
“I know what it’s like to not have no one stand up with you,” Scott said. “I know what it’s like to be caught up in the homelessness and not have people help direct you (to resources).”
He said the pandemic has made being homeless even more difficult than it was before.
“You can’t go to the shelter because the health department’s got it shut to where you can only go there for dire needs and then you’re back on the streets,” Scott said. “If you’re sick or getting sick, you’re back with the people to get sicker or spread it.”
Scott wore a mask displaying an upside down American flag to the protest, which he said means “country in distress.”
“We need America to care for America again,” Scott said.
Ann Arbor resident Alex Bradley works as a bartender, and the rapidly shifting regulations on bars and restaurants have put his income in serious question during the pandemic. Though Bradley’s been able to pay his rent on time through the expanded unemployment benefits, he said everyone in the economy has been affected by the work stoppages.
“Especially during the pandemic, the line in the sand has to be drawn somewhere,” Bradley said. “It seems pretty inhuman for us not to come up with some sort of solution.”
While Bradley would like to see elected officials in legislative bodies take action to prevent evictions, he thinks the protest could also affect the judges in the courthouse hearing eviction cases Wednesday.
“Judges are regular people as well,” Bradley said. “We are still social creatures and you look out and you see a response, you’ve gotta have that weigh upon you in some way.”
Nick Roumel, a candidate for Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge, has represented tenants for decades — including University of Michigan students at Student Legal Services. Roumel did not campaign at the protest, but came to show solidarity with the communities he’s worked closely with over the years.
“It just seems like no matter what happens in this country, in this community, it hits the most vulnerable people the hardest,” Roumel said. “That’s what ultimately brought me out here today is those people don’t have a voice. I’m trying to stick up for them.”
Joe Johnson, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University, considered the ramifications for student tenants in Ann Arbor if they are encouraged to return home as they were in March.
“It’s going to be a mad scramble for those students to try to work with lawyers and other legal help, the tenants union, to try to get out of their leases,” Johnson. “I imagine that if things are just going by the status quo, they won’t be able to and they’ll just be in the hole for that.”
WGDC organizer Max Benson said while Wednesday’s protest focused on the potential of a looming eviction crisis, tenants need greater access to resources even in normal times. He pointed to a friend whose heating was broken for a full week as deadly frozen temperatures hit the area during the January 2019 polar vortex.
“This is just way more than just evictions,” Benson said. “It’s a tenants’ issue. We need a huge spike in tenant organizing and housing justice, because 70 percent of Ypsilanti are renters.”
Bradley said the evictions will change the community around him — the community he lives in — whether he’s directly affected or not.
“This is a wave and I’m in the ocean,” Bradley said. “I’m gonna move. It’s gonna move me in some way. I’ve gotta put my foot down somewhere.”
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.