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On Aug. 15, GEO members and community allies stood before City Council and called on them to pass the Right to Renew ordinance. Right to Renew is a critical protection for renters that would obligate landlords to offer them the renewal of their lease, or pay them two months’ rent to cover their moving expenses. We’ve written elsewhere about why this protection is so desperately needed in Ann Arbor. Without a Right to Renew, landlords are free to kick tenants out of their homes on a whim. With the threat of eviction by non-renewal hanging over our heads, renters are afraid to make reasonable asks of landlords for much-needed repairs. If we do so, we risk being seen as troublesome tenants and losing our apartments. 

What’s more, the no-cause eviction status quo allows landlords to throw people out of their apartments for discriminatory reasons that would otherwise be illegal, such as qualifying for Section 8 housing support or having a criminal record. Right to Renew would do wonders to correct the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. That’s why it’s been endorsed by the American Bar and Association and why we’ve been calling for it for over a year. Yet, at that Aug. 15 City Council meeting, the council once again failed to make meaningful progress toward passing Right to Renew. In the meantime, another leasing cycle has started, meaning renters will have to go another year without the rights they deserve. Another year of evictions. Another year of fear. 

It didn’t have to be this way. 

The failure to pass Right to Renew in time for the new leasing cycle is part of an alarming pattern of disregard and disengagement by City Council when it comes to issues affecting tenants — who, we should note, make up a majority of Ann Arbor’s residents. From their lax enforcement of the amended Early Leasing Ordinance to their failure to pass Right to Renew in time to protect renters this academic year, City Council has been missing in action when it comes to renters’ issues.

Instead of taking the initiative to protect their constituents from the well-documented abuses by predatory landlords, the council places the burden of this work on local activists. Perhaps things would be different if the homeowners who sit on the council were themselves facing the threats of eviction, retaliation, harassment and bullying that are all too common for Ann Arbor renters. These politicians need a reality check. It’s time for City Council to do the work they’re paid to do and treat renters’ rights with the urgency that the crisis demands.

Last year, when the Early Leasing Ordinance was amended to give tenants more time to make decisions about renewal, GEO was inundated with emails from hundreds of desperate tenants whose landlords were violating the law. It was up to us — unpaid activists with full-time jobs —to help them file reports with the city about these violations. We identified problems with the reporting system and submitted dozens of clear-cut violations to the City Clerk’s Office. We called on City Council to get serious about enforcing the law. Yet, despite all our efforts, not a single landlord has been fined for violating the Early Leasing Ordinance. They could have instructed the city attorney to enforce the ordinance. They could have made the reporting system easier for renters. They could have done something. Instead, they did nothing. The council was missing in action.

The loopholes in the Early Leasing Ordinance made it clear that further action was needed. That’s why, late last year, we began to work on Right to Renew. This issue had been on the council’s radar at least since summer 2021, when it was included in an early draft of the Early Leasing Ordinance that ultimately didn’t become law. This early version of Right to Renew (then called “Just Cause Eviction”) was deemed legally indefensible under Michigan law and taken out of the ordinance that eventually passed. To make Right to Renew a reality, City Council could have started researching other jurisdictions with legally defensible versions of this law. They could have met with tenants’ rights lawyers to draft a new ordinance. They could have begun consulting with stakeholders about potential issues with enforcement. Instead, they did nothing. It was left up to local activists and renters to do this work. City Council was missing in action. 

After months of research and meetings with lawyers and tenants, our coalition of local renters finally had a draft of a Right to Renew ordinance that we were confident would pass legal muster in Michigan. In March 2022, we sent it to the city attorney’s office so that they could draft a legal briefing for the council — a critical step that needs to happen before the council will discuss a new ordinance. Despite repeated proddings, it was only in August that the city lawyer provided an evaluation of our proposal. There is no reason why it had to take this long. When we asked State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, for legal analysis, his office sent a research memo in a matter of days. That is what responsive government looks like. By comparison, a majority of Ann Arbor councilmembers didn’t even respond to emails requesting meetings with them to discuss the ordinance. City Council has the power to direct their attorney to work on this critical and time-sensitive issue. If tenants’ rights were a priority for them, they would have done so. City Council was missing in action.

By the middle of the summer, it was becoming increasingly likely that Right to Renew would not be passed in time for the new leasing cycle. When we began to push harder for the council to bring the ordinance to a first reading, we were told that we’d have to wait for the Renters’ Commission to discuss and vote on the ordinance first. We strongly supported the move by Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, to create the Renters’ Commission earlier in the year. This is an important step in the right direction for the city. The question remains, however, as to why the commission — which received its first appointments all the way back in February — did not start meeting until July. We have received no satisfying answer as to the reason for this delay from any member of the council. The failure of the Renters’ Commission to convene promptly after its formation meant that it was possible to pass Right to Renew in time for the new leasing cycle. It didn’t have to be this way. If the Renters’ Commission had even first met in April, there would have been plenty of time to review our proposal in time to protect renters for the coming year. If the council had been serious about prioritizing renters, they would have moved more quickly on getting the Commission up and running. Instead, they ran out the clock. City Council was missing in action. 

At the time of writing, we have zero indication of when the council will finally pass Right to Renew. Although we feel confident that the ordinance will eventually become law, it’s clear that it is already too late for most tenants to be protected this academic year, as the ordinance cannot cover leases that have already started. Because of the council’s consistent failure to take the initiative on this issue, some of these tenants will lose their homes. It’s also clear that without our persistent work, City Council would have made no progress at all on Right to Renew, and that further community pressure is needed to get this legislation passed in time to protect renters whose leases haven’t yet started. 

Support for Right to Renew has been overwhelming among local labor unions, activist groups, student organizations and Ann Arbor residents. The council doesn’t seem to care. Their inaction on these critical issues represents nothing less than a near-total abdication of responsibility toward their most vulnerable constituents. Their refusal to act means that our only option is to come together as renters and stand up for ourselves. The wins we’ve had so far show that if every renter does their part, we can secure the rights we deserve.

You don’t have to be a GEO member to work with us! There are plenty of ways to get involved if you, like us, think renters deserve basic protections from their landlords. Take a stand against abusive landlords! Join us for a Tenants Assembly at 7pm, Sept 20 on Zoom. Click here to register, all renters welcome! We encourage you to contact your city councilmembers and comment on this legislation at City Council meetings. Email housingchair@geo3550.org to learn more.