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'They don't want us here.' Detroit tenants unite to fight rising rent costs

Posted at 6:51 AM, Aug 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-04 07:06:50-04

DETROIT, MI (WYXZ) — A group of people living in two Detroit apartment complexes are unionizing to help fight rising rent costs.

The properties are New Center Plaza and the Marlenor, both located on Seward Street near downtown.

Tenants have butted heads with the management and owner of the property over the past few years and are hoping to find strength in numbers.

Their leader, Steve Rimmer, says the tenants straight-up want to buy the building. This would likely happen through a Wealth Community Fund.

In the past, the Detroit Community Wealth Fund has stepped up for small business owners by providing non-extractive financing for start-ups, existing businesses, and for ownership transitions.

They also run ongoing workshops, and opportunities for co-ops to build community with one another.

"When we are talking about tenants purchasing a building what we are not talking about is tenants suddenly becoming an owner that can capitalize off that property. The goal is to have the property be affordable long term," said Margo Delal, Executive Director, Detroit Community Wealth Fund.

Delal says she is not working with the Seward Tenant Association currently.

"There are many cases where an apartment complex is owned by tenants and what that looks like in terms of management and governance is the tenants electing a board. There's a democratic process," Delal said. "That board is going to figure out who manages the property and who's going to make sure people get their payments in on time."

Delal says its a huge undertaking that takes time and organization, but the tenants at New Center Plaza and the Marlenor are up for the challenge.

"A lot of people are just scared to stand up for themselves," Rimmer said.

Over the past two years, Rimmer says he and other tenants believe the upkeep on New Center Plaza and the Marlenor has been poor.

Rent rates have unfairly risen, they say. And the management is trying to push long-time tenants out.

As a result, Rimmer created a tenants association hoping to shift the power dynamic between tenants and their landlord.

"I feel like they are trying to do everything they can, the property owner and management, to make us uncomfortable here because they don't want us here," Rimmer said.

In 2021, Rimmer sent a notice of requests to owner Raymond Debates on behalf of the Tenant Association. There they addressed ongoing maintenance issues and requested tenants be reimbursed for rent hikes during a 9-month period when the building's elevator was down.

"Now the property owner and the management company are refusing to withhold or fulfill this agreement," he said.

Continental Management oversees the properties and say the notice of requests does not promise anything. Instead, it is simply an acknowledgment of the association's wishes.

"Inflation is killing everybody right now so you have to continue to raise rents on a regular basis, otherwise you wither and die. It is that simple," Continental Management's Vice President Robert Carson said.

Alexa Eisenberg, a research fellow for Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan and the developer of EvictionMachine.org says most low-and fixed-income tenants are forced to rely on for-profit rental markets for affordable housing.

On top of that, she says Michigan landlord-tenant laws lack protections giving broad leverage to landlords for evicting tenants.

"Working collectively. This is what's necessary to sort of transform. To provide the right to housing, fair and equal right to housing, for people that aren't property owners," Eisenberg said.

VP Carson says he is not against the tenants grouping together.

"Tenants Associations are a wonderful thing when they are used positively and constructively to get feedback from residents about how we are doing on customer service," he said.

15-year tenant Lewis Bass says he fears without bargaining power, he may be forced to leave.

"For a person like myself, or someone who makes less than $30,000 a year, affordable is out of reach," he said.

To be clear neither property is deemed "affordable housing."