Detroit tenants organize to take on big landlords and property management companies
Joseph Bierlein / People's World

DETROIT—Detroit today is a city mostly made up of renters. According to 2020 census data, 53% of residents are now rent-paying tenants. Sometime before 2015, Detroit transitioned from a majority homeowner city to a majority renter city. This transition can, in large part, be attributed to a large-scale corporate takeover of homes, apartment buildings, and public housing.

This change has not been a peaceful one. Just outside downtown, longtime residents in the New Center area (largely working-class residents of color) have been subject to an extended process of displacement in favor of young, white, higher-paid professionals. This process has taken many forms, including legal and illegal attacks on residents. Detroiters, however, are fighting back.

The recently formed Tenants Association of New Center Plaza and Marlenor (TANCPM) has taken up the struggle against large-scale landlords and property managers. Members of their association spoke with People’s World about their struggle.

TANCPM is in a battle with Raymond DeBates, the owner of the New Center Plaza and Marlenor buildings and an attorney whose firm specializes in real estate law. Management has changed twice over the last two years. In 2021, both buildings were administered by Golden Management, but recently a company named Continental Management took over operations.

Prior to forming the tenants’ association, residents addressed maintenance issues by filing complaints with the Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED), which later issued a correctional order for multiple violations. Nonetheless, maintenance issues continued to go unresolved. In response, residents joined together to form TANCPM.

Lewis Bass, a New Center Plaza resident and founding member of the TANCPM, explained why tenants formed the association, saying, “I’ve had people coming to me for years, complaining about management, [saying], ‘We need to do something.’ We need to do something. If I go in there alone, you’ll be looking at my apartment being gutted and renovated. If I go in there to present your concerns, we have to go as a group.”

TANCPM held its first meeting in 2021 to discuss the installation of Project Green Light cameras (Detroit facial recognition surveillance), inaccessible housing due to a broken elevator, and racist rent hikes that targeted Black residents and TANCPM organizers. After coming together, the members of the association delivered a Notice of Requests, once again informing management of the unacceptable living conditions at both buildings.

Eventually, DeBates and management began working on some maintenance issues, albeit slowly. However, at the same time, residents reported harassment from both parties, citing verbal abuse, banging at their doors, and the vandalization of TANCPM flyers. DeBates also demanded to know who informed local news of the tenants’ issues and that tenants cease their attempts to secure reasonable rent and quality living conditions.

Continuing their harassment, DeBates and management threatened Lewis Bass with eviction. Management informed Bass that his rent check had not been sent. However, he disputed the claim, citing the copy of the check he produced when he sent the payment. The case proved frivolous and was swiftly thrown out of court.

Bass was not the only victim of a targeted attempt at displacement. Management previously assured Steve Rimmer, another resident and founding member of TANCPM, that he would not face a steep rent increase. However, he later received a short-notice lease agreement in January 2022 that informed him of a $269 rent increase, a 39% hike from his previous lease agreement.

TANCPM also reported rent increases were greater for Black residents than white residents. Members say it’s a racist strategy that aims to remove Black community members in favor of white residents.

In addition to their tenant organizing efforts, the association also reformed an old project on the street dubbed “The Seward Sharing Table,” a community pantry that operates on the principle of “give as you can, take as you need.” The Table serves as an important resource for many community members who are disabled, low-income, or otherwise unable to acquire quality groceries.

DeBates, upset with the potential impact that the pantry might have on the appearance of the grass, demanded that it be moved to a gated parking lot. He gave The Sharing Table just a few days to move. Community members rallied and announced a protest for the pantry to remain where it stands. After announcing the protest, the Sharing Table was vandalized and its tables stolen; the culprit remains unknown.

Following the protest, Steve Rimmer says an employee of Continental Management informed him that the company would not interfere with The Sharing Table, and that any attack on its placement had to have come from DeBates himself. However, a strongly-worded email from Vice President Robert Carson contradicted this claim. On the issue of relocating The Table, he had this to say:

“Disappointingly, the result of this simple, lateral, relocation request was met with, not compromise, not discussion, but with inflexibility, protest, and spectacle. You further then went on to publicly make false and misleading representation. Relocating is not unsafe, nor any less safe than the current location. If anything, it is safer. Relocating does not make the Sharing Table any less accessible. It is equally accessible as the gate is open. Your position, related behavior and misleading rhetoric is divisive and not helpful.”

Carson also attempted what TANCPM says amounts to legal intimidation when he requested the information of all members of the tenants’ association. Their presumption is that there are plans to target individuals for their activism. Carson cited the Open Meetings Act, which, according to its handbook, applies to:

“[A]ny state or local legislative or governing body, including a board, commission, committee, subcommittee, authority, or council, that is empowered by state constitution, statute, charter, ordinance, resolution, or rule to exercise governmental or proprietary authority or perform a governmental or proprietary function; a lessee of such a body performing an essential public purpose and function pursuant to the lease agreement.”

A tenants’ union, in this case, is a loose, informal association of residents who have joined together to advocate for better living conditions. They do not carry out proprietary or governing functions. So, the act simply does not apply. Words such as these are merely meant to intimidate residents.

Despite these obstacles, the members of TANCPM have been pushing their efforts outside the block. Rimmer also advocates for Right to Counsel, a local ordinance that passed on May 10 ensuring the right to an attorney for low-income residents facing eviction. A number of organizations and individuals appeared at the final hearing for the ordinance, including The Right to Counsel Coalition, Detroit Eviction Defense, Detroit Justice Center, TANCPM, the Detroit Club of the CPUSA, and others.

The TANCPM and The Seward Sharing Table represent two organizations that are part of the broad struggle for housing rights and food security. Their organizing efforts have brought them face-to-face with big landlords and property management companies who have attacked them every step of the way. Their struggle is taking place at an unprecedented time for housing in Detroit, with tenants facing explosive rent hikes, racist landlords, stagnating wages, and rising food prices. Their collective action serves as a shining example for tenant organizing all over the country and demonstrates the type of movement needed by many.


Joseph Bierlein
Joseph Bierlein

Joseph Bierlein is a UFCW union worker and student activist at Wayne State University in Detroit.