By Mike Shane
As in many cities across the U.S., the residents of Detroit face a deepening crisis in obtaining access to equitable housing that is affordable, healthy, safe and in good repair. Affordable housing of any quality is in extremely short supply in Detroit with housing activists asserting that almost no housing of any quality is available for families who have been evicted.
What is “affordable” housing?
The Federal government uses a 30% rule for defining housing affordability for a family. This means that the total cost for housing including rent and utilities should not exceed 30% of the household’s income. The rule arose from the housing struggles of the 1960s and was passed into law in 1969 as an amendment to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and was originally set at 25%. This arbitrary number was increased to 30% in 1981 when the Federal government under President Reagan began a decades-long onslaught against the gains made by the 1930s labor struggles and civil rights movement of the 1960s.
For a one-income family working a job at $15/hour for 40 hours per week, the 30% rule means that the family’s monthly rent including utilities should not exceed $780. The minimum wage in Michigan rose to $10.10 on January 1, 2023, which means that the monthly housing expense for a one-income family working a minimum wage job for 40 hours per week is $525. Clearly, the rent in Detroit is not affordable for many families.
Landlords wage legal assault on Free Speech and the Right to Organize
It is in this environment that housing and tenant activists are fighting for equitable housing for all, placing them in the crosshairs of slumlords. Over the past year, Moratorium NOW! Coalition (MN) has been assisting tenants facing evictions by Mun͂oz Realty, a major Detroit landlord with more than 1200 rental units across the city. In most instances, tenants were being evicted after withholding rent because Mun͂oz Realty failed to make repairs. Mun͂oz Realty has also accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid blight tickets. Many of its properties are not registered as rental units and do not have certificates of compliance or clearances for lead paint contamination, as required by law. For the first time in 16 years, MN found that tenants did not want assistance in fighting their evictions and staying in substandard rentals but wanted assistance in finding other places to live.
MN documented the conditions of the tenant’s homes, brought tenants to testify in front of Detroit City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee, denounced Mun͂oz Realty at Detroit City Council meetings, picketed the landlord’s office, leafleted churches, and received major press coverage. Mun͂oz Realty has responded with legal and extra-legal counterattacks.
On July 27, 2022, Mun͂oz Realty filed a defamation lawsuit against MN activist Jorge Flores alleging “defamatory” statements and other allegations. On Dec. 2, 2022, a second lawsuit was filed against Moratorium NOW! Coalition, Jorge Flores, Derek Grigsby, Guy Navarro, and other unnamed “Jane Does and John Does”. It is similar to the first lawsuit but includes the additional charge of “civil conspiracy”. Mun͂oz Realty seeks financial penalties and an injunction against organizing.
Death of Muñoz day worker Jerson Rubén Angeles Barelida
On November 1, 2021, Jerson Rubén Angeles Barelida, an immigrant day worker for Mun͂oz Realty, was instructed to guard a vacant Muñoz house overnight. Because the property had no electric power service, a gasoline generator was at the property. Barelida and a co-worker brought the generator into the house. Later that evening, Barelida fell asleep with the generator running and never woke up. He was discovered unconscious in the morning of November 2, 2021, having succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The neighbor next door, Guy Navarro, called 911, filed a police report, and notified the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA). Barelida has not been buried yet and his remains are in a morgue in Florida. Navarro has been advocating online for justice for the mother of Barelida’s children. He has been particularly critical of the failure of Mun͂oz Realty to contribute to the burial costs and the family’s welfare. For this, Muñoz has targeted Navarro with a bogus Personal Protection Order.
Attempted frame-up of Muñoz Realty critic Jorge Flores
On November 12, 2022, at about 11:30 am, Flores was involved in a minor traffic accident when he was rear-ended while stopped at an intersection in southwest Detroit, shortly after leaving an apartment building that his family owned. Flores and the woman who rear-ended him got out of their vehicles and called the Detroit police. When police officers arrived, the woman accused Flores of “sexually assaulting” her. The police arrested Flores and formally charged him with Criminal Sexual Conduct or CSC, a very serious charge. Flores spent 74 hours in the Detroit Detention Center until he was released.
Fortunately, for Flores, surveillance cameras attached to his family’s apartment building captured the entire incident. The video footage showed the following:
- The woman had been parked down the street from Flores’ building for an hour-and-a-half, sitting in her vehicle waiting for him;
- A second vehicle can be seen parked next to the woman’s vehicle;
- As soon as Flores pulled away in his vehicle, the woman followed him to the intersection where she collided into the rear of Mr. Flores’ vehicle.
On December 6, 2022, at Flores’ preliminary exam this evidence was presented to the court, resulting in the dismissal of all charges against him. An investigator hired by MN linked the owner of the second vehicle that was seen in the video to Gaston Muñoz, owner of Mun͂oz Realty. The preliminary hearing may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUcT0OFye_E , (beginning at 1:04:13).
Lead poisoning of a 4-year-old child
In early 2021, a four-year-old girl living in a Muñoz rental, was diagnosed with severe, near hospitalization level lead poisoning, according to a successful lawsuit filed by her parents. In addition to its failure to comply with the laws regarding lead paint exposure remediation, Muñoz failed to repair plumbing issues, including sewage in the basement, low water pressure, and broken pipes; the heat not working in some rooms; and water dripping through a light fixture.
After the poisoning of thousands of people in Flint, Michigan in 2014 when drinking water was contaminated with lead, it is inexcusable for any landlord to fail to comply with the laws regulating lead exposure. In fact, criminal charges in these matters should be considered.
Other tenant activists targeted
Landlords have also targeted outspoken tenant organizers. Steve Rimmer, a leader and founder of the city-wide Detroit Tenants Association, has been targeted by his landlord, Golden Management, with a retaliatory eviction and a defamation lawsuit when he organized tenants and complained of numerous maintenance issues in his apartment building including an elevator that was not working for more than 7 months, broken handrails in stairwell, infestations of roaches, mice and bedbugs, and more.
Taura Brown, a Detroit Eviction Defense (DED) activist, has been targeted with a retaliatory eviction and defamation lawsuit. A resident of Cass Community Social Services Tiny Homes housing development, she has been an outspoken critic of CCSS administration of the Tiny Homes program and a nearby homeless shelter. When Brown signed her lease, CCSS promised that tenants who pay rent for seven years will receive the deed to their home, mortgage-free. By terminating her lease, CCSS has denied her the right to own her own home and infringed on her right to free speech. Currently DED and allies are holding an eviction vigil whose goal is to prevent Brown’s eviction from her home.
Origins of the housing crisis
The crisis in Detroit has its origins in the sub-prime mortgage lending rip-off that triggered the 2008 Great Recession. Wall Street banks and mortgage companies swept through Detroit neighborhoods offering highly profitable sub-prime loans with financially difficult repayment terms that resulted in more than 68,000 bank foreclosures. Home values were artificially inflated in order to maximize the sizes of loans, resulting in over-assessed property values and property taxes. The City of Detroit, itself the victim of sub-prime municipal bonds, financial derivatives, and other financial devices, failed to reassess and lower the assessed value of homes, unlike almost every other municipality in the U.S. Illegally assessed property taxes on Detroit homes exceeded an estimated $600 million from 2010 to 2017, according to a Detroit News analysis. This laid the basis for the property tax and foreclosure crisis that has destroyed Detroit neighborhoods and turned Detroit from a city with the highest Black home ownership in the country into a majority renter city in this century.
The solution to the housing crisis in Detroit requires a tremendous investment on the order of billions of dollars. The Detroit community must demand reparations from Wall Street and the corporations who looted this great city and reaped tremendous wealth from the workers. Furthermore, the Pentagon must be defunded so that the tax dollars may be redirected to solve the myriad of problems plaguing poor and working people. Redirecting the $100 billion being spent on the U.S./NATO proxy war in Ukraine towards Detroit would go a long way in resolving the housing crisis and rebuilding critical infrastructure.
To donate to the Moratorium NOW! Coalition legal defense fund, please visit moratorium-mi.org/moratorium-now-coalition-fundraiser-to-cover-legal-expenses/