Little Rock There’s a cable channel that runs on our TV for free that is all about these tricked out “tiny” houses. Often, they are even on wheels. The couple, usually young, comes to look at the construction. They want this and that, and a master miracle carpenter makes the magic happen, and they are beaming in the final walkthrough. My son and mi companera can watch this show for hours. Sometimes they speculate about building one on a land trust property ACORN has in the Upper 9th Ward in New Orleans. Maybe? Who knows?
All of which made my eyes leap to a bunch of pictures of tiny houses in Detroit, but also to the headline that blared out, “In Detroit, an Eviction Rattles a Housing Plan.” What the heck was going on here?
The way the story was told, a nonprofit, Cass Community Social Services of Detroit, run by Rev. Faith Fowler, raised a couple of millions from diverse sources like foundations and Bon Jovi, and built 25 tiny houses in a three-block area. The homes were offered on a rent-to-own basis, which is a point I’ll come back to, because it’s the heart of the story, and the reporter missed it completely. The deal offered was that the people selected would pay rent for seven years, and then would own the home. 122 applications were received and some are coming to the point of ownership. One successful applicant was Taura Brown, and she has been in a fight against eviction for over two years.
Those are the brass tacks of the matter. Cass and Fowler argue that they evicted Brown, because they did not believe she lived there full-time and that was part of the deal for her to become a tenant. She tried to pay rent, and they refused to accept it, claiming they wanted a tenant who they believed would be full-time. The article paints a picture of Cass and Fowler as the good guys and Brown as rouge.
Detroit Eviction Defense joined Brown in trying to stop the eviction in April. The reporter seems not to have bothered to talk to anyone from the organization, which is a mistake. During the ACORN Home Savers Campaign, we met with Detroit Eviction Defense several times. They are a solid organization that investigates issues carefully and deeply before getting involved. If they were in this fight, there’s more to it than this defense of a nonprofit and tiny houses.
I’ll bet part of it is the whole problem and history of rent-to-own, especially in the Black community, where it was used as part of the exploitation of wannabe homeowners blocked by discrimination and redlining. In these deals, a tenant thinks they are about to be an owner, but the owner, like Cass, holds all of the cards. An eviction like this, means that Brown had no equity in the house and could be evicted for any reason. In this case, it was the disputed claim of full-time residence, but who knows how that was defined. Some states now force a refund by the landlord of the equity paid and improvements made, rather than just ripping and running on the tenant.
It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a better resolution to this issue, and that Cass couldn’t have avoided eviction, or at least made Brown whole. Most people will read this story, and see the tenant as the scammer. For me, it looks like this new landlord in a rent-to-own scheme is just the same as the old landlord in the now long discredited rent-to-own schemes. If Detroit Eviction Defense was in front of the house with Taura Brown, I have to believe Brown should still be in this tiny house. I’ve still got their t-shirt, if I knew where I put it, I’d be wearing it now.