He asked if I minded if he ate breakfast while we talked. Of course not. First, he started eating an apple, trying to keep the juice from spraying the property tax bill I pushed across the desk towards him. But then he pulled out one of the most delicious smelling pieces of bread I have ever smelled, the kind of hot, soft, awesome-smelling bread that completely distracts you, even when you are of course a total professional like myself.
I had been hungry for awhile, but was so busy I had mostly forgotten about it. Because I was on this same trip over my spring break last year, I was thankfully a bit more prepared for the crazy busy-ness this year.
BU Law has a spring break pro bono trip program, sending students all over the country to volunteer at various legal aid and public defender offices. I spent my spring break in the offices of Michigan Legal Services, volunteering in their Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project. This Project solves a problem it had never even occurred to me as existing until I went on the trip last year. When I thought of foreclosure, I thought of mortgages. But, it turns out, property tax foreclosure happens too. People own their homes free and clear, have done so for decades in some cases, but can no longer pay astronomical property taxes. So the Country is going to foreclose unless they can come up with the money by April 1st.
Sort of, anyway. Folks actually have a few different options to stay in their homes, and they flock to MLS to find out what those options are, then MLS lawyers and advocates help them as best they can with whichever option clients choose. MLS has open intake on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 9:00 a.m. “Open intake” is a nice euphemism for, “people fill up the waiting room, line the hallway, and end up standing near the elevators, waiting for one, two, or three hours.”
I saw this particular client, a gregarious black man in his late 40s, sometime close to 12:00 p.m., and when he pulled out several slices of amazing-smelling bread, I was reminded that, oh, right, I’m starving. Evidently he noticed that I paused briefly mid-sentence, when he pulled out the bread, because he broke a hunk off and offered to me. “Would you like a piece, ma’am?” he inquired.
“Oh, no, thanks,” I answered. “Smells awesome, though – did you make it?”
“Of course!” he replied, looking mildly annoyed I might think otherwise. “Baked it myself. Nothing better than hot, fresh, banana bread.”
“Family recipe?” I asked.
“Sort of. My daughter got it from her boyfriend’s sister or something like that. But she told me – she knows I like to bake,” he answered. “So, hey, I figure it’s ours now!” he added with a laugh.
I joined his laughter, then turned our conversation to the matter at hand: “Sounds like solid logic to me! Now, this is your property tax bill. I know it’s a lot of money, and I know the notices the County has sent you are scary. I’m going to explain a couple of your possible options, okay? And some of this stuff is crazy confusing, and sometimes I talk too fast, so if I say anything confusing, please tell me to stop.”
He nodded his understanding. “Thanks. And, you know, my brother just told about this place – you all don’t work for the treasurer or anything, right? And you don’t charge anything for helping me?”
I shook my head. “No, we don’t charge anything, and no, I don’t work for the treasurer.” I paused, then added a line I said literally hundreds of times over the week I was in Detroit: “My only job is to be on your side.”
Unfortunately, there are far too many people who have no one on their side. That phenomenon, of unrepresented defendants losing their homes to polished plaintiffs’ counsel, slammed me in the face repeatedly during the morning we spent observing Michigan’s 36th District Court.
Thanks to budget cuts, MLS has had to cut its attorneys’ time. The two attorneys doing landlord-tenant work now only work two or three days a week, and there is virtually no one else in Detroit doing this work. I spent the morning watching case after case with my hands clenched around the bench I was sitting on, watching in frustration as unrepresented tenants agreed to “consent decrees” for judgment. Even with my limited knowledge of landlord-tenant law, I could see tenants’ possible options, better deals than the ones to which they were agreeing. Retaliation, habitability, reasonable accommodation – I ticked through the list of possible defenses in my head, wishing I could help. When we at last got to cases MLS attorneys were working on, I breathed a sigh of relief as they defended their clients.
The judge we watched that morning, though, was incredibly fair and thorough. Judge Garrett questioned each tenant, trying to make sure they understood their settlements. Most of the cases she heard had already been settled, so she was just checking everyone was clear before signing off on the settlement. One case, though, was a hearing. After the plaintiff landlord’s attorney, a tall balding white man with a handkerchief tucked into his suit pocket, made his case (a pretty simple one: tenant hadn’t paid rent in months), Judge Garrett turned to the tenant.
Words fell hard from his lips, quickly and angrily, though not loudly, as he spoke about mold, an uninsulated attic and the accompanying insanely high bills, a broken window, and so on. Plaintiff’s counsel attempted to explain that the landlord either had no notice of these conditions, or that they had already been repaired. Judge Garrett negotiated that disagreement, and then the tenant spoke again, but this time, in a different tone.
Words came a bit more slowly. He paused, mid-sentence, sometimes mid-word. He had four children. This was their home. He couldn’t find enough work. He didn’t have enough money. He didn’t know what else to do.
Judge Garrett waited a moment when he had stopped speaking, making sure he was finished. Then she spoke, gently, “The Court takes judicial notice of the fact that these are hard times.”
Indeed they are. Detroit, someone else on the trip observed, looks like it was hit by a hurricane. Abandoned houses. Overgrown yards. Dilapidated storefronts. Deserted office buildings. Broken windows. Crumpled roofs. Detroit’s obituary has been written over and over again. It is the city that should be dead, but it will not die.
By noting this resistance, I do not mean to minimize or romanticize the unforgivable poverty the state and the law have inflicted on the people I met last week, or the resulting fear in eyebrows that draw tightly together when I suggest one option is letting the property go into foreclosure, or the anger in a mutter that she worked hard her entire life and it apparently doesn’t matter, or the sadness in a body slumped over a bright yellow sheet announcing that as of April 1, her home is gone.
What I mean to do is point out that despite and concurrent to powerful efforts to define this city by its poverty, people defy such confining efforts. Detroit is poor, yes, but it is also and more importantly fierce and full and human. If the law would only be on their side, instead of trapping them in poverty, they would take care of the rest. Thankfully, even when law and culture are decidedly against them, people retain the spirit of hopeful resistance, a spirt demonstrated in persistently making joy of everyday life, a spirit demonstrated in a piece of damn good banana bread.