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Birmingham postpones tenant’s rights ordinance

By Grace Lovins


Birmingham city commissioners unanimously voted to table an amendment to a tenant's rights ordinance at their meeting on Monday, January 23, following discussion from both the public and attorneys representing landlords over potential unintended consequences to adding a right to renew protection.


In 2022, former mayor and prominent Birmingham figure Dorothy Conrad received notice from the Baldwin House, an independent senior living facility, that her lease was not going to be renewed and she had until the end of the month to vacate the property. The debacle happened after Conrad, known for her outspokenness, brought to light that Baldwin House had violated an agreement made with the city in 1990, charging or overcharging senior residents for parking in the Chester Street parking structure.


Eventually, after public backlash and a protest, Conrad’s lawyer and Baldwin House’s lawyer settled with an updated lease agreement for Conrad, and she was able to remain in her home. Although Conrad’s dilemma was resolved, it opened the door for further discussion on how the city could better protect the rights of renters.


In December, the Birmingham City Commission directed city attorney Mary Kucharek to begin drafting an ordinance that would offer additional protections to renters in Birmingham. Kucharek had presented the commission with three different protections they could pursue: source of income, right to renew, and right to counsel. With Kucharek’s recommendation, commissioners decided to continue with source of income and right to renew.


At the commission meeting on Monday, January 23, Monika Koleci, associate attorney of Beier Howlett, presented the ordinance amendment that she and Kucharek had worked on, which would provide renters in Birmingham with source of income and right to renew protections. Source of income protects renters from being discriminated against for incomes like housing choice vouchers, veteran’s affairs supportive housing vouchers and social security.


Right to renew protections would prevent landlords from refusing to negotiate an agreement, says Koleci, or changing the terms and conditions of a lease agreement, and would require the landlord to provide good cause as to why they have decided not to renew a tenant. Once the tenant is made aware of the good cause, they can decide if they want to pursue legal action.


These protections, however, would not interfere with the existing Michigan statute that allows tenants over a specific age to break their lease early, says Kucharek, such as seniors who may need to break their lease early due to health issues or change of income issues. Violation of the ordinance would be a civil infraction punishable by a fine of up to $500.


Several members of the public showed up at the commission meeting to convey their support for the amendment, saying it’s a step in the right direction towards protecting renters, but noting the work isn’t over. Others, however, were not as supportive of adding right to renew protections to the ordinance. Multiple attorneys representing landlords took issue with the right to renew protections – most arguing that choosing not to renew a lease is not a route they commonly take because of the financial burden, but it sometimes serves as a last resort to remove unruly or “bad” tenants from a building.


Many stated that landlords choose not to renew a lease in the interest of the other renters, saying that sometimes one “bad” tenant can cause enough problems to force the “good” renters out.


“You have a bully resident who’s bothering others, but no one will testify to terminate, or worse you try to terminate that tenancy and you lose,” said Matthew Miller, legislative committee chair of the Property Manager’s Association of Michigan. “That’s the worst possible case because then that resident is emboldened to make everything worse. Good residents move out, the property owner loses good people and is forced to keep the bad ones. Non-renewal is the way that this gets addressed.”


Miller also said that one of the unintended consequences of approving the right to renew protections that gets overlooked is it would make the renting process much more onerous for all residents. “Property owners are going to be far stricter about who they decide to rent to,” he said.


Defending the provision, Kucharek explained that this amendment is intended to protect residents from unexpectedly losing their homes without a good reason.


“We’re not suggesting that tenants are allowed to remain if they’re in violation of their lease agreement or in violation of state law,” she said. “What we’re saying is that people can’t have their homes pulled out from under them because the landlord doesn’t like them, or the landlord thinks they’re a troublemaker.”


Commissioners Clinton Baller and Andrew Haig both suggested that it might be better to hold off on adopting the amendment to have more time to think through any unintended consequences which might come from the ordinance. Kucharek eventually recommended that the commission table the discussion for a period, and she will consult one or two of the attorneys who spoke but emphasized that there is no guarantee the amendment will change before the commission sees it again.


The commission voted unanimously, 7-0, to table the adoption of the source of income and right to renew amendments.


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