When more than a dozen renters new to Detroit’s up-and-coming Islandview neighborhood met last year to consider forming a tenants’ union, they were struck by the realization that in addition to sharing a landlord, they almost all shared the same skin color: White, in a neighborhood that’s predominantly Black.
That discovery is now the basis of a federal lawsuit brought by three of the tenants last month, alleging landlords Reimer Priester and Alex DeCamp racially discriminated against Black prospective and existing tenants by either refusing to rent to or attempting to evict them, thereby “unlawfully (depriving)” the non-Black tenants of “the social and professional benefits of living in a racially integrated society.”
The suit aims in part to force the landlords to correct the alleged behavior. Just 20 percent of Priester and DeCamp’s 35 rental units in Detroit’s Villages area are occupied by Black tenants, the landlords say, when Census estimates show the zip code is 80 percent Black.
“We’re aware that (they’re) not alone in these practices, but as non-Black residents we wish to stand with the greater community against discriminatory practices that Black residents have faced for decades,” said Jo Messer, a 32-year-old who’s lived in one of the duo’s single-family rentals since 2016 and is the only current tenant suing. “Part of the goal is to get them to come to the table to talk to the greater community about what’s needed, what they want, what’s accessible ... rather than impose their vision.”
In emails, Priester said allegations that his Villages Property Management discriminates based on race “are outrageous, offensive and wholly untrue,” adding that the employee who has since 2019 been tasked with showing properties and selecting tenants is themselves Black.
“At no time has any applicant ever been denied based on the color of his or her skin,” Priester said.
He did not say what might account for the demographic disparity between his rentals and the surrounding neighborhood, but pointed to a recent study that shows more white people are moving into the greater Villages, which stretch east to west from St. Jean Street to Mount Elliott Avenue, and north to south from Mack Avenue to the Detroit River on the city’s east side.
Such disparities are common at new developments in Detroit, particularly when a white developer moves into a predominantly Black neighborhood, said Ezekiel Harris, the former executive director of the Mack Avenue Community Church development corporation, which covers the neighborhood, and a real estate project manager at community development financial institution IFF.
Demand can be higher among whites, as white people are drawn to Detroit neighborhoods where they’ve seen other white people move, he said. But developers also often aren’t mindful about selecting tenants who look like the community they’re in, which can require advertising through non-traditional channels including community organizations or existing residents.
“Developers are looking at making the dollars make sense, not the cultural or social impact of their development, and that’s part of the big issue that residents have with developments coming in their neighborhoods — that they’re not taking a holistic view,” he said. “I don’t think developers are inherently trying to do wrong — that’s part of the problem with systemic racism — but unfortunately, with how our society works, it probably needs to be financially driven for them to do what’s right.”
Priester and DeCamp — white 30-somethings originally from the suburbs who serve on a number of Detroit boards — have a mixed track record as landlord-developers. Over the past five years they’ve amassed dozens of occupied and vacant single-family homes and an apartment building in the greater Villages, renovating some while letting others languish. At one point they had accrued about $50,000 in outstanding blight tickets, most of which have been paid off under a compliance agreement with the city.
The suit centers on 35 occupied units that, at $1,300 per month and up, rent for more than comparably-sized properties in the city, but are in many cases still technically affordable under a federal standard based on income levels for the metro region versus Detroit on its own. It also alleges the landlords retaliated against two tenants whose lease they did not offer up for renewal, but agreed to extend for three months only if they ceased their advocacy efforts.
Based on information Messer says she and other tenants gathered last year while trying to unionize, none of the tenants at 13 of the duo’s Islandview rental houses were Black, and just five tenants in the Chalfonte Apartments on Jefferson Avenue were Black. The suit points to at least two cases in which Black tenants toured or expressed interest in units that were eventually rented to white people. One Black tenant who was able to rent a single-family home was also forced out due to race, it says.
That tenant, Ruie McCant, is a parole officer who lived in a house on Townsend Street with her husband and five children. According to the suit, she withheld rent and eventually moved out over issues including a lack of heat, a rodent infestation, and frozen and leaky pipes that flooded her living room. After she left, the landlords filed an eviction that could make it more difficult for her to secure future rental housing, and sued her for $6,000, resulting in a garnishment of her wages.
The suit notes that McCant was evicted and ordered to pay back rent when her white neighbors who unionized were not, even though they withheld rent for six months last year in response to the pandemic and what they said were substandard conditions at their homes. None of their properties, nor McCant’s, were up to code, but Priester has since obtained a handful of certificates of compliance under the agreement with the city.
A settlement agremeent prohibits McCant from commenting.
McCant is not a party to the suit, and there’s skepticism over whether it can succeed without a Black plaintiff.
James Ferraro, a Miami-based trial lawyer who brings racial discrimination cases and currently has one pending on behalf of a group of former metro Detroit McDonald's franchisees, says it’s “unclear how a court could fashion a remedy” when the suit is brought by people who did not themselves face discrimination.
“It’s a real stretch,” said Ferraro. “A Black person would easily have a case, but for a white person to come forward … what’s his damage, he just wants a different experience? What if the court ruled he’s one of the people who has to move to make room for the Black tenants?”
But there is precedent for the tenants' claim, said Geoffrey Leonard, a former Villages Property tenant and lawyer representing himself in the suit. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a reversal of lower court rulings, determined a group of white tenants who sued for similar reasons did in fact have proper standing.
At worst, the tenants hope the lawsuit will compel Priester and DeCamp to voluntarily do better. It comes after the landlords initially ignored the tenant union’s demand that they meet with the surrounding community to address concerns about their practices.