Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Highland Tower's Tenants Score Victory Against DTE Energy and Absentee Landlords

Highland Towers's Tenants Score Victory Against DTE Energy and Absentee Landlords

Struggle results in utility restoration and re-location

by Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A major struggle against DTE Energy and absentee landlords has reached a conclusion in Highland Park, a municipality surrounded by the city of Detroit. On August 31, DTE Energy shutoff the electricity at the apartment building leaving over 150 residents in the dark and under threat of imminent peril.

Members of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs took action in support of the tenants leading demonstrations, press conferences and an eventual lawsuit filed by the residents against DTE Energy and the landlords. This series of actions resulted in the restoration of electrical power as well as a settlement that provided monetary and material assistance for all of the tenants to re-locate to better living facilities.

An order by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen MacDonald on September 11 forced DTE Energy to turn the power back on at the apartment building. Two other hearings on September 15 and 18, created the conditions for DTE Energy and the landlords to cover the costs of moving the tenants to other apartments.

Residents of the Highland Towers were empowered by the struggle waged against DTE Energy and the absentee landlords. On September 3, tenants organized by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition went to DTE Energy headquarters in downtown Detroit to demand that their power be restored.

After the tenants and their supporters occupied the lobby of the building, DTE Energy security officials stated that executives would meet with them shortly. After remaining in the building for over an hour, they were told that the lobby was closed and that no one was available to discuss the situation at their apartment building.

An Ongoing Struggle Against DTE Energy

Members of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition had been contacted by DTE Energy top executives on July 21 to discuss a planned demonstration outside their headquarters on July 24 in response to the deaths of four members of the Reed-Owens family on the northwest side of Detroit on July 16. The family had recently filed bankruptcy which should have placed an automatic stay on the termination of utility services.

Despite the filing for bankruptcy, DTE Energy still shutoff the power at the Reed-Owens' family home on July 15. The family borrowed a generator from their church so that breathing assistance machines could be powered for a child in the home suffering from a respiratory ailment. The malfunction of the generator resulted in the deaths of three children and their father. The mother survived after being rushed to the hospital.

When members of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition met with DTE Energy officials on July 23, they demanded an immediate halt to utility shutoffs in light of the high rates of unemployment and poverty facing millions of people living in Detroit and throughout southeast Michigan. High-ranking executives present at the meeting stated that they would not impose a moratorium but that they would work with Moratorium NOW! in the future to prevent shutoffs.

This was not acceptable to the Coalition and the demonstration went forward on July 24. The action enjoyed broad press coverage. DTE Energy executives told the Moratorium NOW! Coalition members that they could be contacted if there were other issues requiring their attention.

However, when the delegation of Moratorium NOW! members and tenants from the Highland Towers went to the DTE Energy corporate headquarters on September 3, the executives refused to respond to repeated phone calls. The following day, in the aftermath of an emergency demonstration in front of DTE Energy headquarters, executives met with Moratorium NOW! organizers and tenants from the Highland Towers.

The executives told the tenants that under no circumstances would they restore the power. They promised to work with human service agencies to provide other assistance to the tenants. DTE Energy representatives said that service providers were on the way to their headquarters to met with tenants. Nonetheless, no one ever showed up inside the DTE Energy building. A car from the United Way drove up outside but the representative never entered the building to speak with the tenants.

The Highland Towers apartments had suffered from years of neglect and mismanagement. Residents had paid their monthly rents, yet the funds collected were never used to make repairs or cover the cost of utility bills. After the Legal Aid and Defenders, Inc. agreed to file a lawsuit on behalf of the tenants against DTE Energy and the landlords, the power was restored and residents received damages in the form of re-location funding.

In a recent article published on the Detroit Blog of, Highland Towers tenant and co-plantiff in the lawsuit against DTE Energy and the absentee landlords, LaTanya Lloyd narrates the developments surrounding the struggle at Highland Towers. Lloyd, who also attended the National March for Jobs in Pittsburgh on September 20, said in regard to the September 4 meeting with DTE Energy that "When we went to talk with DTE, it was like DTE just didn't...I hate to say it, but it was like they just didn't give a s***."

Lloyd went on to say that "One of the executives told us that the landlord owed over $150,000 to DTE. He said "No, we're not turning the power back on. This is a business, and we're in business to make money." (, Detroit Blogs, September 25)

Lloyd then stated that "A few days after the power went out, a man named Abayomi from Moratorium NOW! approached us. Moratorium NOW! works with people in the community to stop unfair evictions and foreclosures. And that's basically what this was, an unfair eviction. Once they got involved, things changed real fast. We got hooked up with Legal Aid and Defenders' attorneys, and we took DTE to court."

Lloyd, who is the mother of two children and whose husband is a graphic designer, continued by stating "They still kept fighting us! They told the judge lies about giving us notice, things like that. We never saw any notice from them. Our notice was the power going out. We're human beings, and we matter. And we just weren't going to let them do that to us without a fight. And we didn't. And you know...we won."

As a result of the struggle in support of the residents at Highland Towers, other human services agencies also became involved. The United Community Housing Coalition, the Detroit Area Agency on Ageing, Southwest Solutions, the Department of Human Services and others came to the building in order to assist the residents with re-location.

On September 21, a delegation of tenants and organizers for the Moratorium NOW! Coalition showed up at the City Council meeting in Highland Park. Mayor Hubert Yopp in his report on the situation at Highland Towers never mentioned the struggle that took place against DTE Energy and the landlords and omitted the fact that the organizing effort resulted in the power being restored.

Building residents blasted the City government for not fighting to protect the interests of its citizens. When Sandra Hines, an organizer for the Moratorium NOW! Coalition rose to go to the podium and speak, residents of the Highland Towers applauded. Hines stated that it was the struggle of the people that resulted in the victory against DTE Energy and the landlords.

On September 23, DTE Energy hosted a community outreach program at the State Fairgrounds purportedly designed to assist people who were having problems in paying their utility bills. Over 10,000 people showed up at the event, most of whom were not able to receive any attention due to the overwhelming turn out.

This outpouring of people clearly demonstrates that there is a state of economic emergency in existence in the state of Michigan. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition has been calling upon the Governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm for over a year to exercise her emergency powers by imposing a halt to foreclosures, evictions and utility shutoffs. Michigan is facing an official unemployment rate of over 15%. The city of Detroit's official unemployment rate is nearly 29%. Yet the state government and local officials have consistently refused to take action in defense of the people.

At the Highland Park City Council meeting, it was brought out that DTE Energy provides public lighting for the municipality. One resident of Highland Park said that she had repeatedly called DTE Energy about defective lighting on her street. Despite promises from the power company, no action has been taken.

The struggle surrounding the residents at Highland Towers makes the case even clearer for the imposition of a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition plans to reach out to more apartment buildings where tenants are facing threats of eviction and utility shutoffs.

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