The City of East Lansing issued an unusual call for help last week on the city’s website and Facebook page:
“The City of East Lansing Human Rights Commission (HRC) is investigating a complaint filed against property owner DTN Management. The complaint alleges that DTN discriminated against that individual because they received COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) funds, [an action that would be] in violation of applicable City of East Lansing ordinances.”
The HRC wants to know if anyone else has had a similar experience. The notice asked that, “If you feel that you have been the victim of housing discrimination” in East Lansing, to be in touch with the City’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Elaine Hardy. Hardy is the staff liaison to the HRC.
On the surface, this appears to be a case of discrimination against people receiving government assistance.
The complaint to which the notice refers was filed with the HRC on Aug. 22, 2022, in the name of two parties: Maria Yokich-Grebner, the renter who says she was pushed out by landlord DTN because she was receiving rental assistance from the government, and Mark Grebner, her uncle. Grebner is also an attorney and an Ingham County Commissioner representing part of East Lansing. (Disclosure: Grebner occasionally donates to ELi.)
Yokich-Grebner is a working single mother with two young children. CERA funding helped her pay the rent at the DTN-managed building at 1550 Woodbrook Drive off Coolidge Road in East Lansing when COVID temporarily disrupted her employment. DTN helped her get the rental assistance.
When, in mid-June of 2022, Yokich-Grebner sought to sign a lease renewal, she was told by DTN representative Jessica Garcia on June 10, 2022, the renewal should work out fine.
But on June 29, 2022, Yokich-Grebner got another text from Garcia stating, “I pushed super hard to get you renewed. However, DTN is no longer renewing anyone who received CERA. I’m super sorry!”
According to the complaint, DTN denied the lease renewal and then started to charge Yokich-Grebner $150 per day to remain in the apartment.
But was this really about discrimination on the basis of receiving government assistance?
Doubting the appearance of the matter at the surface, Yokich-Grebner and Grebner include in their complaint a suspicion about what really happened:
“Complainants believe DTN accepted CERA funds from many tenants in order to fill East Lansing apartments during the period MSU [Michigan State University] was essentially shut down by the pandemic, and that their policy is now to get rid of those largely non-student renters in favor of students, now that MSU is back in full operation.”
If true, the core of the discrimination would not be about Yokich-Grebner’s history of having received governmental assistance, but about her status as a working single mother of two young children.
Grebner told ELi he believes “mixed” rental-apartment complexes that include working parents with young children along with party-prone college students cause headaches for landlords like DTN.
He suggests landlords often prefer to have student renters whose rent is simply paid by their parents and who have lower expectations of their housing in terms of quality of life, including neighborliness and apartment maintenance.
The complaint, filed last August, asked for an investigation by the HRC. If discrimination is found, Yokich-Grebner and Grebner asked that DTN be required to acknowledge the violation and inform employees and tenants of tenants’ rights, or else the city should suspend DTN’s rental licenses.
The HRC has taken a long time to get to the point of asking the public to see if anyone else has suffered similar discrimination.
On Dec. 12, 2022, five months after the complaint was filed, the commission met in an open meeting with City Attorney Tony Chubb, who has been conducting the investigation at the request of the HRC.
Chubb told the HRC that DTN had kept him waiting for months and, when they did answer him in October, he expected a corporate representative would tell him that the context of Garcia’s text was altered or wrong. That didn’t happen.
“They absolutely don’t deny” the content of the text, Chubb said.
DTN did say Garcia no longer works for them, according to Chubb.
DTN also told Chubb they had surveyed 100 tenants who received CERA funding and that 88 had been offered renewals. But Chubb said DTN did not reveal how the 100 subjects were chosen beyond being DTN tenants who had received CERA.
Chubb described DTN’s survey to the HRC as lacking any context, and said he was going to try to reach Garcia to talk with her.
In the meantime, the HRC decided to have the notice posted seeking additional information from the public. That showed up at the city’s website about a month after the HRC approved the idea.
The structure of HRC meetings means Grebner has only been allowed to speak about his complaint during public comment. After that, he must sit and listen to the commission’s deliberations, staying mum. This means he has to keep coming back to meetings to try to move his and his niece’s case forward.
Grebner described the scene to ELi as “wandering around the monastery where all the monks have been pledged to silence. It’s hard to strike up a conversation. I speak at public comment but they don’t speak back.”
Who gets to have a dialogue with East Lansing’s Council or a city board or commission is typically decided by city employees staffing the meetings. Sometimes applicants (for example, developers bringing forward a proposed site plan or partnership) and nonprofit partners (like Capital Area Housing Partnership and Friends of the East Lansing Public Library) are allowed to engage in untimed dialogue with an East Lansing governmental panel making decisions.
But often, individual citizens appealing for help are told they can only speak at public comment. Such has been the case with Grebner.
At the HRC’s Jan. 9 meeting, Grebner spoke during public comment, again emphasizing he thinks Garcia’s text may not suggest a DTN-wide policy against renewing the leases of tenants with government funding.
He said he thinks his niece was targeted because she was in a complex DTN wanted to re-fill with MSU students, and the CERA funding was given as the excuse to not renew.
“If I’m right,” Grebner told the HRC, “it’s just as illegal.”
That’s because the text from Garcia named the CERA funding as the cause of the lease non-renewal. East Lansing law prohibits discrimination against tenants on the basis of their income sources. East Lansing law also makes it illegal to discriminate against tenants on the basis of “student status.”
Grebner told ELi he doesn’t think the city’s recent notice to the public is going to turn up many responses.
Even if people see the notice, he said, most people in the position his niece is in don’t have the resources to deal with complaints against big corporate landlords, and they don’t tend to be “public-facing.” His niece, for example, has not responded to ELi’s requests for comment. Additionally, most people don’t have an uncle like Grebner, a well-connected attorney accustomed to navigating Michigan laws, governments and courts.
Grebner’s niece and her children have been rehoused in a non-DTN East Lansing property with the help of family.
ELi reached out to DTN multiple times with questions about this matter, including the survey and the HRC’s posted notice about the investigation. DTN said over the course of several weeks that answers would be forthcoming, but never sent answers.
Grebner told ELi DTN’s relative silence is telling. He describes the company as having hired “expensive lawyers” who have not come up with a good response for six months. And that silence, he says, is good reason for the HRC to move on already to a decision about whether there was illegal discrimination here and, if so, what they should do about it.
He would like to see DTN “turn over a list to the city of everyone who was affected” – everyone who had CERA funding and left DTN rentals for any reason.
“And then the city ought to contact those people,” Grebner said, “and if they were pushed out of DTN, then they should be compensated.”
If any need housing, he said, DTN should provide it.
East Lansing’s housing market is shaped by the big student rental market.
If Grebner’s suspicion turns out to be correct – that his niece was pushed to leave not because of the reason stated but because DTN wanted to restore a student-rental complex to being chiefly student tenants – this case may mark another revealing instance of how the student rental market impacts the ability of people from other demographics to obtain the housing they want in East Lansing.
Planning Commission Vice Chair Dan Bollman spoke to this issue at City Council’s Jan. 10 meeting. He noted that most rental-restriction overlay districts were created to limit the ability of students to rent houses in East Lansing residential neighborhoods, but that these overlays also often keep out families who want to rent there. Bollman suggested, as others also have, that East Lansing’s overlays are themselves discriminatory, even if legal.
Meanwhile, in past public discussions of their proposals, developers have told City Council they struggle to provide housing for non-undergraduates. The reason is because non-undergrads often do not wish to be housed in the same building as undergrads, and vice versa, given the differing lifestyles.
And, the ability of many undergraduate students to pay higher rents than, for example, grad students, recent college grads, working parents, and senior citizens means the housing market here remains skewed in challenging ways.
The HRC’s call to the public for more information contained no deadline. The next meeting of the HRC will be on Feb. 13. The time and location have not yet been announced.
Grebner said he expects to attend and speak at public comment. He’s hoping for more action. The scene, he said, reminds him of a saying: “The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”
Chris Root contributed reporting from the Jan. 9, 2022, HRC meeting.