It was a living nightmare.
“We were stuck in the dark,” Sonja Bonnett recalls. “We were losing our home. We didn’t know how to tell our kids that. We woke up every morning with that heaviness on our minds, trying to figure out how we were going to do this.”
The 38-year-old wife and mother of six children understands the disruption that home eviction can cause. After being presented with a $5,000 property tax bill from the city of Detroit, her family of eight lost their home in 2017 and was forced to move the following year.
Bonnett, who lived in a working-class neighborhood in the northeast section of the city, believes that gentrification and profit are to blame. Government and private builders, she argues, are redeveloping poor neighborhoods, forcing out residents and building homes, condominiums and townhouses for middle- and upper middle-class buyers.
“A lot of the foreclosures that have happened in Detroit have been done systematically and done on purpose,” Bonnett said.
But city officials counter that local government has addressed the situation during the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan, who took office in 2014, and provided a remedy.
“Since 2014, the city of Detroit has spent $8.5 million to ensure that the property values on the city’s assessment roll reflected the actual market conditions in the City of Detroit, including the first parcel-by-parcel reappraisal in 60 years,” said City Assessor Alvin Horhn.
Horhn also points out that if homeowner believes that s/he has been unfairly assessed, s/he has the right to challenge the assessment free of charge before the city’s Board of Review and then before the Michigan Tax Tribunal.
Bonnett was eventually able to rebuild. She and her family later acquired and moved into a new home on the far west side.
But the episode left a lasting impression. Helping to save city residents from property tax foreclosure is personal for her. That’s why Bonnett co-founded the group, Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.
Road to financial ruin
A decade ago, Detroit was reeling. Forty years of corporate disinvestment and a 60-year exodus of the white and black middle class helped lead the way to financial crisis.
Between 2000 and 2010 alone, Detroit lost about 250,000 residents. That’s far more residents than the city of Grand Rapids — Michigan’s second-largest city.
When it comes to rust belt cities like Detroit, historian and native son Thomas J. Sugrue, author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality In Postwar Detroit,” writes:
“Economic and racial inequality constrain individual and family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, or succumb.”
By 2013, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to run city operations. Since that time, tax foreclosures of owner-occupied homes dropped 89 percent since 2015, according to the Wayne County Treasurer’s office.
From 2011 to 2015, about 100,000 properties were foreclosed on for unpaid property taxes, however. The number still represented about 25 percent of properties in town. In 2011, Business Insider ran a feature on homes you could buy in Detroit for just $100.
Bonnett and her colleagues the Detroit Justice Center (DJC), a nonprofit law firm focused on economic opportunity and justice system reforms, believe that too many people remain at risk for losing their homes.
More than five years after the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, Detroit has been rebranded as “the comeback city.” Swanky coffee houses and restaurants, shiny dwellings and artificial beaches equipped with volleyball nets and chaise lounge chairs are spouting downtown and along the riverfront.
Corporations and billionaires armed with generous local and state tax breaks are investing in trendy neighborhoods located just outside of downtown, like Corktown and Midtown. Nonetheless, the DJC argues that far too many individuals and families across the city still need help.
Last November, DJC hired four community legal workers to help Detroiters in need. The team is comprised of parents, students, activists and advocates, not tax attorneys.
Bonnett is one of them, along with Chris Delgado, Lauren Thomas and Antonia Giles. They were trained in November and are committed “to guiding Detroiters through the complex tax assessment appeals process this February,” said Casey Rocheteau, DJC spokeswoman.
DJC aims to assist 150 households through the pilot program, which started in fall 2018, and develop systems and best practices for future assessment periods. The nonprofit has worked closely with Namati, an international legal organization that has pioneered the use of community paralegals, to devise the community legal worker pilot to do what DJC calls an effort to “tackle justice gaps” in Detroit.
Between 2009 and 2015, the city of Detroit assessed some of its owner-occupied properties as high as 85 percent — a violation of Michigan Constitution, activists like Bonnett point out. They’re referring to Article IX § 3: “No property shall be assessed at more than 50 percent of its market value.”
The situation had gotten so bad that the city of Detroit requested that the Michigan Tax Commission monitor its practices after learning of an alarming number of over-assessments and subsequent tax delinquencies, according to Ron Leix, a Michigan Department of Treasury spokesman. The arrangement ended in August 2017.
These “illegal and unconstitutional” property tax assessments, DJC claims, have led to foreclosure of between 25 and 30 percent of Detroit households — most of them inhabited by poor and working-class people.
A recent study backs up Bonnet’s claim.
In their white paper, “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” Bernadette Atuahene, a Chicago-Kent College of Law professor, and Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago, write, “The results of our analysis strongly suggest that unconstitutionally excessive tax assessments by the City of Detroit led to subsequent property tax foreclosures.”
City residents have a short window, starting Friday, Feb. 1 through Feb. 15, to appeal their property tax assessments.
After the DJC community legal workers complete their work on tax assessment appeals, they plan to take on other issues, including water shutoffs and, possibly, criminal record expungement.
State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said that DJC’s work in foreclosures is vital.
“There are a lot of groups that go door-to-door [to assist residents],” Chang told the Advance last month. “My office goes door-to-door after people are notified that they are facing tax foreclosure and letting people know about available options. So I think that this idea about actually getting to people earlier on — so that we’re preventing tax foreclosure and hopefully developing best practices — is such a great idea.”
Bonnett said that she speaks “at as many events as I can get into. We are doing every aspect of community outreach that you can possibly think of.”