Anti-foreclosure activists demand more help in Detroit

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Elected officials have stopped short of agreeing to meet demands of a coalition of activists and organizations who are calling for remedies to address tax-related home foreclosures in Detroit. 

The Coalition for Property Tax Justice, armed with the hashtag #BlackHomesMatter, wants the state, county and local government to better address Detroit residents who have lost their homes to tax foreclosure and others who may be in danger of being booted out of their homes as the COVID-19 pandemic rages. The hashtag is designed to raise attention to the issue just as #BlackLivesMatter has become well-known in American politics.

“The burden of constitutionally illegal tax foreclosures is falling on the people who are least able to bear it,” said coalition member Bernadette Atuahene, a Yale Law School and Harvard University Kennedy School of Government graduate. “The poorest of the poor. The most vulnerable homeowners.”

During a virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday, Atuahene, civil rights activist Bishop William Barber, Harvard University professor Cornel West, and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) called on the audience to do the following: 

  • Ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to investigate and “end illegally inflated property tax assessments in Detroit.”
  • Call on Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to create a fund to help support those in need.
  • Demand that Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree end forecloses on owner-occupied properties “or, at the very least, homes worth less than $25,000.”

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Conrad Mallet Jr, a city of Detroit deputy mayor and a former Michigan Supreme Court chief justice, pointed out that local government is not in an economic condition to create a fund solely to address the foreclosure issue. 

“We disagree with the assertion that homes are being over-assessed based on what we have been able to examine in terms of appeals that people have successfully done,” Mallett added.

Mario Morrow, spokesman for Sabree, declined to comment. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic Sabree announced a March 2020 moratorium on tax-related foreclosures through the end of 2020. 

Bobby Leddy, spokesman for Whitmer, declined comment citing current litigation between the Coalition for Property Tax Justice and the state. The class action litigation, filed last year, names Duggan, Wayne County and state tax officials as defendants. The coalition is a party to the suit. 

Atuahene, an expert researcher on the tax foreclosure issue, said that as many as 55% to  85% of homes in Detroit might have been taxed at rates that violate the Michigan Constitution. Article IX § 3 states: “No property shall be assessed at more than 50 percent of its market value.” A 2018 University of Chicago study shows that the city had been overcharging homeowners. The coalition argues, “these are deep, systemic problems that the State Tax Commission should investigate, propose solutions to end the practice, and help make the community whole.”

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Mallett, who did not participate in the town hall meeting, points out that the Duggan administration worked with the state beginning in 2014 to address the problem of bad assessments. He added that in December the city announced that it is leading an effort to create a $50 million fund to address job training and poverty. The fund is designed for people who have felt “left behind or left out.” The city has secured about $2.5 million for its initial $10 million goal from General Motors Co., Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, Rockefeller Foundation and United Way for Southeast Michigan.

“People need to understand that that is injustice on top of injustice,” said Barber during the town hall meeting. 

Barber, a North Carolina resident, is co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign. In 2018, the group set forth a comprehensive Moral Agenda based on the “needs and demands of the 140 million Americans.” It takes its name from the 1968 effort led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King and others called for a “revolution of values” in America and marched on several American cities calling for reforms. The effort culminated in Washington, D.C., only weeks after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

West argued the federal government “bailed out” Wall Street after the home crisis of a dozen years ago but has not done enough to help everyday people in cities like Detroit. 

“We want you to be accountable for what you’ve done,” West said. “We’re not going to let you get away with it. Take responsibility and if not we’re going to bring to bear in the name of spirit and morality.” 

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Tlaib, who represents a portion of Detroit as well as other cities including Ecorse, Inkster, River Rouge and Westland, said that the #BlackLivesMatter movement needs to include issues like tax foreclosure. 

“It’s really important to center around the trauma that comes with policy that continues to oppress us and take, take, take,” Tlaib added. “It’s really important as we see this uprising across the country. It’s not just about police brutality…it’s about equity and fighting against these oppressive policies.” 

Significant corporate disinvestment in Detroit, which at one time was the nation’s fourth-largest city, in the 1940s and extended through the rest of the century. It was coupled with racial discrimination in real estate and lending industries. Scholars and historians like Thomas Sugrue in his book “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” pointed out that each has had a negative effect on generational wealth building for many Black Detroit residents. 

In December, the Michigan Legislature passed and Whitmer signed a measure that extends property tax exemptions for low-income homeowners. Duggan supported the legislation. 

“I was pleased to be given the opportunity to testify in Lansing recently in support of this legislation, which will help 9,000 Detroit homeowners with current property tax exemptions breathe easier for another year and not have to worry about losing their home to tax foreclosure,”  Duggan said in a statement. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.