More than 100,000 Detroit families have lost their homes due to illegal tax foreclosure

Houses for sale in Detroit. Image: Getty.

A society’s standards, the folk wisdom goes, are all that keeps it from sliding into moral ruin. The threat of chaos is all around us, we’re told, and our standards act as a sort of gate at the kingdom’s edge. Fail to closely guard their boundaries, and society is left open to the threat of marauding lawlessness.

So: should you find yourself in grinding poverty, and resort to petty shoplifting to avoid starving, there’s a chance you’ll be smacked with a multi-year prison sentence for the violation. Or lift a few cheap items from the world’s largest retail empire in the hopes that you and your children might outrun the jaws of poverty, you risk being robbed of life itself. Such is the fate we offer to the most despised among us. Breach one of our sacred standards, and see it enforced with ruthless efficiency.

But standards are funny things. One might rightly think that a nation even remotely serious about its standards would work to apply them evenly across the society. Yet we know this to be a world bearing little resemblance to our own: we know, with agonising familiarity, that those who possess the material comfort to follow every law and social expectation imaginable often defy them in clear and extravagant ways, and often do so without a whisper from the guardians at the gate.

In recent years, both the horror of the first reality, and the moral hypocrisy of the second, have been on startling display in my hometown of Detroit, where communities are being pounded by the nation’s largest wave of property tax foreclosures since the Great Depression. No one has followed the crisis, and the staggering managerial incompetence behind it, with greater care and precision than Professor Bernadette Atuahene, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, and visiting professor at Wayne State Law School. In a guest blog for the ACLU of Michigan, she writes:

“Between 2011 and 2015, one in four Detroit properties were subject to property tax foreclosure.  (…) Local government has caused this crisis. One of our most daunting research findings reveals that between 2009 and 2015, the Detroit Assessment Division assessed between 55 per cent and 85 per cent of homes at rates that violated the Michigan Constitution, which states that a property cannot be assessed at more than 50 percent of its market value.

“More than 100,000 Detroit families have lost their homes due to these illegal tax foreclosure. African-Americans have been most deeply impacted.”

It’s worth pausing to take in the appalling scale of this man-made disaster, along with the managerial soullessness that made it possible.


Over the course of several years, the City of Detroit and the Wayne County Treasury have illegally over-assessed the value of tens of thousands of properties. It then uses these bogus assessments to render the occupants of those properties homeless. Once plundered, properties are then funnelled into the county’s Tax Foreclosure Auction, where many are resold at fire sale prices.

But like any good American horror story, the evil must be gratuitous. As America’s poorest big city, many of Detroit’s homeowners qualify for what’s called the Poverty Tax Exemption: a pathway to wiping out one’s property tax burden completely.

But notoriously bad communication on the part of the city has meant that most homeowners don’t realise that the exemption exists. Even if they did, the process for securing the exemption is a janky, unnavigable mess. The outcome should bring shame to its shameless architects: a stadium’s worth of people, kicked out on their ass, for nonpayment of taxes the law says they were too poor to pay.

It isn't enough to say a few disinterested technocrats made a constitutional goof that ended regrettably. What's happened, and continues to happen, here must be made plain: a clique of state-appointed bandits have illegally plundered 100,000 poor, mostly black Detroiters of their livelihoods, and then ridiculed them as irresponsible for falling victim to the shakedown.

It’s worth mentioning that both the mayor’s and county treasurer’s office have cobbled together some modest efforts to assist homeowners at risk of foreclosure. The institution of payment plans and a citywide reassessment of property values have genuinely helped some. Despite this, the tidal wave rolls onward, swallowing everything in its path. And when the destruction is entirely avoidable, that we’ve only thrown life preservers to some is a sad commentary on our moral imaginations.
Yet like so many crises launched at the hands of men, ours has gone unresolved not for any lack of solutions. Those are obvious.

City and county officials could, for instance, follow the lead of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures, which has pushed, with factual and moral authority, a set of straightforward fixes:

(1) An immediate end to unconstitutional assessments. (2) Some form of reparations for those illegally booted from their homes. (3) And lastly, a moratorium on all tax foreclosures until assessments meet their constitutionally required standards.

And there’s that word again.

At first glance, a standard being imposed on one group of people but not another looks like textbook double-standard-shenanigans. The city plunders 100,000 poor, mostly black homeowners, forcing them deeper into a chamber of economic misery. And when confronted with the hellscape they authored, officials blame the banished for failing to follow the letter of an illegible law. Meanwhile, those same officials act in extravagant defiance of their state’s constitution – and not only do so with impunity, but are crowned leaders of a heroic comeback along the way.

And there’s the big reveal, unmistakable to anyone who bothers to look. It isn’t that ours is a society with two separate and unequal standards for two different groups of people. It’s that ours is a single standard society: where one set of rules is imposed on the most vulnerable with brutal force, while the wealthiest and most powerful act as guardians of a gate they dismantle whenever convenient.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.