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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”