Case Study: Citizen Access to Information
“Sometimes you find the root when you thought you were searching for the branch. Keep looking past the leaves.”
Bernadette Atuahene was conducting a research study on squatters inhabiting Detroit’s numerous vacant properties. During this journey, Atuahene discovered the issues that eventually led to so many vacant and abandoned properties. Her perseverance uncovered that the problem was beyond the large number of foreclosures; and she determined the root cause was ultimately property overassesments.
Rebecca Fritz, pregnant and mother of four who had been living in shelters and in her vehicle, started searching for potential properties to ‘squat’ in Detroit. Using the WiFi at McDonald’s she checked Zillow and the Detroit Land Bank’s websites to find empty homes.
She drove around looking for vacant, unsecured houses that had not yet been ransacked by scrappers. Then she would sneak in at night to inspect. Again, using McDonald’s WiFi, Fritz would then check county records for delinquent taxes ― determining that the owner had likely given up on the property. This meant less risk that she and her family would be discovered.
Traditionally ignored by the city and often tolerated by neighbors, squatters occupy more than 3,000 homes in Detroit, according to the Detroit Land Bank Authority.
Her difficulty finding stable employment and housing led her to activism. While homeless, she didn’t stay silent. She protested the city’s foreclosure epidemic and water department’s shut-off policy for low-income residents ― which brought United Nations scrutiny ― through grassroots groups like Detroit Eviction Defense.*
According to data cited in Atuahene’s study, between 2005 and 2015, 1 out of 3 Detroit properties were foreclosed upon because of mortgage default or unpaid property taxes. Even as recently as 2015, Detroit had one of the highest property-tax foreclosure rates in the nation for any jurisdiction, with 3,949 foreclosures per 100,000 people.
The study found a much larger proportion of homes in the lowest price range were subject to inflated assessments when compared to homes in top price tiers. Moreover, property owners who would have been eligible for waivers because of economic hardship, encountered numerous barriers preventing them from obtaining approval for a reduction or elimination of their property tax bill.
Detroiter Anna Bolden knew something was wrong with her tax bill after she bought her brick bungalow in a tax foreclosure auction for $4,800 in 2011. That year her bill was $2,600, with the city taxing her as if the house was worth $57,000.
“My taxes shouldn’t be this high,” said the 55-year-old first-time homeowner. “My house was only $5,000, why am I paying this money?”
A year later assessors valued it at $52,000, followed by $45,500 and $36,000 before the city finally lowered it to about $28,000 in 2017, after the reappraisal.
The Michigan state constitution prohibits property tax assessments from exceeding 50% of a property’s market value. Using assessment and sales data from 2009-2015 for the entire City of Detroit, we find that property tax assessments are substantially in excess of the state constitutional limit. In fact, in each of the examined years, anywhere from 55-85% of properties were unconstitutionally assessed, and the constitutional violation was most pronounced for lower valued properties. To remedy inflated assessments, in 2014 and 2015, Detroit’s assessor implemented assessment decreases ranging from 5% to 20% for select districts, but we find that systemic assessment inequity persisted for lower valued properties despite these reductions.
The Atuahene study appears to give credence to efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union to address what it asserts are high assessments by Detroit that resulted in foreclosures carried out by Wayne County. The ACLU filed suit against Wayne County on behalf of Detroit homeowners, arguing the assessments violated the U.S. Fair Housing Act since they disproportionately affected African Americans.
Atuahene’s study on unconstitutional property tax assessments in Detroit, is part of a larger project that introduces and develops a new theoretical concept called stategraft, which is when state agents transfer property from residents to the state in violation of the state’s own laws.
Although the stategraft concept was developed using the Detroit case, it applies to many other cases, including the discriminatory fines imposed and enforced by the police and courts in Ferguson, MO, broken treaties with Native Americans, and abuses of civil forfeiture.
Local/Ancillary Departments Connected to the Challenge
- Detroit Land Bank
- County Clerk’s Office
- City of Detroit Office of the Assessor
- Wayne County Treasurer
Organizations Offering Resources
- Detroit Eviction Defense
- American Civil Liberties
Through her activism connections, Fritz got wind of the Land Bank’s pilot program experiment to sell homes to squatters, though not applicable to her situation. The BuyBack program started with a pilot in 2015, aimed at squatters who had previously been legal tenants or owners of their homes, had family connections to the property, or had been paying utilities or fixing their homes. After paying $1,000 upfront, participants attend homeowner education workshops and must pay property taxes for a year.
*As of the writing of this case study, Fritz seemed to still be living in the home and rehabbing it toward self-sustainability including equipment such as solar panels.
- Why is it important for residents to have access to information?
- How can the government help ensure residents have access to information?
- What can residents do to continuously be informed?