Protesters call on treasurer to save family homes

Christine Ferretti, and Christine MacDonald

Detroit — Activists and residents gathered Thursday outside Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree’s Detroit home, urging him to stop the sale of occupied properties slated for the September tax foreclosure auction.

The Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures rallied with a group of about 30 people, carrying signs that read “stop illegal assessments on our homes” and chanting, “If you are poor and you can’t pay, two Detroits is not the way.”

The peaceful protesters want Sabree to stop the occupied home sales in the county auction because they believe Detroit is overassessing some properties, despite the city’s claims it has corrected the problems.

“It’s just that simple. Just pull the owner-occupied properties out and let’s recalculate and make sure they are not unconstitutionally assessed,” said Bernadette Atuahene, a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, who has studied Detroit’s assessments. “We’re not asking for them to pay no taxes ever at all. We just want them to clean it up.”

But Sabree, who briefly addressed the media from his front porch of his gated home, said under state law it’s out of his hands.

“State statute says that if you don’t pay your taxes for three years you get foreclosed,” said Sabree, who noted that assessments aren’t in his purview but fall under the city’s assessor. “These foreclosures are legal. There’s nothing illegal about these foreclosures.”

Tax foreclosures are down countywide from 14,300 in 2016 to about 6,800 as of mid-August, according to Sabree’s office.

Of those 6,800 properties, about 788 are believed to be owner-occupied Detroit homes. Another 1,132 are estimated to be occupied by Detroit renters.

Sabree contends that keeping the owner-occupied properties from the auction would be “disrespectful to people who pay their taxes.”

“It discourages people from paying taxes is what it does,” he said.

Atuahene, in her study, examined 2015 city assessments and found 95 percent of lower-valued homes are over-assessed by the city. Lower-valued homes were worth under $10,400 in her example.

In comparison, when she looked at higher-valued homes, those over $76,600, she found only about 16 percent were over-valued by the city.

Atuahene said she believes this shows that people with resources were more likely than poor people to go through the city’s process to appeal their assessments. The city shouldn’t have made residents go through an appeal to get an accurate assessment, she said.

“The city is saying ... you have to appeal to get it right,” Atuahene said. “It’s on you. You must do our job for us.”

In 2016, Atuahene took another look at citywide re-assessment and found that over 90 percent of homes worth $18,500 and below were still being assessed at rates that violated the Michigan Constitution.

And they point to Sabree’s home on the Detroit Golf Course as proof of the inequity of the system.

Sabree appealed the value of his 5,000-square-foot home in 2011, 2012 and 2013, which significantly lowered his assessed value, and as a result his taxable value, to $70,000. Assessed value is half of market value so the city believed his home was worth about $140,000 at the time.

Today, his taxable value, which is what his tax bill is based on, is about the same, $73,125, because Proposal A caps taxable value increases to the rate of inflation or 5 percent.

City officials said sales data of similar homes at the time justified the drop.

Detroit Assessor Alvin Horhn said he’s “very comfortable” that the reductions for Sabree were justified based on the sales data the city had at that time.

“That was at the height of the housing crash; everything in Detroit was dropping,” he said.

Horhn argues Atuahene’s data is flawed because it factors in types of sales that the assessor cannot under state law.

“In a nutshell, they are including sales we could never use under state law ... to create an assessment roll,” said Horhn, who contends the study factored in family sales and land contracts.

But Athuahene said she only included arms-length transactions, not involving family members, in her study.

A spokesman for Sabree stressed Thursday that the county treasurer has no control over assessments.

“His job is to collect taxes,” said Mario Morrow, a spokesman for the treasurer. “For some odd reason, these protesters are misguided and misinformed.”

A year ago about 1,500 owner-occupied homes went into foreclosure. The county generally forecloses after owners owe three consistent years of back taxes.

The county foreclosed on 1 in 4 Detroit properties for back taxes between 2011 and 2015, according to a study by Atuahene.

Resident Joseph Bates, who lost the home that’s been in his family for more than 110 years, was among those who gathered Thursday in the call for fair assessments.

“I made less than $10,000 a year. I could barely feed myself some days and I have to worry and stress over trying to pay the taxes,” said Bates, who was contends his home is valued at $2,500 and he was paying $1,500 in taxes per year. “People suffer all the time because of this. The people of Detroit need to stand together.”