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Riverfront event offers advice on Detroit tax burdens — plus pizza

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — Volunteers offered water, pizza and hope along the riverfront Saturday to a steady trickle of residents struggling with their property taxes.

The Coalition for Property Tax Justice organized what was billed as something of a protest at Robert C. Valade Park, but wound up more of a clearinghouse for information and inspiration.

Bernadette Atuahene, left, of the Coalition for Property Tax Justice, talks with Detroit resident Yvonne Tucker at a property tax relief information event at Robert C. Valade Park in Detroit on Sept. 18, 2021.

The coalition and others insist that Detroit illegally over-assesses homeowners, particularly at the lower end of the market. The city asserts otherwise: "We completely reject any suggestion this city continues to overvalue property," said Detroit Assessor Alvin Horhn.

All Yvonne Tucker knows is that she can't keep up with both current and back taxes — and she's been told the city owes her more than twice her annual tab.

Tucker, 63, sat down Saturday with representatives of the nonprofit Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (WMCAA) to explore her options, which might include one program that could  reduce or eliminate her debt and another that would exempt her from this year's fee.

A Detroiter for 58 years, she lives on the east side in a house she likes and a neighborhood she increasingly doesn't. Last week, she said, she saw two young men running down the street with pistols, at the same time her 13-year-old sons were due home from school.

"You want to tell me I owe $3,000 a year for that?" she said.

Nicole Pouncy from the Detroit Tax Relief Fund  talks with Detroit resident Frances Lewis, 85, at a property tax relief information event at Robert C. Valade Park in Detroit on Sept. 18, 2021.

Possibly. But as program manager Nicole Pouncy of the Detroit Tax Relief Fund was telling people, the fund — fueled by the Gilbert Family Foundation — can coordinate with city and county agencies to make a tax burden far lighter.

Tucker, retired from the state unemployment agency, was told at a community meeting that she was overbilled for previously paid taxes by $7,100. She has been unable to collect repayment, she said, or even get a credit for current taxes.

The city has acknowledged issues prior to 2014, "and they're trying to right the wrongs," Pouncy said. One problem is that programs like hers sound too similar to frauds perpetrated from call centers in India.

"They think it's a scam," she said. "It sounds suspicious when someone calls and says, 'No, we're really going to pay your debt down to zero.'"

Wayne Metro Community Corps Program Coordinator Angela Buchanan, left, looks on as Community Resource Navigator Tonya Herron helps Detroit resident Frances Lewis at a property tax relief information event at Robert C. Valade Park in Detroit on Sept. 18, 2021.

Amid a soft breeze and insistent bees, the coalition collected signatures for a petition "demanding compensation for Detroit homeowners impacted by housing injustice," and offered sign-up for help from the Property Tax Appeals Project, staffed by law students.

Some inequities have been both historic and undeniable. Sixth-generation Detroiter Edythe Ford, an officer with the east-side nonprofit MACC Development, noted that when her African American grandfather returned from World War II, he was denied the benefits of the GI Bill, while White veterans were able to lay the groundwork for generational wealth.

"They say they can't give you money back because of state tax law," Ford said, be it for over-billing or less precisely defined problems. "Detroit just needs to do something dynamic."

Edythe Ford from the Coalition for Property Tax Justice says that something bold and innovative needs to be done to address the property tax over assessments at a property tax relief information event at Robert C. Valade Park in Detroit on Sept. 18, 2021.

Horhn acknowledged that the city assessments were problematic before 2014, when Mayor Mike Duggan was elected to his first term. In April of that year, the state took over the assessor's office, "and they wouldn't do that if everything was in line."

"Everybody is painfully aware of what happened," he said. The department was underfunded and poorly staffed, and "people did lose their homes. People were overtaxed."

But oversight ended after only two years instead of an expected four, he said, and his office offers a simple appeals process for homeowners who believe their tax bill is excessive.

Duggan decreased property taxes by 20% shortly after taking office. A state-ordered reappraisal of all Detroit residential property was completed in 2017, but thousands of homeowners were left facing foreclosure over back taxes.

A Detroit News investigation in 2020 found that homeowners were overtaxed by at least $600 million in the years following the Great Recession. Activists say studies show that the lower end of the housing market remains overbilled; Horhn cites figures that say otherwise.

West-sider Frances Lewis, 85, only knows that she needs help.

"I've been paying taxes on my house for 51 years," she said Saturday. "I don't want to lose it."

The purple-shirted volunteers from WMCAA suggested some options, she said. One of them even came out from behind a table to tie Lewis' shiny gold sneaker.

"I think," Lewis said, "I'm a little less worried."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn