Victims of decades-old discrimination fight tax bills

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Hamtramck — Black victims of discrimination had to wait decades for a Detroit enclave to replace homes that were demolished in the 1950s and ’60s in the name of urban renewal, but now those homes may be priced out of reach for some residents after property taxes are reviewed.

Only a few years after many finally got keys to their new homes, dozens of Hamtramck residents are back in federal court challenging the property tax bills that they can’t afford and at least one civil liberties advocacy group is urging the city to apply “fairness of justice” to lower the tax bills.

“Astronomical,” said Mary Miner, whose taxes rose 63 percent to $2,600 on her two-story house on Goodson. “This is how I’m treated?”

Miner, 67, and others are worried they’ll be priced out of homes that were built or rehabbed as a legal cure for the destruction of Hamtramck’s black neighborhoods. They’re zeroing in on key words that helped resolve a 1968 lawsuit: affordable housing. A judge has responded by suspending tax bills and ordering negotiations.

It’s another twist in a 49-year-old case that doesn’t seem to end.

“Plaintiffs now face losing their homes and being displaced a second time,” attorney Michael Barnhart said. “This is unconscionable.”

Lawyers for Hamtramck, a 2-square-mile industrial city of 20,000 that is surrounded by Detroit, said it’s “dangerously false” to claim the city is targeting blacks with higher tax bills.

Hamtramck is amid its first citywide property reassessment in several years, Mayor Karen Majewski told The Detroit News on Sunday.

The assessments for many properties, including dozens of homes that were part of the lawsuit, haven’t been updated since new homes were built on vacant land, she said. That assessment has led to the higher tax bills.

“It was part of our due diligence and fiscal responsibility to take up this process of reassessment for the city that had been neglected for a long time,” Majewski said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan said Hamtramck has the ability to lower tax bills at its own discretion.

Property tax laws are premised on the concept of “fairness of justice,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU Michigan executive director, in an email Sunday.

“Cities routinely allow exemptions or reductions based on poverty, a desire for affordable housing, and many other reasons,” Moss said. “Hamtramck should use common sense here and not ignore the history of discrimination that affected innocent homeowners.”

For generations, Hamtramck was mostly known as a hub of Polish culture. A statue of St. John Paul II was erected to celebrate his visits here as a cardinal and pope. But the city now is more diverse: flags of the world fly along Jos. Campau Street; the City Council is majority Muslim; many business signs are in Arabic. The Census Bureau estimates more than 40 percent of residents were born outside the U.S.

Hamtramck was a much different city when the case first went to court. Blacks said white city leaders were destroying their neighborhoods by knocking down houses in the name of urban renewal or allowing the route of Interstate 75 to cut them off from the rest of the community.

The case involvedSarah Garrett and several other residents of the Holbrook/Jos. Campau neighborhood. They were told they had to move out so their homes could be demolished. When they didn't move fast enough, the city shut off their water, according to Barnhart, who brought the case and still represents the plaintiffs.

In 1971, U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith ordered Hamtramck to build 200 new homes for the plaintiffs and demanded that a portion of the new homes be built in the predominately black Grand Haven-Dyar neighborhood for those families displaced during the construction of I-75.

Keith ruled that the urban renewal carried out by the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was racially discriminatory. But it would be nearly 30 years before Hamtramck had the political will or the money to follow Keith’s orders.

After former Hamtramck Mayor Gary J. Zych was elected in 1997, he received $30 million in federal money to finance the new housing. Wayne County also offered funding and technical assistance to push the project forward.

A new sewer system, sidewalks and other improvements were made in Grand Haven-Dyar-Dequindre. New rental homes were built and, in 2002, construction planning began for homes to be sold. Wayne County pledged $1.7 million for the construction of the 33-house development in 2008.

The displaced residents and their descendants were eligible for up to $35,000 or more toward the purchase of the homes, valued at about $140,000 on average.

Majewski said she was surprised to see residents contesting their property tax bills in court because they were expected to receive financial counseling from the companies that built the homes.

“I would assume all these issues would have been laid out and thought through,” she said.

But residents say they feel they are being pushed out.

“We’re poor, on fixed incomes, most of us,” said disabled veteran Kevin Fantroy, 62, whose taxes went up by $1,000 to $2,800. “The city wants people who can pay taxes. We don’t fit their criteria.”

Barnhart predicts a wave of foreclosures if Hamtramck doesn’t reverse course. He said the remedy for past discrimination was to bring people back to Hamtramck, many of them low income, and low taxes are an “essential element” of affordable housing.

At a recent court hearing, city attorney Travis Mihelick promised Hamtramck would be flexible to try to solve the dispute. U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford halted tax collections at 68 houses and ordered both sides to talk over the summer.

“This is something that hangs over our heads in terms of community relations and moral authority,” said Majewski, the mayor, referring to the many turns in the long-running discrimination case. “It’s very important that we do the right thing. … There has just been one obstacle after another.”