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The city of Detroit has the opportunity to right a tremendous wrong. Since 2011, thousands of Detroit families have unjustly and illegally lost their homes to tax foreclosure.

The Beal family’s struggle with foreclosure and finding a new home shows us what is at stake. Sabrina Beal and her family were ecstatic to move into a home of their own in Detroit’s North End neighborhood in 2014.

But less than a year later, a letter stating that more than $9,000 in back taxes were owed on the property sent them into a turmoil that eventually resulted in foreclosure. When the yellow bag from Wayne County appeared on their front door indicating that the house was being foreclosed, they were confused and heartbroken.

As Sabrina shares, “It was hurtful, I felt like a failure because I kept promising my kids that this is ours and that we’re moving along in life. And it just got shut down.”

Sabrina worked hard to provide a stable home, but three huge injustices stood in the way of her family’s security.

First, the city of Detroit inflated her property tax assessment in violation of the Michigan Constitution.

Second, the accumulation of back taxes from the previous owner were added to her bill, which she was unaware of and could not afford.

Third, she and thousands of other eligible Detroiters were kept in the dark about the poverty tax exemption (now called HPTAP) which would have precluded her from having to pay the illegally inflated property tax.

Even low-income families that tried to use the exemption found themselves in a maze of needlessly opaque and complicated processes. Sabrina believes that knowing about and having access to the poverty tax exemption would have saved her family undue trauma and saved their house. But she was never informed of the exemption. So, the Beal family became part of the tidal wave of foreclosures that hit Detroit between 2011 and 2015 with 1 in 4 families going through the tumult of Wayne County taking their homes.

In the darkness of the foreclosure experience, Sabrina and her family found a bright spot in the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures . Today, the Beal family has a home of their own on Detroit’s West side thanks to the Beal family’s commitment, drive, and resilience and the Dignity Restoration Housing Program (“DRHP”), a program of the coalition. As Sabrina describes her experience with DRHP, “They blessed me with this house and it was a miracle. I was so ecstatic. I’m very grateful for them because I didn’t think I would be able to own another home again because of the (foreclosure). My children are happy because they finally have their own home again, and they can be free. It’s a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

The Coalition created DRHP as a model for the city to emulate on a mass scale. Restoring equity, property and dignity is no easy task, but DRHP intends to show the city how it’s done. DRHP purchases and rehabs homes with funding from private donors and grants to ensure property compensation through a process that honors the dignity of recipients. However, this is work that rightly falls to the elected officials on whose watch the devastation occurred.

Compensation is the least the city and county can do to repair the damage that has been done. As Sabrina advocates, “We want the city and the county to understand that I’m just one family, and there are thousands of families out here that lost their homes to illegal foreclosures. We need them to get on track and help those families restore their homes and their livelihood.

Erin Stanley is a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures and a doctoral student in Social Work and Anthropology at Wayne State University.

Mary Kate Sickel is a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures and a law student at the University of Michigan Law School. 

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