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Opinion: Overtaxed Detroit homeowners are still in need of justice

Mary Sheffield

The Duggan administration recently introduced a resolution that attempts to right the wrongs of the historic unconstitutional over-assessment of Detroit property owners. The resolution, while certainly a step in the right direction, falls woefully short of providing justice to those who in most cases were irreparably harmed and does nothing to address, or even acknowledge, the continual over-assessment of the lowest-valued homes in the city.

Studies between 2008-2015, have shown the city of Detroit assessed 55 to 85% of properties in violation of the Michigan Constitution, which states that no property shall be assessed at more than 50% of its market value. In response to the illegality, the State Tax Commission forced the city of Detroit to complete a parcel by parcel reassessment of all residential properties, which the city finished in January 2017.

Duggan's resolution falls woefully short of providing justice to those who in most cases were irreparably harmed, Sheffield writes.

The Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago re-examined the data to see if systematic unconstitutional assessments continued even after the reassessments.

While they found that the proportion of homes assessed above the legal limit (50% of market value) has fallen from approximately one-half to one-third, the over-assessment of low-valued properties relative to high valued properties has worsened. In fact, the city of Detroit is still over-assessing the majority of lower-valued properties (less than $19,000 sale price).

I have been working hard to fight for Detroit homeowners. Since 2008, one-third of properties have gone through tax foreclosure. With one-third of Detroiters living below the federal poverty line, most should not have been paying these illegally inflated property taxes since they qualified for the Poverty Tax Exemption (PTE).

Consequently, in 2017, I authored the Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program ordinance, which greatly expanded PTE accessibility. I later joined forces with the Coalition for Property Tax Justice to form a workgroup to examine compensatory options for Detroit’s over-assessed and foreclosed homeowners. The recommendations that came out of this compensation workgroup are, in large part, the basis for the resolution before council.

With that said, we must remember that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Thus, these measures are long overdue and, additionally, do not go far enough to repair the harm caused while leaving the door wide open for history to repeat itself. In order to prevent the ongoing over-assessment of property in Detroit, I sponsored, and the Council unanimously supported passing, a resolution urging the State Tax Commission to allow new methods of assessing property in the State Assessor’s manual which would significantly reduce or eliminate over-taxation all together.

Mary Sheffield

While it’s often said that “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” I firmly believe that a little progress should not be a substitution for justice. We should not be using a resolution to scrub the record of those responsible for the over-assessments and absolving them from any responsibility to fix the problem.

The resolution, as written, while providing restitution to some over-assessed homeowners also represents a thinly veiled attempt to quell the over-assessment concerns raised when the administration requested to increase property taxes in Detroit over the next 30 years via Proposal N.

I, along with the Coalition for Property Tax Justice, am committed to fully restoring the dignity of those affected and, even in the midst of Detroit’s budget constraints, ensuring Detroit homeowners are made whole financially. Anything else would be uncivilized and devoid of real justice!

Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield represents the 5th District, which covers the lower eastside, downtown, the riverfront and central portions of Detroit and holds the distinction of the youngest person ever elected to Detroit’s City Council.