Tonya Myers-Phillips
Attorney Tonya Myers-Phillips, pictured in this May 2022 file photo, is among the legal representatives of complainants who allege Detroit and other majority-Black cities continue to improperly assess property taxes. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Residents in three majority-Black Wayne County communities and a tax justice coalition filed two complaints Thursday alleging that the cities are discriminating against Black and Hispanic homeowners by overtaxing and foreclosing upon them at higher rates. 

The Coalition for Property Tax Justice held a Thursday press conference to announce the complaints filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The group said it is seeking an investigation into alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act. The complaints claim overassessment remains “rampant” in Detroit, Inkster and Highland Park, causing a wave of evictions and over payments among vulnerable residents. 

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“The majority of the homes being overtaxed and foreclosed are Black-owned homes, resulting in the loss of Black generational wealth,” said Tahira Ahmad, a Detroit homeowner who is listed as a complainant. “This is the reason Detroit went from the largest Black-homeownership in America to the largest Black renter class in America.”

Bernadette Atuahene, a property law scholar with the University of Wisconsin who leads the coalition, said studies of Detroit’s assessment practices improved after the city completed a state-ordered reappraisal of all of its homes in 2017. However, Atuahene argued, the lowest-value homes are still being assessed in excess of legal limits. 

“We have this overwhelming evidence that the City of Detroit is violating the Michigan State Constitution,” she argued, “which quite clearly says no property can be assessed at more than 50% of its market value.”

Atuahene said her research shows Wayne County’s majority-Black municipalities – including Detroit, Highland Park and Inkster – face a higher rate of foreclosure than majority-white areas. 

The complaints allege the responsibility lies with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Assessor Alvin Horhn, Inkster Mayor Patrick Wimberly and Assessor Marwan Abdullah, Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp and Certifying Assessor Douglas Shaw, and Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree. Representatives with Inkster, Highland Park and Wayne County could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield and District 6 Council Member Gabriela Sanitago-Romero have both described overassessment as a “systemic” issue. Meanwhile, Horhn rebuked the claim that over taxation remains a widespread problem in Detroit. 

“There is no systemic overassessment issue in Detroit,” Horhn told BridgeDetroit on Thursday. “We acknowledge, and everyone knows, what happened prior to 2014.”

The Michigan State Tax Commission assumed control over the Detroit Assessment Division in 2014 and oversaw the city’s parcel-by- parcel residential property reappraisal for the first time in 60 years. As a result of the citywide reappraisal, assessments were reduced for approximately 70% of properties.

“What happened in the assessor’s office (in the past) was symbolic of everything that was happening in Detroit,” Horhn said. “There simply weren’t the resources to do the job correctly … There is no overassessment issue in the city right now, and I’m very confident saying that.”

The coalition said it also is asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to require all Michigan cities to measure whether they are fairly assessing property taxes each year and to work with the State Tax Commission to create a corrective action plan for local governments that fail to meet that standard. 

Advocates say Detroit is “ground zero” for a national problem, pointing to research that shows Black and Hispanic homeowners pay, on average, 10% to 13% more in property taxes than white homeowners. This amounts to an extra $300 to $400 annually.

A frequently-cited Detroit News report found Detroiters were overtaxed by $600 million from 2010 to 2016.

Horhn said Detroit took significant steps to permanently remedy its assessment practices. A forensic audit of property assessment released this month identified “noticeable improvements” since the 2010-16 crisis but still flagged problems with data integrity and potential risks that could cause homes to be overassessed. 

Atuahene said the city’s overtaxation problem persists. Detroiters are still losing their homes, she said, because they can’t afford what she called illegally inflated tax payments. 

Advocates pointed to research from the Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago, which concluded that overassessment of low-valued properties relative to high-valued properties has gotten worse since the reappraisal. The 2020 study found the proportion of overassessed homes in Detroit dropped since 2016, but one-third of all homes were taxed in excess of legal limits in 2018. 

Horhn said the relatively small number of Detroiters who seek to appeal their property tax bills with the city’s Board of Review shows overassessment is not a systemic problem. Activists say pursuing an appeal is difficult to navigate and time-sensitive, so it shouldn’t be used as a measure of homeowners who are incorrectly billed. 

“There’s 220,000 houses in Detroit and over 400,000 real and personal property parcels; I wouldn’t dare tell you that every single one of those parcels was correct,” Horhn said. “It wouldn’t be statistically possible. But that’s why the city has the most robust appeals process in this state. It’s as open as transparent as we can make it to ensure that every Detroiter has an opportunity to understand the valuation process, to question how their home is valued and to demand that we correct it if necessary.”

Complainants are represented by the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. Attorney Tonya Myers-Phillips said an investigation is needed to ensure Detroit is conducting accurate appraisals. 

“There’s overwhelming evidence of the systemic practices that continue to occur,” Myers-Phillips said. “We need an independent voice to verify and confirm what the coalition has been working on and what we know for many years.”

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