City Council President Mary Sheffield plans to introduce new laws aimed at improving property tax assessments, reducing bus fare for low-income riders, protecting renters and several other measures to aid vulnerable Detoriters.
It’s been five years since Sheffield unveiled a set of policy proposals dubbed the “People’s Bills,” which she developed in partnership with community organizations and neighborhood advocates. Sheffield, who since became leader of council and is now considering running for mayor, celebrated legislative victories during a Monday press conference and reaffirmed her commitment to achieving the full list.
“Over the last five years, we have moved the needle from rhetoric to action with respect to addressing the social needs and issues that impact so many Detroiters,” Sheffield said. “We must build upon the foundation that we laid, amplifying our efforts to uplift every Detroiter and leave no one behind. In order for Detroit’s revitalization to be sustainable, we as a city must invest in and protect our most important resource, and that is our residents.”
Sheffield recalled how, five years earlier, a former chief of staff in the Duggan administration warned about the potential fiscal impact of her agenda, saying the proposals should be carefully studied so as not to be “an emergency manager bill.” A half-off parking ticket discount for residents was expected to cost the city millions of dollars in revenue, but residents only shaved off $55,000 in fines as of last year.
Sheffield said she’s since proven detractors wrong. The mayor often touts the impact of items on the list of “People’s Bills” Sheffield provided – including home repair grants for seniors, property tax exemptions for low-income homeowners and wage increases for police officers.
“We want to improve the lives of Detroiters but we also have our eye on the budget,” Sheffield said of the city that came under state oversight in 2013, months before filing for bankruptcy. “No one wants to send us back to emergency management.”
Sheffield was joined on stage in Spirit Plaza Monday by representatives from the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA), Detroit People’s Platform, Coalition for Property Tax Justice, Right to Counsel Coalition, Detroit Tenants Association, the ACLU and others.
They celebrated the passage of more than a dozen of Sheffield’s policy goals, including the creation of a legal aid program for low-income renters and reparations task force, resident parking ticket discounts, neighborhood improvement funding, and an industry standards board for arena workers.
Mike Aaron, business manager for LiUNA Local 1191, called on Sheffield’s supporters to “get on the phone” and push her council colleagues to support her proposals. Some items have been formally introduced and remain under discussion in council committees, while others have yet to come forward.
“I know a lot of times we wonder ‘what are (City Council members) doing,’ but this morning we’ve learned a lot,” Aaron said. “Guess what? We’ve got to get (Sheffield) some help.”
Sheffield said her top two priorities for the rest of this year are passing property tax reform and responsible contracting ordinances. But both proposals encountered legal hurdles, she said.
“When you come armed with the residents’ voice and the direct impact that ordinance can have on quality of life for Detroiters, that’s your No. 1 tool when it comes to getting things done before council,” Sheffield said. “We all were voted in by the people of the city and that should be the No. 1 agenda. These everyday Detroiters also come with research. They have evidence. We’re not just putting anything out there that is not backed up by data.”
Here’s a closer look at what’s next for Sheffield’s “People’s Bills.”
Property Tax Reform
Sheffield’s ordinance would bring more transparency to property tax assessments and give the council a role in recommending appeals to the city’s Board of Review.
Sheffield said a key provision is establishing a publicly-available database for residents to have a better understanding of how the city assesses the value of their property. The changes are inspired by the rampant overtaxation of residents between 2010 and 2016, which caused a state-ordered reappraisal in 2017, and placed the city’s assessment division under state oversight.
Residents have continued to raise concerns about overtaxation. During a Monday evening town hall, Duggan said his administration “addressed it” by reassessing every parcel and cutting assessments by 20 percent citywide after he took office in 2014.
Michigan law prohibits municipalities from assessing any property at more than 50 percent of its market value. Bernadette Atuahene, a professor and property law scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School who lives in Detroit, said she’s provided the city with data showing the lowest-value homes are still being illegally overtaxed.
“We have empirically proven overassessment,” Atuahene said.
Sheffield introduced a property tax reform proposal drafted in partnership with the coalition last year, but the city’s Law Department said key sections were illegal. Another version of the ordinance introduced in February also stalled.
The latest version of the ordinance hasn’t advanced from the Budget Finance and Audit Committee. Discussions on the language are still ongoing, Detroit Assessor and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Alvin Horhn said during a Sept. 6 public hearing. Sheffield has also asked Horhn’s office for a fiscal impact report.
“Why should we wait for residents to have to file an appeal when we know there’s a systematic problem over assessment?” Atuahene said. “Instead of having citizens who are busy with work and childcare and life to have the run up here and file these appeals … it’s giving City Council power that they do not have at the moment to intervene when we have data and evidence of overassessment.”
Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett said the City Council lacks legal authority to challenge property tax assessments.
Council Members Fred Durhal III and Coleman Young II said they’re supportive of fixing issues that caused residents to be overassessed, but expressed concern about legal issues raised by Duggan administration officials.
Sheffield’s ordinance would create a three-member task force responsible for reviewing sales data and creating an annual study. The study would help the council decide whether to appeal the valuation of properties through a resolution.
Sheffield’s proposed ordinance prevents members of the Board of Review from being current employees of the city. It would require that ave relevant experience and a public appointment hearing as well as for the board to comply with the Open Meetings Act.
The proposed ordinance would require the release of information used to determine the value of property, makes changes to the appeal process and requires the city to reappraise all residential property every five years. It would also allow households earning between 195 percent and 269 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify for a 10 percent tax exemption.
This ordinance would provide credits to contractors that meet requirements aimed at improving worker conditions. The “equalization credits” are essentially discounts used to make bids by businesses more competitive and are already used to help Detroit-based companies receive contracts with the city.
The proposed ordinance would offer two new 6 percent credits: One for contractors who pay living wages, give employees benefits and provide retirement benefits, and another for contractors that have registered apprenticeship programs for employees.
Sheffield said the ordinance would require contractors to affirm they have the licensing and workplace safety standards in place.
The legislation was created in partnership with the Laborer’s International Union of North America and Local 1191. Sheffield introduced a draft in 2022 but it hasn’t moved forward for a vote.
“We deserve a livable sustainable wage for a family,” Aaron said. “You shouldn’t have to work two or three jobs to sustain your family.”
Right to Renew
Sheffield is working with the Detroit Tenants’ Association to prevent landlords from denying tenants from renewing their lease without cause. The proposal is based on an ordinance passed in Ann Arbor last year.
Sheffield asked the Law Department to weigh in on the legality of a “right to renew” ordinance in May. Her request remains within the Planning and Economic Development Committee and was briefly discussed on Sept. 7.
The Ann Arbor law is the first of its kind in Michigan and requires landlords to offer tenants a lease renewal 180 days prior to their lease end date. It also prohibits landlords from denying a renewal without just cause. Landlords who don’t comply can be responsible for paying tenants’ relocation fees.
Sheffield said landlords who don’t make a good faith effort to renew a lease should pay tenants two months worth of rent to help them relocate.
Steven Rimmer, an organizer with the Detroit Tenants Association, said the proposed ordinance creates “simple fairness” for residents who deserve stable housing. The organization received more than 200 signatures on a petition in support of a right to renew ordinance for Detroit.
“If you’re a responsible member of your community, a caring neighbor and fulfill all your rental obligations, you should have the peace of mind that comes with housing security,” Rimmer said.
Rimmer said tenants who speak out about substandard living conditions should be protected from retaliation by landlords. Rimmer said he wasn’t able to renew his lease because of his organizing work.
“This experience taught me that without safeguards, renters are left exposed and vulnerable to the whims and morals of landlords and investors who will prioritize profit over basic human rights,” Rimmer said.
Sheffield said “major progress” has been made toward reducing the cost of water and sewerage service for low-income residents, but she wants a law affirming that water access is a human right.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) launched its first income-based water affordability rate last year. The “lifeline plan” offers fixed monthly rates between $18 and $56 based on income and water usage. However, more than 2,000 households enrolled in the program missed payments earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a pandemic-era moratorium on water shutoffs expired at the end of 2022. DWSD announced it will start turning off water for customers who owe more than $5,000 and are not enrolled in a payment plan, starting with residents who owe the most.
Sheffield said she’s also planning to introduce an ordinance that would discontinue water shutoffs until affordability goals are reached.
Fare discount for low-income bus users
The City Council sought a $10 million earmark for bus fare discounts in its list of recommendations for the 2022-23 fiscal budget, but the program has yet to receive funding. Sheffield again called for using federal pandemic relief funds to create an income-based bus fare.
Transit advocates have been calling for a reduced fare since at least 2017. Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer for the Detroit People’s Platform’s Transit Justice Team, said the proposal came after bus fares were raised from $1.50 to $2.
“Riders all across the city recognize the need for a program that will reduce fares by over 75 percent for those that are low-income, experiencing homelessness, veterans, and those that are returning citizens,” Monczunski said.