Rosita Graham said seniors in a quiet westside neighborhood should benefit from added security and snow removal services paid for through a new local tax, but that cost also squeezes the budget for fixed incomes residents, like herself.
This month, on one of the hottest days on record, Graham was outside. The 70-year-old retiree watered carefully trimmed plants behind a yard sign denoting her membership in the University District Community Association. But Graham was not among the 817 residents who signed a petition in support of collecting property taxes to cover the cost of snow removal, security and mosquito control. Graham said she’s not opposed to the idea either, but the $175 tax hike for her neighbors feels like another sign of mounting expenses in a city where property taxes are already too high.
“I don’t get a break,” Graham said while rolling up her hose.
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Detroit’s City Council last week unanimously approved the creation of a special assessment district for the University District. Although some aren’t pleased, it’s a victory for neighborhood organization members who have been working to secure funds for supplemental services since 2016. The new fee will appear on summer tax bills for the next seven years.
The council’s approval marks the fourth such district in Detroit since a city ordinance was passed in 2014. All are located in City Council District 2, represented by Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway, in neighborhoods along Seven Mile between Woodward and Livernois.
Whitfield-Calloway said she’s convinced a majority of residents in the University District support the special assessment, but expressed concern about seniors living on a fixed income. Those who don’t pay the annual fee are considered delinquent on property taxes and could be subject to foreclosure under the ordinance.
Ed Stuckey, a 44-year resident of the University District and a block captain, said benefits for residents justify the cost and urged the council to approve the special assessment.
“The current tax base unfortunately cannot provide all the services Detroit communities would like,” Stuckey said during a public hearing on the assessment ahead of the council’s Tuesday vote. “As a community, we need to keep moving forward. The proposal is just another measure to accomplish this.”
The historic neighborhood sits on the western border of the Detroit Golf Club and is contained between Seven Mile, West McNichols, Livernois Avenue and Fairway Drive. It was named for its proximity to the University of Detroit Mercy and is known for its collection of single-family homes dating back to the 1920s. Homes shaded by large trees reflect a variety of architectural styles, and many feature yard signs showing membership in the neighborhood association.
The University District is largely owner-occupied, according to Data Driven Detroit. Most homes are valued over $150,000 and more than a quarter of the residents are over age 65.
Median income in the University District was nearly twice the amount citywide, and 43% of residents earned more than $100,000 in 2018, according to Data Driven Detroit.
“Most folks in this neighborhood are retirees, so we’re home all the time, we see a lot and we take care of each other,” Graham said. “Pretty good schools, very good neighbors. Just the place someone would want to live. Of course, the prices of houses have gone up tremendously since I’ve been here. It’s a little harder to get in.”
Tahira Ahmad noted during public comment on the measure that she lives in the University District and said she had not heard about the proposal until last week. Ahmad said she’s among the Detroiters that the city overtaxed by about $600 million over a six-year span and does not feel she should be made to pay additional taxes until she is compensated for the city’s mistake.
“We’re illegally overtaxed,” Ahmad said. “Now you want to add another tax? If this is good enough for the University District it’s good enough for every taxpayer in the city of Detroit. We do not want to have a separate entity in our communities receiving more benefits, whether they have the money to pay for it or not.”
Detroiters pay some of the highest property tax rates in the country. In 2020, Detroit’s 2.83% effective tax rate on a median valued home was more than double the national average.
Council President Pro Tem James Tate sponsored the city’s special assessment ordinance after several communities said they wanted the option. But Tate noted times have changed since Detroit created the process for neighborhoods to levy fees for supplemental services. Tate said since 2014 the city’s finances have improved and its services have improved in tandem.
“I’m just intrigued to see neighborhoods still looking to utilize this opportunity for a special assessment district even in the face of changing climate, if you will, in terms of the city’s ability to provide at least some of these services,” Tate said. “We have a process that’s in place now where the community is able to determine what they want to see within their neighborhoods.”
The petition-driven assessments are allowed under a 2011 amendment to Michigan law for cities with a population of more than 600,000, and can be authorized by the council if 51% within the district approve.
Advocates said the University District’s proposal enjoyed broad support from residents. A recent petition gathered support from 81% of taxpayers, according to the city, and residents who own 55% the land in the neighborhood, clearing the 51% threshold set by state law.
The University District Community Association (UCDA) plans to expand a paid radio security patrol and ensure streets are plowed in the winter after four inches of snowfall. State law also allows the funds to go toward mosquito control, but residents said it probably won’t be needed.
Graham said the neighborhood has seen a string of petty thefts, which is why she keeps her car off the street. Violent crime is rare, Graham said, though she recalled one incident in 2015 where a federal judge was shot on his front porch. Having more security wouldn’t hurt, she said.
According to an operational plan online, the UCDA intends to have a committee oversee the special assessment funding. The cost of $175 per homeowner can increase by no more than 15% over the seven-year term, if vendor charges go up. Representatives of the community association could not be reached for comment.
This is the second time the UDCA gathered signatures for the special assessment district.
The UDCA created a committee to study the merits of a special assessment in 2016 and received approval from the City Council to create a neighborhood improvement organization that would administer the funds. Enough petitions were gathered to schedule a vote of the council in 2019, but the decision was pulled after issues with the petition language rendered them invalid.
New petitions were created with approval from the city’s Law Department, but the pandemic struck just as association members were embarking on the petition drive.
According to the UDCA website, signature gathering efforts were limited to road stands, visits to polling places, and some door-to-door interactions. Updates were reported in community newsletters, email alerts and community meetings. The petitions were submitted to the Detroit assessor’s office in February.
A handful of residents have argued during council committee meetings and at formal sessions that they weren’t given ample notice of the pending decision on the assessment. However, council members and Detroit’s assessor have said the petition signatures show most residents are in favor of the new tax.
“There was clear support before the pandemic,” Detroit Assessor Alvin Horhn said last week. “There continues to be clear support to do it.”