Detroit Coalition Pursues Justice for Illegally Foreclosed Families

Detroit, MI – On June 14, 2018, Unicorn Riot was live from a press conference held near the new home of Sonja Bonnett’s family. The community was celebrating both Bonnett’s returning to home ownership after her previous home was foreclosed and seized, as well as expressing hope and determination that roofs be put back over the heads of many more displaced Detroit families.

Detroit has been battered by an expansive illegal property tax crisis brought on by the city government that resulted in one in four houses in Detroit being foreclosed. According to Bernadette Atuahene, Professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, “America [hasn’t] seen this number of property tax foreclosures in American history since the Great Depression.”

Professor Atuahene released a study on unconstitutional property tax assessments in Detroit that shows that between 2009-2015, “anywhere from 55-85% of properties were unconstitutionally assessed, and the constitutional violation was most pronounced for lower valued properties.

Thursday’s press conference, which started with the chant, “What do we want? ‘Our homes!’ When do we want them? ‘Now!'” was organized by the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures and composed of more than ten different organizations.

Antonia Giles, a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures, introduced the occasion by describing the event as both celebratory for the family who were once again homeowners, and also as one visible victory in a broader movement:

“It also marks the start of a larger movement towards dignity restoration for individuals and families just like Sonja’s whose homes ended up in tax foreclosures after being illegally assessed by [Wayne] county.”

Professor Atuahene spoke at the press conference and challenged local and state government to undo some of the continuing damage of the foreclosure crisis:

“If community groups can marshal their resources to provide a home for one family who was illegally foreclosed upon, then surely Mayor Mike Duggan, Treasurer Eric Sabree, and Governor Rick Snyder can work together with the banks to establish a program to compensate all those who lost their homes unjustly. This is about dignity restoration.”

Professor Bernadette Atuahene speaking during the press conference

Research shows a very biased approach was taken by the city assessors. The low value properties were unconstitutionally assessed at a rate of 95% compared to the highest-priced homes in Detroit being unconstitutionally assessed at a rate of 13%.

Professor Atuahene’s study is part of a larger research project that has also developed a new theoretical concept called Stategraft, which is when state agents transfer property from residents to the state in violation of the state’s own laws.

A mother of six, Sonja Bonnett bought her house for $20,000 and their home was unconstitutionally assessed at a value of $46,000, leading to inflated property taxes. They qualified for a relief program that would exempt them from paying property taxes because of their low income, but due to many barriers along the process of the Detroit bureaucratic system, they were unaware of the program.

Only 4,000 (10%) of the estimated eligible 40,000 households receive the Poverty Tax Exemption.

The original home of the Bonnett family that was foreclosed upon was auctioned and bought for $500. The Coalition worked with them to get a new place for the Bonnetts to call home.

Sonja Bonnett’s daughters standing with signs at the press conference

One year ago, on 17 June 2017, the Coalition convened a People’s Forum to seek input “on what forms of restorative justice the coalition should pursue for the survivors of illegal foreclosures” from those who had faced foreclosure in Wayne County.

The three primary demands that came out of last year’s People’s Forum were to:

  • stop unconstitutional property tax assessments;
  • suspend all pending property tax foreclosures until it can be confirmed that delinquent taxpayers have not been assessed unconstitutionally;
  • compensate those Detroit residents who have already lost their homes through illegal tax foreclosures.

Sonja Bonnett said that the harm done to her family from the illegal assessment and foreclosure is irreparable, and that systemic injustice is done on purpose to get people out of their homes. She went on to tell us that The Coalition To End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures can’t help everybody struggling through foreclosure, but that the house that she is graciously moving into could be a foundation of the path forward.

Unicorn Riot is in Detroit for the 20th annual Allied Media Conference. Attendees of the 2017 AMC were invited to document the People’s Forum as one of the AMC sessions of that year, and today’s press conference as one of the 2018 AMC sessions.

Watch the full press conference below:

Please consider a tax-deductible donation to help sustain our horizontally-organized, non-profit media organization: supportourworknew