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If you want to make things right in cities, I urge you to consider Bernadette Atuahene’s article that is entitled “Don’t Let Detroit’s Revival Rest on an Injustice” (NYT, July 23, 2017). A visiting professor at Wayne State’s Law School, Bernadette Atuahene addresses unconstitutional property assessment that has led the loss of poor and minority people’s homes in Detroit. To learn more about this unjust increase in taxes, Professor Atuahene of Wayne State’s Law School suggests contacting the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures. In addition, she refers to the class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the law firm Covington & Burling.
Poor and black home owners in Detroit are being attacked on all sides. Exorbitant and illegal taxes can result in the unjust and unfair transfer of property to new homeowners and to new business owners, many who are white and well-off. The unlawful increase in taxes was preceded by the privatized consolidation of land and power on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the Ambassador Bridge, which marks a major international border. Although The New York Times has published an article about the land grab on the Canadian side, similar attention has not been paid to what’s been happening on the Detroit side of the privately-owned bridge, which enables trade and travel to take place along this northern U.S. border.
It’s time for journalists, lawyers and social scientists to go through property records that document patterns of changing cross-national ownership and land consolidation on the U.S. side of the Detroit River, and to investigate if similar international crossings (those on the Mexican border, for example) have also have undergone privatization and consolidation. In the case of Detroit, the post-1970 privatization of land around the Ambassador Bridge was accompanied by business owners’ intentional deterioration of property values in Detroit. This allowed these profit seekers to reap the financial benefits that came from the cascading decline of property values. They acquired low-cost properties along the riverbank and in adjacent neighborhoods, something they manufactured years ago to increase their wealth. In addition to facing these pressures that were manufactured by business owners and government officials and agencies, homeowners in Detroit saw their taxes raised to unconstitutional levels, as defined by state law. To make matters worse, new policies prevented homeowners from paying taxes ahead of time. The unconstitutional increases in taxes and the City’s recent decision to make families pay their taxes only on the due date (early payments became forbidden and late payments triggered punitive late fees) created new economic burdens for long-term homeowners, many who were poor and black. Because of these new tax policies—which the City carries out even though they may illegal–growing numbers of black families have lost their homes due to “failure to pay taxes.” When long-time homeowners were forced out of their homes and into the streets, many poor and black families witnessed their homes being occupied by growing numbers of middle-class white families.
What can we do to halt and reverse these painful, unjust policies and economic changes? The City could make full compensation to the expropriated homeowners. The unconstitutional increases in taxation and new policies that outlaw early payment of taxes need to come to an end. The accumulation of property by large business owners and boards of directors should be addressed because Detroit’s downtown buildings were sold to large corporations for one-tenth of their value. The intensification of capital consolidation along the international riverbank needs to be stopped and the City’s land and resources should be distributed to Detroiters who labored for Detroit and America.
Since 1980 City and County officials have demonstrated their ongoing neglect of Detroit’s residents. This has included refusing to oversee and intervene in urban trends, including the cultivation of declining land values and the acquisition of cheapened property, which has hurt long-term residents. Of tremendous concern, too, has been the fact that the number of black teachers has been declining dramatically, harming the education and social well-being of both black and white students who need the specific life-based and academic knowledge shared by black teachers. Black teachers provide educational and community leadership, they serve as role models, and they give encouragement and advice that relates to students’ lives. Black teachers are an essential part of education, community change, and economic development.
Through its depiction of one moment in urban life, the film “Detroit” depicts racial violence that continues to this day. Like Bernadette Atuahene’s educational work on unfair and unconstitutional taxes, the film “Detroit” reinforces the point that unfair, unequal processes didn’t have to happen to the people of Detroit or to people in other parts of the United States. We must keep pushing to stop unconstitutional and unequal processes of expropriation, to figure out ways to compensate for past wrongs, and to set in motion new democratic processes that move people forward.
by Graduate, S.D. Miller School, Detroit