“Our Taxes Are Too Damn High”: Institutional Racism, Property Tax Assessment, and the Fair Housing Act

Bernadette Atuahene | June 1, 2018

To prevent inflated property tax bills, the Michigan Constitution prohibits property tax assessments from exceeding 50% of a property’s market value. Between 2009 and 2015, the City of Detroit assessed 55%–85% of its residential properties in violation of the Michigan Constitution, and these unconstitutional assessments have had dire consequences. Between 2011 and 2015, one in four Detroit properties have been foreclosed upon for nonpayment of illegally inflated property taxes. In addition to Detroit, the other two cities in Michigan’s Wayne County where African-Americans comprise 70% or more of the population—Highland Park and Inkster—have similarly experienced systemic unconstitutional assessments and unprecedented property tax foreclosure rates. This Essay explores whether property tax administration policies in Wayne County disparately impact African-Americans in violation of the Fair Housing Act. I find that unconstitutional assessments and property tax foreclosures occur at a significantly higher rate in Wayne County’s predominately African-American cities than in its predominately white ones. More importantly, the county’s property tax equalization policy has failed to correct these disparities, leading to a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Unjust property tax administration was frequently used to dispossess African-Americans of their lands and other property during the Jim Crow era. Although the motives may be different, this deplorable form of institutional racism is resurgent in Michigan.