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Student-Led Pro Bono Project Makes Major Difference for Detroit Homeowners

By Chelsea Liddy Pivtorak
April 30, 2020

While most students were enjoying much-deserved time off during their most recent winter break, 2L Marie Sheehan was fielding calls from Detroit homeowners. Sheehan, at the encouragement of Michigan Law's senior research scholar Bernadette Atuahene and under the supervision of clinical teaching fellow Andrea Van Hoven, is spearheading the Property Tax Appeal Project (PTAP), aimed at mitigating housing foreclosures in Detroit. 

Atuahene has conducted quite a bit of research in the property tax arena, and has found that one of the major causes of home foreclosures in Detroit is the over-assessment of property taxes. Often, the homeowners with the lowest-value homes are the most overtaxed—sometimes double or triple the constitutional limit. Through her research and her work with community-based organizations, Atuahene saw an opportunity for student advocates to aid homeowners in the tax appeal process. She asked Sheehan, her research assistant at the time, if she would be interested in this project. 

Taking on a pro bono initiative on top of a full course load and clinic work would be a daunting task for anyone, but Sheehan did not hesitate to act. "I think it's really important for law students to engage with Detroit. Some students spend their whole time in Ann Arbor, but I think we need to learn about the communities around us."

Sheehan asked Professor Van Hoven, whom she knew through her time in the Workers' Rights Clinic, to serve as the supervising attorney for PTAP. They worked with 20 student advocates, from both Michigan Law and Wayne State University, to develop and execute the project.

Appealing a housing assessment is difficult—often, homeowners are not prepared with the appropriate information to make their case, and the technical language used on the forms can be difficult to interpret. The process is especially arduous in Detroit, which is one of the only municipalities in the country that requires a two-step appeal process before the claimant can appear before a statewide tax tribunal. Sheehan noted, "It's difficult to navigate all of that administration and bureaucracy, and the system isn't necessarily fair." 

The team mailed more than 3500 flyers to Detroit residents based on available housing data. After an initial phone call in November, the team ended up working with 68 claimants. They conducted intake appointments at their homes and had to work quickly. "Most homeowners receive their property tax assessment notice in January, and then they only have 14 days to submit all the critical documents for the appeal, which includes taking photos, gathering the appropriate materials," Sheehan said. 

The students presented two main arguments during the Board of Review meeting in March. First, they collected data on the market value of comparable homes, and demonstrated that these homes were selling for less than the assessed market value of their clients' homes. Then, the students presented evidence of structural damage and estimated repair costs. When a property is valued, the assessment does not normally account for any damage that may be present on the inside. They argued that their clients were being taxed on repairs that had not taken place. 

The appeal process was interrupted by COVID-19, and the team is waiting on final opinions from the assessors. However, Van Hoven postulated that they were able to obtain an initial decrease in taxes for nearly all of the clients. "The students were extremely passionate about this project—they spent a significant amount of time advocating for some of Detroit's most vulnerable homeowners. I am highly impressed with their level of professionalism and dedication to the task at hand. They have made Michigan Law proud," she said. 

Detroit has a moratorium on tax foreclosures through 2020, but Sheehan plans to push PTAP forward. "I am interested in creating a model that other people could use to implement this project elsewhere, because I don't think it's just a problem in Detroit. The overtaxation of low-value homes is a national phenomenon." 

Van Hoven added, "Many homeowners don't know what their rights are when it comes to housing assessments—this is why it's so critical to have student advocates walk by their side. Being a part of this work has been tremendously inspirational."

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