Black vic­tims of decades-old dis­crim­i­na­tion fight tax bills

South Florida Times - - NATION - By ED WHITE

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. - Black vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion had to wait decades for a Detroit en­clave to re­place homes that were de­mol­ished in the 1950s and `60s in the name of ur­ban re­newal.

Now, only a few years af­ter many fi­nally got keys to their new homes, dozens of Hamtramck res­i­dents are back in fed­eral court chal­leng­ing prop­erty tax bills that they can't af­ford.

“As­tro­nom­i­cal,” said Mary Miner, whose taxes rose 63 per­cent to $2,600 on her twos­tory house on Good­son Street. “This is how I'm treated?”

Miner, 67, and oth­ers are wor­ried they'll be priced out of homes that were built or re­habbed as a le­gal cure for the de­struc­tion of Hamtramck's black neigh­bor­hoods. They're ze­ro­ing in on key words that helped re­solve a 1968 law­suit: af­ford­able hous­ing. A judge has re­sponded by sus­pend­ing tax bills and or­der­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions.

It's another twist in a 49-year-old case that doesn't seem to end.

“Plain­tiffs now face los­ing their homes and be­ing dis­placed a sec­ond time,” at­tor­ney Michael Barn­hart said. “This is un­con­scionable.”

Lawyers for Hamtramck, a 2-square-mile in­dus­trial city of 20,000 that is sur­rounded by Detroit, said it's “dan­ger­ously false” to claim the city is tar­get­ing blacks with higher tax bills.

“We want them to stay and be part of the com­mu­nity,” Mayor Karen Ma­jew­ski said. “This was just part of a broader strat­egy to make sure we had ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about the value of our prop­er­ties.”

For gen­er­a­tions, Hamtramck was mostly known as a hub of Pol­ish cul­ture. A statue of St. John Paul II was erected to cel­e­brate his vis­its here as a car­di­nal and pope. But the city now is more di­verse: flags of the world fly along Joseph Cam­pau Street; the city coun­cil is ma­jor­ity Mus­lim; many busi­ness signs are in Ara­bic. The Cen­sus Bureau es­ti­mates more than 40 per­cent of res­i­dents were born out­side the U.S.

Hamtramck was a much dif­fer­ent city when the case first went to court. Blacks said white city lead­ers were de­stroy­ing their neigh­bor­hoods by knock­ing down houses in the name of ur­ban re­newal or al­low­ing the route of In­ter­state 75 to cut them off from the rest of the com­mu­nity. In 1971, U.S. District Judge Da­mon Keith said “the to­tal ef­fect was re­moval of black cit­i­zens.”

But it took another decade for Hamtramck to agree to of­fer 200 hous­ing units as well as hous­ing for se­nior cit­i­zens. Con­struc­tion still didn't start for many more years, due to po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and poor city fi­nances. The process was so slow that many vic­tims of the dis­crim­i­na­tion have ben­e­fited only in the past seven years. The mayor be­lieves a few houses still need to be built.

Now, nearly a half-cen­tury af­ter the law­suit was filed, the lat­est quar­rel cen­ters on prop­erty taxes. Hamtramck said it de­cided to up­date the val­ues of 150 prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing dozens of homes that were part of the law­suit set­tle­ment, af­ter ne­glect by past asses­sors. That step led to higher tax bills.

“We're poor, on fixed in­comes, most of us,” said dis­abled vet­eran Kevin Fantroy, 62, whose taxes went up by $1,000 to $2,800. “The city wants peo­ple who can pay taxes. We don't fit their cri­te­ria.”

Barn­hart pre­dicts a wave of fore­clo­sures if Hamtramck doesn't re­verse course. He said the rem­edy for past dis­crim­i­na­tion was to bring peo­ple back to Hamtramck, many of them low in­come, and low taxes are an “es­sen­tial el­e­ment” of af­ford­able hous­ing.

At a re­cent court hear­ing, city at­tor­ney Travis Mi­he­lick promised Hamtramck would be flex­i­ble to try to solve the dis­pute. U.S. Mag­is­trate Judge El­iz­a­beth Stafford halted tax col­lec­tions at 68 houses and or­dered both sides to talk over the sum­mer.

“This is some­thing that hangs over our heads in terms of com­mu­nity re­la­tions and moral au­thor­ity,” said Ma­jew­ski, the mayor, re­fer­ring to the many turns in the long-run­ning dis­crim­i­na­tion case. “It's very im­por­tant that we do the right thing. ... There has just been one ob­sta­cle af­ter another.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF SACBEE.COM

Kevin Fantroy, 62, stands on his porch in Hamtramck, Mich.

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