Monday, September 26, 2016

PROFESSOR SPOTLIGHT: Thomas Mitchell and the Uniform Partition of Heirship Property Act

(From left, Ed Mullins, commissioner for the South Carolina delegation of the Uniform Law Commission, Thomas Mitchell, Gov​. Nikki Haley, and South Carolina Rep​. James E. Smith, Jr., primary sponsor of the UPHPA in the South Carolina House of Representatives, for the ceremonial signing of the legislation)

Here at the Property Law Prof Blog we love to highlight the great work of our fellow property law scholars. Today's post focuses on Thomas Mitchell (Texas A&M) and his work in the area of heirship property.

Thomas served as the reporter and head of a Uniform Law Commission (ULC) project of some years ago to create a Uniform Partition of Heirship Property Act (UPHPA). Prior to that he served on the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force that developed the proposal requesting the ULC to form a committee to draft an act addressing partition of property. The goal of the UPHPA is to preserve family wealth (in the form of real property) passed along from generation to generation. While wealthy families often engage in sophisticated estate planning to deal with issues of generational wealth transfer, those with smaller estates often use a basic will or die intestate. 

Thomas' work has particularly focused on partition issues in the context of lower- and middle-income families where often the majority of the value of the estate is comprised of real property. Under state law, when an owner of real property dies intestate the property is transferred to his heirs as tenants-in-common. These new owners often find themselves in a vulnerable position due to the fact that any one of them can force a partition of the property. Real estate speculators often seize upon this opportunity by acquiring a small share of the property from one of the heirs in order to then be able to file a partition action and force a sale. In doing so, the investor can acquire the entire parcel for a price well below its fair market value. This often has the effect of depleting the family’s inherited wealth in the process.

The UPHPA seeks to address this issue by providing a series of simple due process protections: notice, appraisal, right of first refusal, and if the other co-tenants choose not to exercise their right and a sale is required, a commercially reasonable sale supervised by the court to ensure all parties receive their fair share of the proceeds. At this point eight states have enacted the UPHPA into law: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, and (most recently) South Carolina. It is impressive to note that 4 of the 8 states that have enacted it are in the South, the region where it’s generally accepted that partition abuses have been the greatest as well as the region most people believed would be most resistant to enacting the legislation. Pictured above is Thomas was Governor Nikki Haley at the bill signing last week. The bill has been officially renamed the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act in honor of the late pastor and Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston.

At this time, Thomas and his supporters believe they are likely to get introductions in 2017 in the New Mexico and West Virginia legislatures and are the cusp of securing commitments to introduce it in Mississippi and Texas as well. 

In an effort to get the UPHPA enacted into law, Thomas has testified before many state legislatures, published numerous law review and other articles on the topic (check out his Alabama Law Review article titled Reforming Property Law to Address Devastating Land Loss discussing the issue), made presentations to legal organizations and community groups, and more. He is just the second African-American ever to serve as a reporter for the ULC in its 124-year history, a period of time in which the ULC has drafted more than 350 uniform acts.

Great work, Thomas!



September 26, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Beauty, Healing, and Forty Years on the Selway

 Storytime by the fire -- photo by Brant Miller

    Although my body is in desperate need of some reasoning skills, my brain is several hundred miles away, thinking about a criminal trial in Portland, Oregon. In that Oregon courtroom, seven people face the consequences of their forty-day occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Their primary complaint was that the federal government lacks the authority to own or manage the nation’s public lands, and that those lands should instead be transferred to local governments or private interests. It is not entirely inappropriate for me to be thinking about the Malheur trial, as I am sitting in an inflatable kayak on Idaho’s Selway River in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, trying to navigate a series of rocky rapids that are well beyond my limited paddling skills. But my thoughts are in Portland because the arguments of the Malheur militants threaten what I am now trying to experience, and I fear that we are collectively forgetting about the value of wild and lonely places, and thus unnecessarily risking the future of our public lands.

    When he signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, President Johnson noted that although we had been slow to learn how “to prize and protect God’s precious gifts,” we had finally recognized the value of wild and natural places, and ensured that “our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them.” The Selway is one of those places, one of eight river systems originally protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

    For a few moments, my brain returns from its Portland wanderings and allows me to focus on the place and experience that cradles me. At its September low-water clarity, I can pick out individual granitic crystals as I watch the cutthroat swim between the rocks twenty feet below my boat. The canyon walls are from two different worlds, with dry, open Ponderosa pine forests on the south-facing slopes opposite dense cedars and ferns on the north-facing—the desert and rainforest connected by waters they imperfectly share. We paddle through boulders with driftwood logs four feet in diameter balanced a dozen feet above the water’s surface, hinting of demons that must lurk these waters in other seasons. And in the interludes between the hoots and hollers of the rapids, we find ourselves quietly transfixed by our surroundings, unable to find any words except the occasional and reverential, “this is so cool.”

    Although the rapids and deep pools, cliff walls and cedar trees, and hundreds of friendly trout demand my attention, I continue to return to that Portland court room. While the specific arguments presented there are not likely to succeed in the policy realm, they are but the extreme end of a real problem. Because although the Bundys and their followers do not represent Western values, nor the desires of an overwhelming majority of the people who regularly work on, recreate in, and know and love the public lands, there are a number of no less frightening proposals cloaked in more reasonable-looking raiment seeking the same ends. Idaho’s U.S. Representative Raul Labrador continues to push a bill—against the wishes of many of his constituents—that would transfer large portions of Idaho’s public lands to a cash-strapped and industry-captured legislature. The Republican Party’s platform calls for Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” And the state of Utah is spending millions of taxpayer dollars preparing a lawsuit to challenge the authority of the federal government to own and manage any of the public lands.

    This is why, despite somewhat more pressing needs, and being surrounded by one of the Earth’s most pristine landscapes, I can’t get my brain out of Portland.

    But still the river draws me in. Even if unknown to many, the Selway represents a quintessential Idaho—and public lands—experience. Although the backcountry airstrip that marked the beginning of the river stretch of our adventure already had three airplanes on the ground when we landed, and two of our pilots left immediately to return with a group of bear hunters from Norway, we were soon alone on the river and would see no other people for days.

    We are eight good friends, both old and new, here to celebrate forty years of a good life. A couple of professors, five employee-owners of the local whitewater products company, and a Sacramento police officer happily ignoring our stories of youthful, and not so youthful, indiscretions, we all share a love of wild places even as we express it in different ways. Like any other group of men our age, we carry our skeletons—our bouts with depression and alcohol, our fears and inadequacies, and our hopes that the children we are raising and worlds we are creating turn out better than we did. So we are here in celebration, but also for healing, for temporary escape, and in search of memories of beauty to carry us through our ugly times. Each night as we sit around the campfire, alone in hundreds of miles of forest with our own private river, living an experience that will forever connect us and this place, I can feel the scars soften, and the residual angers and fears fade and flow down into the river, which carries them away.

    Unfortunately, this one crucial thing gets lost in the chaos of the Bundys and Malheur, and Utah’s New Orleans lawyers polishing off discredited legal arguments—the power of the land. Their focus on federalism, State’s rights, obscure and perhaps misinterpreted Constitutional provisions, and willful ignorance of Supreme Court precedent takes us away from the qualities that most and best connect people to the public lands and wild rivers.

    The public lands are not a mere legal construct, nor are they simply a resource to be extracted and commodified. At their best, they are personal, emotional, and subtly primeval, connecting us to a wildness and beauty that can quiet and calm us, and dissolve the scar tissue of ancient wounds—real and imagined, physical and emotional. The August crowd at Old Faithful in Yellowstone—or even the hundreds of more obscure public lands recreation sites across the West and country—speaks, with some irony, to a need for wild, natural, and lonely places. And although not all of us can fly a small plane into the Selway’s backcountry airstrips, or even visit Yellowstone, America’s public lands landscape extends throughout the interstices of Western life. Even the West’s largest cities are only short journeys from quiet mountain streams, lonely forests, or empty sagebrush prairies. For many people, these small spaces are a Yellowstone or Yosemite, places of refuge in a complicated life. And they are public spaces, inherently democratic, welcoming anyone seeking peace, solitude, adventure, beauty, or wisdom.

    So it is this that is most troubling about Malheur, the Bundys, Utah’s legislature, and Representative Labrador. As Wallace Stegner argued, the West is the native home of hope. Much more than angry, scofflaw ranchers, industrial timber harvesting, or massive dams, the West is about wildness, loneliness, adventure, freedom to explore and be reborn, and space to reconnect with our own wildness. Our public lands and wild rivers can be healing, unifying spaces, both individually and collectively. They are not elitist spaces reserved for the few or the favored; they are spaces for everyone to find their own beauty.

    Eventually, all adventures must end, and I do manage to focus enough on the water in front of me to safely arrive at our take out, and the fried chicken and cold beer that is waiting for us there. In the last slow miles on our final day, as we quietly paddle the deep pools and easy rapids, I find myself consistently turning to face upstream. I do so not just because I do not want this trip to end, but because I fear for what I’m leaving behind. In enacting the Wilderness Act, we chose, collectively, to secure forever “the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” And with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, we determined that some rivers should remain always in their natural, free-flowing, and wild condition.

    Just as we once made that collective choice to protect the wild and natural, and to preserve beautiful landscapes of all types, we are also capable of making the alternative choice: to prefer use over solitude, dams over rapids, timber harvests over wildlife habitat, private benefits over public spaces, the tame over the wild.

    But I believe we remain better than that. We remain capable of understanding beauty. More important, we remain capable of deserving beauty.

    If we care about ensuring future generations the same wildness we have enjoyed, our path cannot be to ridicule the Bundys, to trust that Labrador’s bill will not get past the Senate or President, or to believe that the Supreme Court will honor precedent in any Utah lawsuit seeking control of the public lands. It was not legal argument that first gave us National Parks and Wilderness, protected free-flowing rivers, or reserved our forests for future generations. It was instead the stories of adventure, the paintings and photographs carried thousands of miles back to Congress, and the willingness to recognize the spiritual as well as the commercial. It was the green fire, and the power of wild rivers and wild landscapes. So our path must be to remember the value of wildness, to tell our stories, show our photos, and share our experiences, to be willing to talk about beauty and healing and grace, to share our special places with our neighbors, and to love our public lands. It is time for the prophets and evangelists to return, for the storytellers to again climb the trees and ride the whirlwind, and for us all to love and live the wild again.

September 22, 2016 in Natural Resources | Permalink | Comments (0)

Schaffzin on Property Law, Blight, and Clinical Legal Education

DannyDaniel Schaffzin (Memphis) has posted (B)Light at the End of the Tunnel? How a City's Need to Fight Vacant and Abandoned Properties Gave Rise to a Law School Clinic Like No Other (Washington University Journal of Law & Policy) on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

Over the course of the last two decades, intensified by the mortgage foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s, an epidemic of vacant and abandoned properties has inflicted devastation on people, neighborhoods, and cities across the United States. Though surely coincidental, the same time period has seen the emergence of experiential learning coursework, long operating at the periphery of legal education, as a centerpiece of the law school curriculum. In Memphis, the temporal convergence of these two phenomena has acted as a catalyst for the creation of a law school clinical course in which students learn and work under direct faculty supervision to abate the public nuisance presented by neglected properties. This Clinic is distinctive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its singular client: the City of Memphis itself.

In this article, the University of Memphis School of Law’s Director of Experiential Learning, one of the two founders and codirectors of the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, asserts the efficacy of the Clinic’s role in training future lawyers and providing zealous legal representation to the City in lawsuits against the owners of blighted properties. For context, the article first considers the rise and devastating effects of the nationwide vacant and abandoned property epidemic, the statutory authority available in Tennessee to pursue recourse against the owners of such property, and the broader blight-fighting strategy being employed by the City within which the decision to launch the Clinic was made. The article then examines the Clinic’s multilayered design and articulates the benefits that the Clinic has conferred upon its students, the Law School and the City of Memphis. The article concludes that the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic offers a government representation model for in-house law school clinics that stays true to traditional clinical pedagogy while honoring clinical legal education’s two-pillared historical mission to effectively prepare students for practice and to work in advancement of social justice and public interest outcomes.


September 22, 2016 in Home and Housing, Land Use, Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bradshaw on the Property Rights of Animals

Image_119441_14352477Karen Bradshaw (Arizona State) has posted Property Rights for Animals on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

What if animals could own property? This Article presents a thought experiment of extending our anthropocentric property regime to animals. This exercise yields new insights into property law, including what appear to be biological underpinnings to what is widely assumed to be the distinctly human system of property. It also reveals that government and private actors alike have created a vast network of functional property rights for animals. The effects of a property rights regime for animals extends beyond property law: it would serve to improve the plight of animals, especially wildlife, by counting historic exclusion of animals from property allocations. 

Property law may be a human codification of ingrained biological principles, common among species. Human governance of land, partially reflected by property law and observation of social attitudes to property, may, in fact, better theorized as animal in nature. Scientific findings suggesting that animals engage behavior mirroring that which establishes property ownership among humans. Species ranging from bees to jaguars undertake actions to acquire and protect land, which, when undertaken by people, forms the legal basis of property ownership. 

Initial entitlements of American land excluded customary animal users, then afforded subsequent human landowners with the right to develop and exclude, which produced profoundly negative effects on species conservation. In response, a variety of governance strategies have emerged to protect wildlife, most federal statutes weakening property rights. In fact, law has already partially accommodated the idea of animals as property owners. Examining a variety of Constitutional, statutory, and common law doctrines suggests that animals already hold a variety of functional property rights, including ownership of hundreds of millions acres of land. 

This Article is the first to analyze a property-rights approach to animal welfare and species conservation. Benefits of this approach, relative to existing efforts to imbue animals with human rights, include its bipartisan nature and foreseeable endpoint. Animal property rights would not require a massive shift in societal norms or uncompensated property redistributions. Indeed, this approach would likely improve animal welfare while also strengthening existing property rights, lessening the need for statutory controls on land uses, and updating law to harmonize with prevailing norms regarding animals’ place in society.

September 17, 2016 in Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Phelps on Historic Preservation and Land Conservation

Jess R. Phelps (USDA) posted Reevaluating he Role of Acquisition-Based Strategies in the Greater Historic Preservation Movement (Virginia Environmental Law Journal) on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

Historic preservation and land conservation advocates have traditionally had similar goals, organizational structures, and even somewhat comingled histories when it comes to their efforts to protect the built and natural environment. Despite these striking similarities, a meaningful gap in practice has developed as to how the disciplines approach their respective resource challenges. Land conservation groups largely default to acquisition-based strategies in order to ensure the perpetual protection of targeted conservation tracts – most commonly through the use of conservation easements. Historic preservation advocates, however, are much less likely to rely on acquisition – relying instead on regulatory controls, site-specific advocacy, and incentive payments. This Article explores the explanations for this divergence – institutional, structural, and financial. Ultimately, understanding the roots of how the land conservation and historic preservation movements have come to approach their work so differently can provide meaningful insight into both fields and provide a lens for exploring, in particular, the comparatively limited role that affirmative resource protection efforts play in modern preservation practice.

September 17, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Odinet on Virtual Property and Secured Credit

Odinet Photo (Jarreau)Chris Odinet (that's me!) (Southern) has posted BitProperty and Commercial Credit (Washington University Law Review) to SSRN. Here's the abstract:

In the past several years the growth of virtual property in today’s economy has been explosive. The everyday use of virtual assets ranging from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and virtual world accounts is nearly absolute. Indeed, by one account Americans check social media over 17 times per day. Further, a growing number of savvy virtual entrepreneurs are reporting incomes in the six and seven figure range, derived solely from their online businesses. Nevertheless, although the commercial world has come to embrace these newfound markets, commercial law has done a poor job of keeping up. Scholars have argued that laws governing everything from taxation, to bankruptcy, to privacy rights have not kept pace with our ever-changing virtual world. And nowhere is this truer than in the law of secured credit. Doubtlessly virtual property has come to represent significant wealth and importance, yet its value as a source of leveraged capital remains, in large part, untapped. This unrealized potential is not without good reason; the law — specifically Article 9 of the UCC and the law of property more broadly — suffers from a number of deficiencies and anomalies that make the use of virtual property in secured credit transactions not only overly complex and expensive, but almost entirely untenable. This Article shines light on these shortcomings, and, in doing so, advances a number of guiding principles and specific legislative recommendations, all geared toward a reformation of the law of secured credit in virtual property.

September 13, 2016 in Articles, Intellectual Property, Law Reform, Personal Property, Property Theory, Recent Scholarship, Recording and Title Issues, Virtual Property | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Zasloff on the Clash between Land Use and Fair Housing

ZasloffJonathan Zasloff (UCLA) has posted The Price of Equality: Fair Housing, Land Use, and Disparate Impact (Columbia Human Rights Law Review) on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

What happens when local government policies run head-on into federal civil rights laws? Nowhere does this question assume greater importance than with land use and fair housing, yet in the nearly half-century since the passage of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), courts and commentators have skirted the question. With the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Inclusive Communities Project v. Texas, the most significant fair housing decision in the nation’s history, they can no longer do so. This Article represents the first sustained effort to show how the FHA affects land use, the most important power that cities have under American localism. The Supreme Court held for the first time that the FHA allows disparate impact liability, and outlined when such disparate impact cases can be brought. But it left many crucial questions unanswered, and this Article attempts to fill the gap. It concludes that when cities restrict affordable and multifamily housing, which often has a disparate impact on people of color, zoning ordinances must withstand intermediate scrutiny in order to be sustained. Courts must balance local policies with demands for inclusion: sometimes those policies will triumph, but in many instances they will not, for they rest on weak empirical or legal foundations, or they can be addressed in less restrictive ways. The Article sets forth a series of the most common scenarios and justifications for exclusionary zoning, and seeks to show that such justifications have far less purchase than is commonly supposed. The FHA comes nowhere close to abolishing zoning, but it does insist that local zoning must no longer exclude racial minorities, and the Court’s decision makes clear how fair housing advocates can and should use the law to fight such exclusion. If localities no longer have the discretion to exclude people of color, then that is the price of equality.

September 11, 2016 in Home and Housing, Land Use, Real Estate Transactions, Recent Cases, Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 9, 2016

RPTE Professor's Corner: Regulating Short-Term Rentals


Professors’ Corner

FREE monthly webinar featuring a panel of law professors, 

addressing topics of interest to practitioners of real estate and trusts/estates

Members of DIRT are welcome to register and participate

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

12:30 p.m. Eastern/11:30 a.m. Central/9:30 a.m. Pacific

Emerging Legal Issues in the Sharing Economy:

Regulating Short-Term Rentals


  • Jamila Jefferson-Jones, Associate Professor, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
  • Stephen R. Miller, Associate Professor, University of Idaho College of Law


  • Christopher Odinet, Horatio C. Thompson Endowed Assistant Professor, Southern University Law Center

Like network transportation companies and employment matching sites, sharing economy short-term rental (STR) companies are rapidly restructuring the American experience.  That these sharing economy STR companies – which are typified by entities such as Airbnb and VBRO – have such impact and market share at a time during which much of their business model remains, at best under-regulated and at worst illegal, makes it one of the most important emerging areas in American law.

Our panelists will discuss recent cases and emerging issues that examine the tension inherent in regulating sharing economy STRs as cities and states grapple with issues such as: whether STRs cause gentrification and escalation of rents in highly-coveted neighborhoods; whether or how these companies should be subject to the payment of transient occupancy taxes, as well as impact fees and exactions associated with STRs; day limits on STR market use; use definitions that define STRs; licensing and permitting; forced information sharing; the application of anti-discrimination laws; takings and inverse condemnation litigation; rent control and subletting provisions in leases, as well as other litigation that will certainly arise and develop in the near future.  Professors Miller and Jefferson-Jones are the authors of The State & Local Government Sharing Economy Manual:  Strategies for Regulating and Managing On-Demand Services, an ABA publication forthcoming in 2017.

Register for this FREE webinar at

September 9, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Map of the Day -- America's Artistic Divide

The Washington Post ran an interesting article on Monday about a North-South "artistic divide" in America, with some discussion as to its causes. Although I personally live in a bit of counter-culture Idaho that has adopted the slogan "Heart of the Arts," I was surprised to see the dark colors in the Northern Rockies. I wonder if fly tying counts?

The stunning geographic divide in American creativity


September 8, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Stein on Chinese Real Property Law and Practice

Stein-GregGregory Stein (Tennessee) has posted Chinese Real Estate Law and the Law and Development Theory: Comparing Law and Practice (Florida State Journal of Transnational Law & Policy) on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

China did not adopt a modern Property Rights Law until 2007, which means that most modern real estate development occurred before there was a comprehensive property law to govern it. Moreover, business conventions in China frequently diverge from published laws, and the rules that professionals follow do not always comply with legal requirements. This article addresses how real estate professionals in China contend with these legal inconsistencies and uncertainties. It also asks whether China is disproving the traditional law and development model, which holds that transparent property and contract laws are a prerequisite to robust economic development.

Part II introduces some of the common Western misconceptions about Chinese real estate law and business. Part III presents examples of how three specific Chinese business practices have come to differ in significant ways from Chinese real estate law. Part IV concludes by noting the ways in which China calls into question the widely accepted model of law and development.


September 6, 2016 in Articles, Real Estate Finance, Real Estate Transactions, Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Alexander on American Property Law Doctrine

Bio_Alexander_Gregory_gsa9_B&WGregory Alexander (Cornell) has posted Five Easy Pieces: Recurrent Themes in American Property Law (University of Hawaii Law Review) on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

The title of my article, "Five Easy Pieces," may not resonate with those of you who are too young to remember Jack Nicholson as a budding young movie star cut out of the James Dean mold. For those who do remember, it is, of course, the title of one of Nicholson's early (and, to my mind, greatest) movies. Jack's five easy pieces were piano pieces, easy for him to perform, less so for others. There was a certain irony about the word "easy" in the title. The irony lay not only in the fact that just about everyone else consider those pieces difficult, but, more deeply, because those piano pieces were the only pieces of the life of Bobby Dupea, the character whom Jack portrayed, that were easy for him. Life as a whole, the big picture, was one great, almost impossible challenge for him.

My five easy pieces have their own ironic twist. They are rather different but equally challenging in their own ways that first-year law students here will readily recognize. My pieces, this piece, is really aimed at them. The pieces I will discuss are five recurrent themes in American property law, leit motifs, to continue the metaphor from the Nicholson movie, that run throughout American legal doctrines. These themes provide a way of structuring all of property law, adding coherence to what so often appears to law students as an unintelligible rag-tag collection of rules and doctrines that defy any attempt to construct an overarching framework for analysis. I have given five simple labels to these recurrent topics: "conceptualizing property," "categorizing property, " "historicizing property," "enforcing property," and "de-marginalizing property." We begin with how we conceptualize property.

September 5, 2016 in Articles, Law Schools, Property Theory, Recent Scholarship, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 2, 2016

Illegal Property Tax Foreclosures in Detroit

Atuahene_Bernadette_portraitCheck out this really fascinating (and disturbing) article about research conducted by Bernadette Athene (Chicago-Kent, currently visiting at Chicago) on illegal property tax foreclosures in Detroit:

This week was the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  Over the years, many have said that Detroit is experiencing a hurricane without water.

Like with Katrina, the property tax foreclosure crisis in Detroit has wiped out entire neighborhoods inhabited by poor and working-class black people. From 2011-15, the Wayne County treasurer foreclosed upon approximately one in four Detroit properties for nonpayment of property taxes.

In fact, Detroit has one of the highest number of property tax foreclosures any American city has had since the Great Depression. Most important, once foreclosed properties are vacated, they are often vandalized, burned down or stripped of all valuable materials, creating a flood of blighted properties that decimate communities by reducing property values, attracting crime and causing those who can to evacuate.

There is a debate about the origins of Detroit’s property tax foreclosure crisis.

Popular narratives have focused on a culture of lawlessness in which property owners have cheated the city by not paying their property taxes and then devising ways to avoid foreclosure.

Some have welcomed the record number of property tax foreclosures as a sign that Detroit, at long last, is establishing law and order. But, I recently co-authored a study titled “Stategraft” that demonstrates that Detroit’s unprecedented property tax foreclosure rate is indefensible because property tax assessments in Detroit are, in fact, illegal.  

Michigan’s  Constitution clearly decrees that a property’s assessed value cannot exceed 50% of its market value. In our study, we find that Detroit’s assessor is flagrantly violating this vital state constitutional provision. Consequently, contrary to popular narratives, it is the city that is stealing from Detroit property owners through illegal assessments and inflated property tax bills, and not the other way around. And while the city has reassessed properties during the last two years, those actions have not been enough to bring most assessments in line with the Michigan Constitution. 

To investigate whether property tax assessments in Detroit are illegal, we use citywide property sales and assessment data for 2009-15. As required by Michigan case law and statute, we included only arm’s length transactions in our analysis, and we find that, in 2009, 65.5% of the properties sold violated the state constitutional assessment limit.  In subsequent years the numbers were equally shocking: 2010 (84.7%), 2011 (54.6%), 2012 (71.4%), 2013 (78.2%), 2014 (83.2%), 2015 (64.7%).

The property tax assessments were not only above the legal limit, but they also exceeded it by a substantial sum. For instance, in 2010, assessments were, on average, 7.3 times higher than the legal limit. In 2015, assessments were, on average, 2.1 times higher than the legal limit.

In all years studied, the illegality was most pronounced for lower-valued properties. That is, the city is more likely to assess modest homes at illegal levels than it is more expensive homes, leaving the most vulnerable homeowners drowning in injustice. 

Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan — a former prosecutor — acknowledged that “for years, homes across the city have been over assessed,” and tried to remedy this in 2014 and 2015 by implementing assessment decreases for most of the city, ranging from 5% to 20%.

Our study shows that illegal property tax assessments nevertheless persist for lower-valued properties despite these reductions. For example, in 2015, properties with the lowest values were, on average, assessed at 4.8 times the legal limit, while properties with the highest values were, on average, legally assessed.

Both before and after Duggan’s assessment reductions, those who can afford only modest properties have been subject to the most severe illegality and forced to endure the consequences of Detroit’s broken levees.

In July, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the law firm of Covington & Burling filed a class action  alleging that the unprecedented number of property tax foreclosures in Detroit is unlawful on several counts, including the fact that the property tax assessments systematically violate the state constitution and the Fair Housing Act. The findings of "Stategraft" strongly support this claim.

The end goal of the class action is to stop all property tax foreclosures that are based upon illegal assessments. As an interim measure, the legal team recently filed a motion for a preliminary injunction that would place a moratorium on property tax foreclosures of owner-occupied properties in Detroit and throughout Wayne County.

To be sure, by reducing city revenues, a moratorium would further wound a city that has been in economic decline for decades and is desperately trying to emerge from the shadow of the largest municipal bankruptcy in our nation’s history. But, just as we do not allow homeless people in desperate need to burglarize homes, we should not allow the City of Detroit to use unlawful assessments and inflated property tax bills to steal money from Detroit property owners. Additionally, the requested moratorium is narrowly tailored so that it protects only vulnerable homeowners and not investors. 

Given the mortgage foreclosure crisis, water shutoffs and historic bankruptcy, the people of Detroit have already had to weather several devastating storms. Now that they are facing a hurricane without water, the federal government cannot leave Detroiters stranded.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch must ensure that the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice opens an official investigation, which will supplement the ongoing class action and begin to quell the tides of inequity.

Bernadette Atuahene is a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Law School and a research professor at the American Bar Foundation.

September 2, 2016 in Articles, Home and Housing, Mortgage Crisis, Real Estate Transactions, Recent Scholarship, Recording and Title Issues, Takings | Permalink | Comments (0)

University of Florida Law School Celebrates 100 Years of Zoning: Schedule of Events


This just in from Michael Allan Wolf (Florida) on UF's semester-long series of lectures and events on zoning:


September 2, 2016 in Conferences, Land Use | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Map of the Day -- Craigslist U.S. Rental Listings

A very belated first post from me – this map of the day is less striking than the Nature Conservancy – UW map of climate-induced migrations that Jerry posted earlier this week, but I’ve found it’s already proved a useful teaching tool.


This map, and the underlying recent work by Geoff Boeing and Paul Waddell, produced in connection with UC Berkeley’s Urban Analytics Lab, is a great way to get students engaged in differences in rental markets and housing affordability issues across the country.

All well worth a read, and this excellent short summary from Kelsey E. Thomas at Next City might be the best place to start students with the semester underway at most schools and the holiday weekend coming up.

Thanks to Steve for such an amazing long run with the blog – it’s been such a wonderful resource for so many people. And thanks to Chris, Sally, and Jerry for everything over the past few months. It’s a privilege to join you all!

September 1, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)