the good fight.
When the Great Recession struck in 2008, the housing market plummeted, and thousands of Detroit home owners were in dire straits after the city neglected to adjust property taxes to reflect the drastic decrease in home values.
These gross overassessments buried thousands of low-income Detroiters under tax payments they shouldn’t have had to pay, and the Wayne County Treasurer began foreclosing those properties and auctioning them off to the highest bidder.
That’s when the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s (ACLU) Legal Director, Michael Steinberg, stepped in.
“Mass tax foreclosures in Detroit is primarily a government-created catastrophe. The mortgage foreclosure crises was caused by the greed on Wall Street and predatory lenders who were disproportionately targeting communities of color, but the tax foreclosure crises was caused by our own government.”
The ACLU — whose mission is “realizing the promise of the Bill of Rights for all and expanding the reach of its guarantees to new areas through public education, advocacy, organizing, and litigation.” — said this violated the Constitution and sought to make it right.
“You have homes that are sold in the Detroit tax foreclosure auction for as little as $500, and yet they were taxed as if they’re worth $50,000 — that’s one cause of the housing crisis. The other major problem was that individuals whose income was below the poverty line, were entitled to something called a “poverty exemption, which means they shouldn’t have to pay any taxes at all. But the city made it so difficult for folks to access those exemptions that most weren’t able to benefit from the program. I’m working on a number of important local and national cases, but the tax foreclosure case is the one that most keeps me up at night.”
The ACLU has been fighting on behalf of folks affected by the devastating situation, and though it’s been a struggle, Steinberg believes the tide might finally be turning.
“We’re working with the city now and there are some good people who want to fix the problem. My hope is that we can find a solution so that no owner-occupied homes will be lost in the next round of foreclosures this fall.”
The housing issue is just one of many battles Steinberg has fought on behalf of Detroiters throughout his career.
“I became an activist during college and was focused on stopping the nuclear arms race, but I’ve always been motivated to fight for racial justice. After teaching at a Quaker school in New York, my wife and I moved to Michigan and I started working for a group called the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy — which is actually where I met Avalon co-owner Jackie Victor.”
After graduating from Wayne State Law School and a judicial clerkship, he entered private practice where he worked on civil rights cases addressing police misconduct, employment discrimination, fair housing and prisoners’ rights. Then, in 1997, he received an offer from the ACLU of Michigan in Detroit.
“The long-term executive director and legal director had both resigned and I was asked to become the interim legal director. It was a dream come true because there was no better opportunity for an attorney who cares about social justice to have an impact in Michigan. So, when the new executive director came on board, I applied for the permanent legal director position and have been there for the last 20 years. I love my job.”
In his role, Steinberg oversees all litigation taken on by the ACLU and seeks out cases that can make an impact.
“We take an integrated advocacy approach at the ACLU, meaning we use our cases to raise awareness and create change. We’re working to win not only in court, but also in the court of public opinion.”
In doing so, he’s protecting some fundamental rights for all Detroiters.
“In the last 10-15 years, there’s been a trend to privatize public services, which has led to some uniquely Detroit civil liberties issues. In Campus Martius, for example, you have a public park that’s run by a private nonprofit organization. When the organization started treating the land like private property and barred residents from petitioning, passing out flyers and engaging in small protests in the park, we sued to ensure that it remain open to political activity.”
Steinberg points to the ever-increasing level of police video surveillance throughout the city as another threat to the civil liberties of Detroiters. “We all want Detroit to be safe, but all studies show that live video surveillance does not prevent crime; at best, it displaces crime. Plus, between Project Green Light and the Bedrock surveillance system downtown, the growing ability of the police to monitor the activities of Detroiters is moving us closer to police states like China and Russia as opposed to societies that treasure privacy and human rights.”
Despite those challenges, Steinberg is still captivated by the city and its resilient residents, and it has inspired him to exercise some of his creative chops.
“My interns during the summer of 2011 gave me a coffee table book called “The Ruins of Detroit” because they knew how much I loved the city. It is a well-known compilation of photos of famous buildings that had fallen into decay. I was touched by the gift, but seeing page upon page of empty schools, churches and once-glorious theaters that are now in ruins was depressing, and not a reflection of how I see Detroit. I see the great people of Detroit struggling to make ends meet and enjoying life, even when life is hard… There’s also so much creativity here that I wanted to share. I have been passionate about photography since high school and I set out to tell a story about “hope in the streets of Detroit” by photographing the amazing street art in the city. I post the photos in an album on Facebook and I think they’ve really impacted how my friends from outside of Detroit view the city.”
In recent years, Steinberg has seen a similar shift in the hearts and minds of the students he teaches at the University of Michigan Law School.
“The attitude of law students and undergrads toward Detroit has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. U-M law students used to study for three years in Ann Arbor and never visit the city. Our ACLU summer interns, who came here from around the country, wanted to live in Ann Arbor and commute to Detroit. Now everyone wants to live in the city. There’s even a group at U-M Law School, called “JDs in the D” that organizes trips for students to attend events or do community service projects in Detroit.”
Steinberg himself might have something to do with that shift. Leveraging his decades of experience working in the city, he is introducing a new generation of civic-minded young people to the Detroit he knows and loves. His course at U-M is built around an actual case study that offers students a firsthand look at how to build a case in Detroit and reveals the positive impact they can make if they choose work in the city after graduation.
“Years ago, in an effort to chase homeless people out of tourist-friendly areas of the city, the Detroit police would seize homeless people off the downtown streets, put them in handcuffs, drive them to remote parts of the city or outside city limits and dump them there. The ACLU stopped the practice, but in my class, we assume that the practice has started up again and we litigate a simulated case challenging the constitutionality of “homeless kidnapping.” Then we come to Detroit to visit the St. Peter & Paul Jesuit Church in Greektown, the ACLU office, and other areas of the city where the case arose. We usually end up at The Old Miami… They always love the trip to Detroit.”