In early 2017, Sonja Bonnett got a call from Professor Bernadette Atuahene who was conducting a study on squatters and housing inequities in Detroit. Bonnett had technically become a squatter when she lost her home to tax foreclosure and did not leave. Bonnett’s was one of 100,000 properties that were overassessed and foreclosed on from 2011-2015 (Atuahene, 2019). What began as a 30-minute interview turned into about two days of talking. “She thought that she saw this fight and this light in me, and, I don’t know, it just spread from there.” Bonnett soon joined the Coalition for Property Tax Justice and “I haven’t stopped since.”
The fire that Atuahene saw in her had always been there. Growing up biracial in a white household in Southwest Detroit and the area around Wayne State University, Bonnett’s consciousness was piqued at a young age as she “grew up very poor and very hard and very fast.” She grew up hearing the n-word tossed around at home and from white kids in her neighborhood “and I started fighting so they wouldn’t say it anymore.”
As a parent of a child with ADHD, Bonnett became active as a parent advocate in the Detroit Public School district. Her son was frequently suspended for trivial things “so I would have to go through all these channels to get him back in,” she explains. She became an advocate for other parents of Black boys who were constantly being suspended and pushed out “simply because teachers didn’t want to deal with somebody.” Through these experiences, she “learned that if you educate yourself…then you can fight against most things, usually with a legal leg to stand on. So once I found that with DPS, I did it for myself, and I did it for others.”
Bonnett bought her house in the Osborn neighborhood on the East Side around 2009 amidst the subprime lending crisis that contributed to the Great Recession. When she moved onto the block, most of her neighbors were homeowners and “everybody kept up the yard and sat on their porches. Everybody conversed” and it was a “very community-like atmosphere.” Within four years, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, tax foreclosure crisis, and opioid epidemic left the block looking very different. “It was like desolate house, abandoned house, this person lost their home to foreclosure…one after the other…block after block…until it looks like what it looks like now.”
While the neighborhood changed around them, the home that Bonnett and her husband bought on land contract was vital to their community. In addition to housing seven children, their home “was kind of a sanctuary for a lot of people that I would try and help get back on track for whatever they were going through in their lives.”
Around 2011, though, they received a letter in the mail that they owed $5,000 in back property taxes, even though taxes were included in their payments. The debt was accrued from before they bought the house, but they were stuck with the bill when the person they were buying it from sent them a quick claim deed in the mail. “I went to every outreach that I could possibly find,” Bonnett recalls. “But because I bought my home on land contract and the taxes were accrued prior to my ownership, no one could help me.” When they couldn’t afford the massive bill, the Wayne County Treasurer foreclosed on the house.
Between 2011-2015, one-third of all homes in Detroit were foreclosed on and 100,000 people were displaced, many–including Sonja Bonnett–due to unconstitutional assessments. The Michigan Constitution states that no property can be taxed on more than half of its market value. After the Great Recession decimated home values, the City of Detroit never re-assessed properties and therefore overtaxed homeowners by $600 million from 2010-2016. As a result, Atuahene estimates that between 2011-2016, 10% of all tax foreclosures–and 25% of the city’s lowest priced homes–were due to unconstitutional tax assessments. The Bonnett’s home had been assessed and taxed at $46,000, even though they purchased it for $20,000 (Atuahene, 2018). Furthermore, because they were under the federal poverty line, they qualified for the Poverty Tax Exemption (now called HPTAP)–but nobody told them.
But the Bonnetts didn’t leave. Every fall, Wayne County notoriously auctions off foreclosed properties, with most being sold to speculators and developers with deep pockets. Like most residents who were foreclosed on, the Bonnetts didn’t have the money to pay off the illegal tax debt and buy back their home. “So every September, every October, we were always up in arms that somebody was gonna buy the house.” The stress of housing precarity took a serious toll on Sonja. “I was trying to keep the house a normal home for [my kids] while trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do…And even after I learned that it wasn’t my fault, it still feels so much like a personal failure that I’ve let myself and my kids and everybody down, and that…it just sticks with you. It’s a terrible thing to do to anyone.”
In 2017, an investor bought their home at auction and the Bonnetts were eventually evicted. By that point, Sonja Bonnett had begun to fight back against unconstitutional foreclosures and was organizing with the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures (now the Coalition for Property Tax Justice). “I was pissed, and so that for me lit a fire, and I just didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.” When she got the call from Prof. Atuahene around that time, “I started to fight. I joined the Coalition and, I don’t know…it kinda blew up from there.”
The Coalition was formed in 2017 as a collective of over 15 organizations fighting to end unconstitutional tax assessments, compensate Detroiters who were overtaxed and/or foreclosed on, and ensure homeowners who were overtaxed and/or qualify for tax exemption don’t lose their homes. Bonnett hit the ground running, attending meetings, doing a documentary, speaking at press conferences, and protesting the Wayne County Treasurer. Though she felt uncomfortable constantly having a camera and microphone in her face “just because I went through the same hardship that everybody else in the ghetto is going through,” she did it because she wanted her story to get out.
In addition to challenging the illegal foreclosures, the Coalition started having conversations about how to support Detroiters who lost their homes and their dignity. The answer they came up with was to give them back a house, which launched the Dignity Restoration Housing Program (DRHP), with Sonja Bonnett as its Director. “It’s simple,” she explains. “We get a house through another organization for free and get it fixed up through funding, raising money and give it to somebody who we’ve proved was unconstitutionally over-assessed and illegally lost their home.”
From the beginning, the plan was “to hand it to [Mayor Mike] Duggan and say, ‘This is how you fix what you did,” she explains. “If we could do it with the little bit of money that we raised, they for damn sure can do it. But he has ignored us.” Instead, the Coalition has done the work through grassroots fundraising and provided homes for three families–including the Bonnetts. It’s been a bittersweet experience for Sonja, though. “I can’t share that beautiful feeling and be like, oh, I got this house and this and that. I still know I wasn’t supposed to lose the last one,” she reflects. “I left my neighborhood completely destroyed still, and it just felt guilty. It still does.”
At the same time, she takes great pride in giving houses to other people through the program. “The person we gave the next one to, which was on Juneteenth, felt amazing,” she remembers. “I was the one who found her, so I was able to call her and say, ‘Guess what? You know what, your house is ready.’ And it was…it was just an amazing feeling.” In total the DRHP has provided three homes to Detroiters, which could be scaled up if the City and County took responsibility for their mistakes and used the program as a model for correcting them.
Sonja sees something intentional behind the City’s decision not to repair the harms it caused through illegal assessments and foreclosures: gentrification. “If they can keep us out of downtown Detroit and whatever areas they find interesting next, then they can keep it the way they want it, which is nice and…and neat, just like they did when they fled to the suburbs and left us in Detroit,” she explains. “They want their area–but now they want the city back, so they’re doing the same thing. It’s gentrification.”
As an organizer with the Coalition, Bonnett sees her role as working with people most impacted by the foreclosure crisis. “One of the biggest things that I like to do and that I will continue to do is just informing and educating the community,” she explains, “because I know that had I had that educational piece, I wouldn’t have been in that position.” Having gone through the experience, Bonnett targets her outreach to places where people living in poverty actually go and makes sure that she’s offering something tangible and useful to address their needs. “See, people keep coming at this from this middle-class, upper-class thought process,” she says. “A bunch of people sitting in a room saying, “This is how you help the poor, and this is how you help the ghetto,” with nobody from the ghetto in that room. It doesn’t work like that.”
Her approach to organizing has been influenced by a number of activists, intellectuals, and organizers. “Once I got into like a circle of people who just started bringing up point after point about what was going on in my city,” she explains, “it really influenced me and pushed me to go further.” In addition to Prof. Atuahene, Bonnett names Amanda Alexander, Linda Campbell, Amina Kirk, Kia Matthews, Peter Hammer, and Monica Lewis-Patrick as some of her biggest influences.
Sonja Bonnett has learned many lessons through her experiences and organizing work that she shares with prospective organizers. “Number one, you have to kind of have a passion for this work. Not only is this work, it’s [laughs] it’s not very lucrative, especially at first.” “Number two is you have to have a certain passion to be around other people and want to help other people.” For folks who have that passion, Bonnett explains that you have to be able to fix the issues people are dealing with–financial, housing, water, childcare–if you want them to get into organizing work. “The way we get people into this is start fixing what they’re dealing with now,” she says.
Bonnett also has advice for grassroots organizations, which need to be “dealing with the actual community and not sitting in their offices or at their tables talking about what the community needs. They need to have community members at the table, and then they need to be in the ghetto, the hardest-hit ghettos, like in there talking at the food banks or whatever they go, at the grocery stores, the places you actually catch these people…actually get into the community and take some community members on board and pay them.”
In addition to her ongoing work with the Coalition, Sonja Bonnett has also been working as a Community Legal Worker with the Detroit Justice Center (DJC). In her role at DJC, she supports Detroit homeowners with appealing over-assessments and preventing water shutoffs, while also bringing community members into organizing work. “So if you come across somebody in the community who has this powerful voice and, you know, gets people’s attention, gets people to listen, and you can see that they got that leadership inside of them,” she explains, you need to fix the problems they’re dealing with first. “If you do that, then you can absolutely help somebody progress into this beautiful organizer, but without that, it’s too difficult.”
Bonnett wants to see a Detroit that recognizes the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. “My vision for the future of Detroit is no more over-assessments, going into the communities and seeing what works best for that community to get it together, bringing DPS some help…that whole human right thing, give people clean water. At the very least, clean affordable water.” And for the 100,000 people who had their homes stolen, City and County officials need to “give them back a house…Give them some money to get off the ground. That’s a start. And then, stop over-assessing poor people’s property.”
- Bernadette Atuahene & Christopher Berry, “Taxed Out: Illegal Property Tax Assessments and the Epidemic of Tax Foreclosures in Detroit,” 9 U.C. Irvine L. Rev. 847 (2019).
- Bernadette Atuahene, “Compensate Detroiters who illegally lost their homes,” The Detroit News, June 13, 2018, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/2018/06/13/compensate-detroiters-who-illegally-lost-their-homes/695810002/
Sonja Bonnett, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, July 18, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.