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Predatory Cities
California Law Review (2020)
  • Bernadette Atuahene
Between 2011 and 2015, the Wayne County Treasurer completed the property tax foreclosure process for one in four properties in Detroit, Michigan. No other American city has experienced this elevated rate of property tax foreclosures since the Great Depression. Studies reveal that the City of Detroit systematically and illegally inflated the assessed value of most of its residential properties, which led to inflated property tax bills unaffordable to many homeowners. Extraordinary tax foreclosure rates and extensive dispossession resulted. Consequently, Detroit has become a “predatory city”—a new and important sociolegal concept that this Article develops.

Predatory cities are urban areas where public officials systematically take property from residents and transfer it to public coffers, intentionally or unintentionally violating domestic laws or basic human rights. Detroit is not alone. Ferguson, Missouri, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. are among the other US cities where state actors have used illegal methods to augment public coffers. Although this practice affects many urban areas, US legal scholarship has almost completely overlooked the phenomenon of predatory cities.

This Article is the first attempt to understand the intersecting economic, social, and political factors that have caused these struggling cities to become predatory. Through an ethnographic study of illegal property tax assessments in Detroit, I find that predatory systems, rather than a few predatory people, initiated and perpetuated the illicit practices. More specifically, several factors made the City and its residents extremely vulnerable, and thus susceptible, to predation. Against this backdrop of vulnerability, certain legal and governance failures created structural opportunities for predation to advance at scale. Using the Detroit case, this Article identifies, defines, and examines the phenomenon of predatory cities, which scholars and policy makers must begin to better understand and address.
Publication Date
February, 2020
Citation Information
Bernadette Atuahene. "Predatory Cities" California Law Review Vol. 108 Iss. 1 (2020) p. 107 - 182 ISSN: 0008-1221
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