Maureen Dritsan has lived in East English Village on Detroit’s far eastside for 31 years. She loves her close-knit community more than anywhere else, maybe in the world. 

“Even if I were to win the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t move,” Dritsan said. “There really is no place I would rather live, work, play or pray than East English Village.”

But an uptick in crime over the last year scared some residents, including Dritsan. The board of the East English Village Association pushed for the neighborhood to become a “special assessment district” in response. The suggestion ended up being divisive and threatened the neighborhood’s typical unity. 

The city’s special assessment designation is an agreement made by property owners within a certain area to pay more in taxes for additional city services including private security. 

The campaign for the assessment in East English Village highlights some of the challenges that come when neighbors try to fund basic services this way. 

“It made me realize how quickly our beautiful neighborhood could become divided,” Dritsan said. 

She saw a number of angry comments in the neighborhood’s Facebook group from people who didn’t want any additional security presence and balked at what would have been an $150 annual tax per household.

Last month, the neighborhood association board, on which Dritsan served for 15 years before stepping down in May, dropped the campaign after the board decided it wouldn’t be possible to get 60% property owners in support. The city charter requires 51% of property owners to agree to a special assessment, but the board wanted extra community buy-in. 

Dritsan agreed it was right to drop the campaign even though she was in favor of it. 

“We thought this was something that the community wanted,” she said. “And if they didn’t want it, we certainly weren’t going to proceed with it.”

East English Village would have been the fifth neighborhood in Detroit to become a special assessment district. 

University District adopted the designation in 2022. The neighborhood already had private security, but it was financially supported by only a small percentage of residents. After it became a special assessment district, the neighborhood has been able to get a second security guard who patrols for longer hours. 

That campaign, too, had some detractors with similar complaints. But neighborhood resident and homeowner Cathy Lee has been pleased with the change.

“I feel like it’s quite a bargain,” she said. “And if the city doesn’t provide it (through property taxes), I don’t have a problem with paying an extra fee.”

The special assessment district may not have been right for East English Village, but many homeowners in Detroit clearly feel it’s worth it to spend extra for these services. 

John Roach, director of media relations with the City of Detroit, said there was a time in Detroit’s recent history when city services were less reliable and these extra resources mattered more. That’s less so the case now.

“The city today provides far more neighborhood-level police presence and most major crimes in the city have gone down steadily,” Roach said by email. “That said, police can’t be everywhere, so if a neighborhood wants to invest in an added level of security by investing in a dedicated security patrol, they have the ability to do that.”

Is it right for your neighborhood? Here’s everything you need to know about special assessment districts.

How long have these districts been around?

Special assessment districts have been around for some time, but none were created until 2016 when City Council passed an ordinance making the process easier by dropping a requirement that 80% of homeowners be current on property taxes. The ordinance requires only 60% to be current. 

What services are available to residents of special assessment districts?

Property owners in one of these districts can have their taxes support three extra services: private security, mosquito abatement and snow removal. 

The city does plow residential streets on especially snowy days, but the separate service for special assessment districts has more regular plowing. 

All services for special assessment districts are provided by private contractors, and the city provides a list of vendors that it has already pre-approved. Neighborhood groups can use others so long as they have the right permits to operate in the city. 

The ordinance outlines all of the rules and parameters around implementation of these services. 

How does a neighborhood become a special assessment district?

A neighborhood organization applying for the designation sets its own boundaries. This area could in theory be as small as a single block, but must meet certain criteria like existing for the purpose of improving the community and having a board with records of meetings.

The city’s Board of Assessors determines how many eligible property owners there are in the district and how much it would cost per household. The neighborhood organization decides which services it wants to use and the annual tax to homeowners.

The neighborhood organization then has to get the petition signatures from property owners whose properties combined comprise 51% of the land in the neighborhood. Once the petition is confirmed by the city, it goes to City Council for final approval. 

The districts are in place for seven years. Renewing the district also requires the same majority of property owner signatures. 

A neighborhood can discontinue a special assessment district by getting more than 50% of the property owners to sign a petition. This would then be approved from City Council as well. 

How much does it cost?

The cost per household is determined by a formula based on the average property tax in the neighborhood, but each homeowner ends up paying the same amount. In East English Village, homeowners would have paid $150. Homeowners in the Palmer Woods special assessment district, where property values are higher, pay $495. 

The fee appears on property owners’ tax bills. If the cost to provide services changes, the city has the right to change the amount each year up to 15%. Stephanie Davis, communications manager for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, said the city hasn’t ever changed the fee because of costs. 

The bulk of the funds in practice go towards security. University District, one of the neighborhoods with the designation, spends more than 75% of its funds on security. 

Which neighborhoods are special assessment districts?

There are currently four special assessment districts. All are some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods near 7 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue. Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest and the Detroit Golf Club subdivision got the designation in 2016. These neighborhoods are currently undergoing the renewal process.

The University District became a special assessment district in 2022.

What happens if a property owner doesn’t pay the special assessment?

Because the assessment is a tax, owners who don’t pay can face foreclosure in the same way as those who don’t pay property taxes. Unpaid assessment taxes will also accrue interest over time. 

Davis said no one has been foreclosed so far because of a delinquency caused by special assessment taxes. 

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.