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An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part I - Taking on the Difficult Task


mayor deblasio clears

Mayor de Blasio shovels snow outside one of his two Brooklyn houses (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


This is part one of a three-part series. Skip to part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

In May 2018, after years of criticism that New York City’s property tax system lacks equity, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced they would empanel a commission of “blue chip” experts to explore the issue. Its tasks are to examine everything from the way different property values are assessed to relief for vulnerable homeowners, solicit input from the public and specialists, and make recommendations for reform.

Because of the laws and practices governing New York property taxes, the recommendations will inevitably include some changes that can be enacted by the city and others that would require action in Albany, both of which would upset a longstanding and largely unchallenged system. Even coming up with recommendations has proven fraught.

The commission was tasked with an important constraint: make recommendations to overhaul a complicated, decades-old tax system without changing the city’s bottom line -- in other words, to make sure that a new property tax system would continue to provide city government with its single largest revenue stream, good for roughly $27.8 billion last fiscal year.

More than a year later, with the 2019 legislative session in Albany well over, the panel has conducted ten public hearings and meetings but has produced no report nor indicated what consensus is emerging on a path forward. Asked about it repeatedly, de Blasio, who was criticized for punting on the issue until his second and final term, has said he expects recommendations by the end of this year.

The property tax system impacts homeowners and renters, landlords and developers -- virtually every one of the city’s 8.5 million residents. Problems with the system are myriad in New York, where real estate dominates and nearly a third of the city’s annual revenue comes from real property levies.

Critics have contended that the property tax system is overly complex and opaque, that property assessments are not reflective of true market values, and that classifications and caps aimed at mitigating rapid property tax increases contribute to disproportionate tax burdens across many populations.

Twelve months before the commission was announced, a coalition led by a former city finance commissioner filed a lawsuit alleging the Byzantine tax structure creates vast inequities and that those disparities are felt most severely by low-income New Yorkers and people of color.

One of the central problems is the vast under-assessment of many owner-occupied cooperatives and condominiums, which have experienced sweeping growth in property values over the past two decades, but are taxed instead based not on their sales value but on the much lower income they would likely make if they were rentals. Homeowners, in general, pay a lower effective tax rate (taxes as a percent of sales prices) than commercial and residential rental property owners, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog.

Another problem is the labyrinth of abatements, rebates, caps, and phase-ins that obscure the causes of rising property taxes, making them hard for residents to trace and understand.

As property values ratchet up in gentrifying neighborhoods, so do the taxes assessed on them, which can put a strain on lower-, middle-, and fixed-income homeowners struggling to keep up with bills and maintenance fees. At the same time, homeowners in places with slower real estate market growth, like Staten Island and the Bronx, see their taxes rise higher relative to home sales prices because of caps that keep tax hikes low when the housing market unexpectedly leaps.

The symptoms of unequal assessment and taxation land harder on different populations of New Yorkers. The coalition behind the lawsuit says these factors lead to higher tax assessments in communities of color than in majority-white neighborhoods. Others over the years have asserted that when landlords’ tax burdens increase, they may be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent, especially in large apartment buildings with sizable black and Latino populations, critics say.

The most expensive home sold in United States history is a Midtown Manhattan condo that went for $238 million earlier this year to Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager ranked the 45th richest American by Forbes. Griffin pays taxes on a property valuation of just $9.4 million, or .22 percent of the sales price, according to the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, the owner of a two-family home in the northeast Bronx that sold for $439,000 in the most recent fiscal year pays 1.16 percent of the price tag in property taxes, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis provided to Gotham Gazette.

Yet the owners of both these types of homes -- owned by some of the wealthiest New Yorkers, as well as lower- and middle-income residents -- often say they feel pressure from rising property taxes year after year and are seeking relief. One of the barriers to property tax reform is that virtually all homeowners, whether they are likely under-assessed or not, believe they are getting squeezed by property taxes, which for small homes rose an average of 7.7 percent annually between 2001 and 2017, according to a Citizens Budget Commission analysis. (New York City has been repeatedly exempted from a state cap of 2 percent on annual property tax growth that applies everywhere else.)

There is broad agreement that the New York City property tax system produces inequality, that it hurts a wide range of communities from senior homeowners to renters of color to (some) outer-borough residents. Democrats, Republicans, and others across the political spectrum have called for change. But while the debate over the city’s property taxes crosses partisan lines, efforts to make an unequal system more equal means upsetting some stakeholders.

The complexities in the system have cut out a difficult task for members of the commission launched by de Blasio and Johnson, commissioners who were originally given only a year to produce results. But, as with other attempts to rethink the city’s relationship to its most essential resources, the task of unpacking the property tax system reveals a tangle of practical and political factors that have led to the status quo and make change so challenging.

Hope quickly faded that the commission would put forth recommendations to be taken up before the June end of this year’s state legislative session. During a May interview, Marc V. Shaw, one of two commission co-chairs, told Gotham Gazette that for lawmakers to deal with complicated concepts at the end of the legislative session, “there just would not be time...even if we were prepared. But we haven’t reached the point of making even the recommendations. We’re still sort of in an analysis phase.”

A Difficult Task
“I think all of us that have been working on the commission, knew from the beginning that that was a time schedule that was going to be pretty...difficult to attain...so from our perspective we’re looking at trying to put together a series of recommendations to be available for discussion and debate in the next legislative session,” Shaw said in May. Legislators will return to Albany in January, but the mayor and City Council can evaluate the commission’s work throughout the rest of this year, pending a report.

Shaw, a former first deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg, is the interim chief operating officer for CUNY. He has been the Advisory Commission’s single (co-)chair since its other, Vicki Been, stepped down when she was appointed Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in April. The body is made up of fiscal policy experts, business leaders, and city planning specialists, almost all of whom have served in city government in the past.

Spokespeople for both the mayor and City Council told Gotham Gazette the Advisory Commission is now planning to release a preliminary report in the coming months and hold another round of public hearings in the fall to solicit feedback. In a July 19 WNYC radio interview, Mayor de Blasio said the commission would produce a final report by the end of the calendar year, in time to be taken up in the next state legislative session.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Democrat who represents a Manhattan district with a mix of property, is concerned the timeline doesn’t allow for much flexibility to work in Albany’s tight calendar. The timeline “puts you rolling right into January’s legislative session,” and just before state budget negotiations begin, he told Gotham Gazette. “You just may lose a little steam if you don’t have a bill early next year, and you know agencies miss deadlines all the time.”

In the meantime, the Legislature is waiting to hear from the commission. “It just kept coming up where we may be modifying some bills, or not doing some bills, because of the commission and not knowing what their positions are going to be,” Sandy Galef, chair of the Assembly’s real property tax committee, told Gotham Gazette at the end of May. “So yes, I would say it’s holding back some ideas.”

It appears important that the city has its ducks in a row before the January to June state session begins, giving a report and decisions by the mayor and Council enough time to work their way through Albany’s political corridors. Complicating matters further is the fact that 2020 is an election year for the entire state Legislature. Albany lawmakers sometimes try to get around dealing with especially thorny issues in conspicuous ways by packing them into state budget bills, which are due by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Many of the reforms will focus on the state Real Property Tax Law, which sets standards for property tax assessment, among other things, and will require the state Legislature and governor to act. Once the commission produces its final report and city leaders make their opinions known, proposals will have to be negotiated in Albany, which in the past has proven fatal to serious property tax reform.

“We’re involved but at this point I view it as local home rule,” Galef said in May before the legislative session ended. Much if not all of what the city will ask of the state will come through the City Council, even if some of it is through non-binding measures.

Some tax programs were set to expire this year, like tax relief for property owners who install green roofs, which the Legislature extended and the governor signed notwithstanding the city property tax commission’s progress. “Even if the commission does the report at the end of the year, by the time they get authority from the state, there may be a lot of time in between,” Galef said.

That prospect does not sit well with Powers. “I think that any commission or body that’s working on this needs to understand that there are real people who are waiting for this relief,” he said, noting he has heard from constituents who are anticipating the commission’s recommendations.

The Status Quo
The complexities the commission is now grappling with are the result of a system with antique origins, one which has not been comprehensively updated and seldom reviewed over the past four decades. New York State’s current property tax apparatus is the outcome of a judicial ruling that shook up the prior system in the mid-1970s, and subsequent legislative action that mostly put it back into place in the early ‘80s.

In 1975, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, sided in favor of Jerome Hellerstein, an Upper West Side lawyer representing his wife, Pauline, who had sued the Town of Islip for assessing the property value of the family’s Fire Island vacation home -- and every other property on its roll -- at only a fraction of its market value, in violation of state statute (and, apparently, in their own interests). The law, at the time section 306 of the Real Property Tax Law, stated, “All real property in each assessing unit shall be assessed at the full value thereof.”

hellerstein fire island houseThe Hellerstein Fire Island home (image courtesy of Walter Hellerstein)

For nearly 200 years prior, however, property taxes for homeowners in New York State were assessed on only a fraction of the “full value,” based on what assessors “deemed proper,” “not ‘according to their best information and belief, of its value,’ ‘but according to the usual way of assessing,’” an 1852 Court of Appeals decision reads. The decision, in 1852, noted, “the usual method is to estimate property at less than half its value.”

The discretion given to assessors meant commercial and apartment building owners in 1975 paid taxes on a much larger fraction of the market value of their property than homeowners. According to an account published by the city’s Independent Budget Office, reports at the time of the Hellerstein court decision found even the tax burden from similar homes in different neighborhoods could vary, with homeowners in New York City’s lower-income communities paying more than homeowners in more affluent ones.

The Hellerstein decision upended centuries of property tax assessment practices and sent New York’s political world into a spin. For six years, officials in Albany battled over the implications of the decision with some, like Democratic Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, arguing for the fractional assessment practice to be codified into law, fearing the effects homeowners would feel if their property taxes were to rise rapidly.

There was panic that “fiscal chaos” would ensue if wholesale changes were made to the way the properties of people and businesses were assessed across the board, according to Judge Solomon Wachtler who wrote the majority opinion in the Hellerstein case. A report from the New York Times during that period quotes Edwin Margolis, counsel to the Assembly majority, saying, “The goal is not to shift the burden from residential to industrial or commercial, but simply to keep the status quo.”

The Legislature achieved that goal in 1981 after overriding a veto by Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat. Instead of meaningfully changing assessment practices, the new legislation removed the “full value” language from the law and established a system in New York City that separated properties into four different categories, each to be taxed on a different portion of the full market value, mirroring the de facto practices assessors had been using all along.

The system placed one- to three-family homes into Class 1; apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos into Class 2; utilities into Class 3; and commercial properties into Class 4.

“The law was set up in such a way that each class of property would continue to pay roughly the same share of the levy” as they did at the time the law was passed, according to Ana Champeny, a property tax expert at the Citizens Budget Commission.

This “is the property tax system that we essentially currently operate under,” said Shaw, the commission chair. “That just gives you a sense that it’s always been a complicated system from the beginning.”

Before the 1981 law codified the current system, a number of other proposals had been floated and a bipartisan commission was even set up, the Temporary State Commission on the Real Property Tax, to review the state’s practices. That commission suggested that as an alternative to moving toward assessment by class, the state could mitigate the shift in tax burden from businesses to homeowners by implementing homeowner assistance programs.

But the political might of homeowners won out over the interests of commercial property owners, as well as over the will of the governor and a sizable minority in the Assembly. As part of the 1981 legislation, lawmakers enacted caps on the amount assessments could increase annually and over a five-year period, further protecting homeowners against rapid rises in property taxes in the event they be more accurately assessed going forward.

The resulting system, in a nutshell, is one where one- to three-family homes, which are more often occupied by their owner, are assessed based on the comparable sales prices of the property, while commercial and rental properties are assessed based on the income those businesses could generate.

One catch to this, which has been a recurring sticking point in perennial calls for property tax equity, is that co-ops and condos like Griffin’s are assessed on the income that would be made if they were rental apartments, rather than the sales prices of owner-occupied homes most observers say they more closely resemble. Another has been the caps on how much the assessed value of a home can increase, which more recently has led to owners of homes in booming neighborhoods paying relatively low property taxes compared to other homeowners in more economically stagnant parts of the city.

“What we’re facing is looking at how to do a reset of the property tax, given all of those problems, to make it a fairer system now,” said Shaw.

This is part one of a three-part series on the property tax system in New York City and potential for changes to it that may be on the horizon. Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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