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An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part II - Deep and Complex Inequities


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(photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here. (Skip to part three - The City's Bottom Line - here.)

Elected officials and their critics alike have decried the complexity and inequality of the state’s property tax system. They say it is layered and non-transparent, and produces disproportionate tax burdens for various populations because of technical factors that are difficult for taxpayers to understand. These can lead owners of similarly valued properties in different parts of the city to pay drastically different annual property taxes.

The rising value of a homeowner’s property can belie the struggle they may face to stay afloat and keep their homes when property tax payments also climb. For those who own rental property, when the tax burden goes up it is often passed on to renters in the form of higher rents and fees on apartments that are not rent-regulated.

The Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform was emplaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both Democrats, in 2018 to examine these issues and develop recommendations to reform the system, which could implicate both city and state policy, without reducing the city’s largest revenue stream.

On the table are aspects like the way different properties are classified and assessed by the state, how statutory restrictions on tax rate growth interact with market forces, and how the city sets the tax rate. These factors have had consequences for communities of color, low-income New Yorkers, seniors, and residents in some, but not all, boroughs.

As it was in 1981, when the current system was wrought out of practices that extend to the early days of the American republic, the issue today is a political flashpoint. Property taxation affects every resident in the state, and members from nearly every interest group and political party have called for its overhaul. But some of the most outspoken critics of the system, especially certain homeowners who see their taxes go up every year, may end up responsible for an even greater share of the levy if changes are made.

Four decades ago, in Hellerstein v. Assessor, Islip, the courts found New York’s property value assessment methods, which had been in practice for roughly 200 years, to be in violation of state law. Homes were being assessed with great variability on a fraction of their sales price, while business owners were footing a much larger bill for their commercial properties. Rather than adjusting practices to assess the full value of homes, lawmakers in Albany changed the rules to allow government assessors to continue favoring certain types of property over others.

Reflecting the old order, the current system divides properties into four classes, each to be assessed and taxed differently. Statutory caps are in place to ensure property taxes payments remain stable even if market values jump. To help account for variables like income, location, and the condition of housing, tax abatements and rebates are available. As a result of the classification regime’s disparate assessment methods, discrepancies exist among residential properties, with cooperatives and condominiums greatly undervalued for tax purposes compared to other homes despite at times being worth far more.

One- to three-family homes are in Class 1 and are assessed based on comparable sales prices; in Class 2, apartment buildings, as well as co-ops and condos, are taxed based on a market value derived from the annual income earned in rent by similar, nearby units, which is usually lower than the market value based on sales price, according to property tax experts. Even within the classes, statutory caps on assessed value growth have led, more recently, to uneven tax burdens across the five boroughs because of the way the housing market has exploded in some neighborhoods more than others.

An Unfair System
Attempts have been made to address property tax inequities in New York City since the current system was adopted nearly 40 years ago, but they have failed to produce transformative results. The most notable review was led by Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.

Dinkins, a Democrat, empaneled a commission to study the issue, which released a report just days before his term ended. Its most salient recommendation was to bring the treatment of co-ops and condos closer to Class 1 properties, but years of negotiations under his Republican successor, Rudy Giuliani, led only to a temporary tax abatement for apartment owners, according to an Independent Budget Office report. (A piece in the New York Times from 1994 provides an alternative account in which the Dinkins commission made no recommendations because it could not come to a “consensus on objectives,” using the words of one of the commissioners.)

The issue has become a recurring political motif. De Blasio discussed it during his first campaign for mayor and a year later, in 2014, his Commissioner of Finance, Jacques Jiha, said he would undertake a comprehensive analysis before making recommendations to the state for change. Yet it appears the Advisory Commission empaneled in 2018 is conducting the first such review of the mayor’s tenure.

“Fairness” is at the core of the commission’s mission, largely a response to a number of related policy consequences that have become apparent over the years.

>>Property Tax Classes
Legislators in 1981 created a system that would benefit small home owners by placing them in Class 1, maintaining the relatively low assessment rates they had enjoyed for so long, while leaving commercial properties, including apartment buildings, in Class 2 with a larger share of the levy.

At the time, co-op conversions, which started in New York City in the 1920s, had begun to take place at a very rapid rate; between 1978 and 1988, roughly 242,000 rental apartments in more than 3,000 buildings had been turned into tenant-owned cooperatives, according to a New York Times report published in 1988. In order to prevent assessors from considering the value of apartments if they were to be converted, lawmakers placed co-ops and condos into Class 2 and inserted language into the state law requiring they be assessed on the net income they would earn as rentals, as opposed to their sales value.

More recently, however, in an era of acute gentrification and concentrated market value growth, the low rates on co-ops and condos has become a new variation on the unequal assessment theme that sparked the Hellerstein case. As the price of homes in booming neighborhoods has skyrocketed, taxes assessed on co-ops and condos have become an increasingly smaller proportion of their sales value.

Tax Equity Now New York, a coalition of homeowners, renters, and business groups, led by former city Department of Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, filed a lawsuit in 2017 challenging the state laws that lead to disproportionate rent burden. The group claims the neighborhoods with the greatest burdens are less affluent and more likely to be the home of large populations of people of color.

By state law, taxes for homes in Class 1 are assessed on 6 percent of what assessors believe to be their market value, while co-ops and condos in Class 2 are assessed at a rate of 45 percent of potential rental income. But the way the city Department of Finance (which is responsible for calculating market value based on formulas set by the state) arrives at that value for the two property types is not consistent.

For Class 2, city finance officials compare co-op values to the income of nearby rental properties, vastly undervaluing what the property would be worth if sold. Because of the age and location of many co-ops, their taxes are often assessed based on comparisons to rent-regulated buildings, exacerbating the value discrepancy. 

Ana Champeny of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the fiscal watchdog, gave an example: “You look at the value that [Department of Finance] determined based on state law and it’ll be something like...$600,000, but when you look at how much the person paid when they bought that unit, they would have paid something like $3 million.”

To help address this inequity, CBC argued when it testified before the Advisory Commission in November, simply put condos and co-ops in Class 1 where they belong, and assess them based on sales prices. This would also help New Yorkers understand the system’s complex arithmetic and the outcomes it produces. Because now-distant beginnings created the fractional assessment practices established by the property classification system, the particular tax-related burdens New Yorkers face often feel arbitrary.

“I think that creates a lot more mistrust, too, in the system. Which is why we said you really should put all these homes into one class and you should value them based on sales,” Champeny told Gotham Gazette.

There were a number of bills in the Legislature related to condos and co-ops that lawmakers were apprehensive about taking up because of uncertainty about changes to the classification system, according to Assemblymember Galef.

“We want to see where the commission comes out on that one so those bills won’t be addressed this year,” Galef told Gotham Gazette in May before the legislative session ended. (The Legislature passed, and the governor has yet to sign, a two-year extension of a property tax abatement program for co-ops and condos, but nothing to address the structure of the real property class system.)

When everyone is a stakeholder, though, upsetting the long held fractional assessments would mean some people will have to pay more, and that is likely to include the high value co-ops and condos now enjoying low rates. As in the past, this will inevitably be a difficult pill to swallow.  In a letter to the Advisory Commission in May, City Council Members Steven Matteo, Joe Borelli, and Justin Brannan -- who represent parts of southern Brooklyn and Staten Island -- urged, “First, do no harm to Class 1 and 2 homeowners.”

Responding to a co-op owner who worries about rising taxes year after year, Mayor de Blasio said, “I want to be...really honest with everyone that we cannot end up with a system that reduces our revenue substantially, unless people want to see a change in the services provided by city.”

>>Renters
For residents, the weight of New York’s property classification system is harder to bear the further you are away from the mitigating effects of ownership, which can put serious pressure on renters who can’t cash in or pass on tax burdens to tenants. In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of African-American and Hispanic renters, the real estate law firm Newman Ferrara claimed that the way the state classifies different types of property has resulted in a disproportionate tax burden being passed on to renters in large residential buildings.

According to a CBC analysis, as of December 2016 one- to three-family homes made up roughly 48 percent of the total market value of New York City property, but were taxed only about 15 percent of the total levy. By contrast, Class 2 properties -- apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos -- made up approximately 25 percent of the market, but were taxed significantly more: nearly 38 percent of the total.

Most of that burden falls on apartment buildings because owners of co-ops and condos often pay such a small percentage of their property value in taxes. To maintain their profit margin, landlords often redistribute the tax burden to tenants (the same is true for commercial tenants, which can put a strain on small business). The 2014 suit alleged, since large apartment buildings are predominantly occupied by African-American and Hispanic tenants, the uneven tax burden they experience is a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The property tax burden on one- to three-family home owners can be mitigated by the lower share they pay on the property’s value; the tax burden on co-ops and condos is not great because they are assessed on a fraction of their sales price; and much of the tax burden of big landlords can be passed on to tenants. But renters, who make up two-thirds of all occupied units, according to 2017 U.S. Census data, have no outlet to spread their burden.

(Homeowners who pay a significant portion of their income in property taxes and cannot immediately benefit from the rising value of their homes without selling them, are also put in a precarious situation as taxes rise annually and the costs of maintaining aging housing stack up. The city’s Third Party Transfer program, which seizes buildings from landlords who are behind on taxes and other fees, has recently come under fire for taking the homes of lower-income, minority property owners.)

The 2014 Newman Ferrara suit was dismissed by a state Supreme Court, which rejected the notion that property taxes could be shared more equitably among the classes as “speculative.”

Short of revamping the city’s entire property tax system, the push to improve conditions for many tenants was a major point of contention in Albany this year, as state rent regulations affecting the city and surrounding suburbs approached their expiration date in June. A concerted push under the new Democratic governing reality resulted in a landmark package of tenant reforms aimed at strengthening protections and closing loopholes in rent regulations like reforming the major capital improvement program, ending vacancy decontrol, and eliminating the vacancy bonus, among others. These regulations affect roughly 2 million tenants in 1 million apartments.

“We made a commitment that the new Senate Democratic Majority would help pass the strongest tenant protections in history,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement after the package passed both houses of the Legislature. “The legislation we passed today achieves that commitment and will help millions of New Yorkers throughout our state.”

>>Income
While statutory caps were put in place to keep homeowners’ property taxes from rising too quickly, they have still tended to outpace the growth in household incomes, creating a disparity in tax burden across income levels. A report by the city Comptroller’s Office from September found that between 2005 and 2016 annual property tax revenue grew an average of 6.4 percent a year, while the household incomes of small home, co-op and condo owners rose only 2 percent per year. As a result, the share of income that goes to pay property taxes on those types of homes has risen significantly and is most pronounced among the lowest earners.

The comptroller’s report shows that households making less than $50,000 -- largely retirees whose incomes had been higher when the homes were purchased -- had property tax payments increase from 6.6 percent of household income in 2005 to nearly 13 percent in 2016 (the study does not take into account social security earnings and other non-taxable income for seniors, meaning its findings for this group may be higher than seniors’ true property tax burdens).

“For households at this income level, where there is little or no discretionary income, these increases impose significant constraints and sacrifices on household budgets,” the report reads. By contrast, homeowners with income between $250,000 and $500,000 paid only 2.9 percent of their income in property taxes.

Some advocates have proposed what are known as “circuit breakers” to deal with property tax burdens on lower-income New Yorkers.

A circuit breaker essentially provides a tax rebate for lower-income property owners by reducing state income taxes if property taxes exceed a certain proportion of income, or simply by capping property taxes as a percentage of income. Hellerstein was a proponent of implementing circuit breakers, as was Governor Carey, who included them in his own 1981 proposal, which failed. In November, the CBC testified about the benefits of circuit breakers before the city’s Advisory Commission.

But mechanisms like circuit breakers, which create indirect relief through income tax reductions -- as well as various other kinds of exemptions, abatements, and rate limitations -- when piled on to triage the discrete consequences of New York’s property tax system (exacerbated by the city’s complex housing portfolio), also contribute to the opacity of the system -- one of the main problems the Commission aims to address.

“Homestead exemptions, or elderly or disabled or veterans exemptions...tax abatements and rate limitations and assessment limitations and assessment increase limitations -- it becomes a very complex system and ultimately non-transparent,” John Anderson of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy noted before the Advisory Commission in February.

But exemptions and other forms of relief are popular among property owners in distress and are something that can be enacted by the city, making them attractive to local politicians trying to court voters. (Borelli introduced a bill to the City Council in 2018 that would give a tax exemption to veterans of Cold War conflicts.)

Disparities exist despite tax credits and other programs intended to ease the burden on lower-income New Yorkers, and they are likely to get worse.

The increase in tax burden identified in the Comptroller’s report was tempered by the rising value of property assets and declining interest rates over the past 20 years, which kept mortgage payments low, according to its authors. But the report notes interest and mortgage payments have begun to rise while property value growth has subsided in many neighborhoods, and phase-ins on co-ops and condos (like statutory caps on small homes) mean that property taxes can continue to rise even after the market stabilizes.

Changes in state and local tax deductions from Washington, D.C. last year mean taxpayers who itemize their deductions may no longer be able to deduct the amount of their property taxes from their federal taxes.

>>Geography
Last September, Citizens Budget Commission released an analysis showing that homeowners on Staten Island and in the Bronx have a higher effective tax rate than the rest of the city, meaning they pay a higher percentage of their property’s market value in taxes despite owning homes that are worth less.

This, the report notes, is the result of statutory caps set in state law on the rate by which assessed values can grow. There are different caps for different categories of property; for small homes the cap is set at 6 percent annually, or 20 percent over five years.

The growth rate cap, intended to insulate homeowners experiencing rapid market growth from dramatic property tax increases, has the effect of shifting the tax burden from booming neighborhoods to ones with more stable housing markets, regardless of the overall value of the homes. The CBC analysis finds only 5 percent of the city’s single-family homes are assessed at the 6 percent target ratio because the caps keep most assessments lower. But Staten Island and Bronx homeowners do not seem to be the beneficiaries of this dynamic.

Council Members Borelli and Matteo, who represent districts on Staten Island, in a 2016 press release said, “Staten Islander’s [sic] on average pay [property taxes on] 98.5% of their actual market values, while average Brooklyn and Manhattan class-1 homeowners pay 88.5% and 87.2% respectively.”

Politicians from Staten Island have been among the most vocal proponents of property tax reform. The borough has a large aging population on fixed income and roughly 70 percent of residents own their homes, according to Census data.

In 2016 Borelli and Matteo, both Republicans, called for a bipartisan commission to look at the economic burdens on one- and two-family homes, including the caps issue. They also called for the Department of Finance to use actual assessors, not statistical models, in order to account for a property’s actual condition (on Staten Island only a tenth of homes were built in the last 20 years). Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis, also a Republican, joined Borelli in calling for a property tax commission when she ran for mayor against de Blasio in 2017. (Property tax reform and relief was also a central pillar of Republican gubernatorial candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro’s 2018 campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who this year pushed through a permanent 2 percent cap on annual property tax growth, which applies everywhere outside New York City.)

To address the tax burden inequities, Borelli has called for the Legislature to at least change the law so that caps reset when a house changes hands. Borelli was the prime sponsor of a resolution, co-sponsored by 13 others in the 51-seat Council, calling for the change in January 2018, but it has not been adopted.

He repeated the proposal to the Advisory Commission in September, saying, “The cap is attached to the property, not the owner, and the result creates vast disparities between the city’s wealthy and middle-class homeowners, and among wealthy homeowners themselves depending on when their homes were built and the characteristics of the market.”

>>Race
Tax Equity Now New York, the coalition led by former city finance commissioner Martha Stark, has highlighted some of these inequities in its lawsuit filed against the city and state in 2017. The lawsuit, filed after long-running frustration with elected officials’ apparent unwillingness to act on property tax reform, alleges New York’s property tax system has a disproportionate negative impact on homeowners and renters in less affluent neighborhoods with large populations of people of color.

In a study conducted by the group, higher tax burdens, especially those identified in the Citizens Budget Commission analysis, were shown to have a disproportionate impact on neighborhoods where racial minorities make up a majority of the population.

At the crux of the issue is the claim that property tax assessments have not reflected true market values, resulting in neighborhoods predominantly of color being assessed 19 percent more than predominantly white ones, the group alleges. Tax Equity Now is seeking changes to the law, not compensation, but has not specified what those changes should be. The suit survived the city’s motion to dismiss in September but is now stayed, pending appeal.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part three - The City's Bottom Line - here. (Find part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here.)

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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