The Actual Value Initiative – the new method the city is using to calculate your property taxes – is here to stay, according to Mayor Michael Nutter.
Unsaid by the mayor, though, is how the new valuation system will affect the majority of Philadelphia homeowners. Until this week, when the numbers were finally released, we were told that some property owners would see their taxes go up, but most would stay about the same, and some might even see a reduction in their tax burden.
OK, that part is true. If you own one of the giant office buildings in Center City, your taxes are likely to go down. If you own a small business in a burgeoning community, or worse, you are a longtime homeowner in one of the city’s quickly gentrifying areas, get ready for the pain.
If you’re one of the homeowners who already got their adjusted property tax bill in the mail this week, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. In fact, you’re probably crying your eyes out as you read this, or drinking with both hands.
Some folks will see their taxes go up 300, 500, even 1000 percent. I’m not kidding — one thousand percent.
Look at your property tax bill from last year. Now multiply that by 500 or 1000 percent. Imagine that little old lady in your neighborhood who has owned her home for 30 or 40 years, raised her children there, and now lives alone on a fixed income. What happens when her tax bill goes up by more money than she’s ever seen in her life?
How about that young couple on your block just starting out, trying to make it on substandard wages, who had just enough money to afford their first home? Imagine their horror when they open that envelope. Heck, you don’t have to imagine their horror. Imagine your own.
While AVI is not intended to move good people out of their homes, that is surely the effect a massive tax hike will have. And while gentrification is a touchy, emotional subject; everyone wants to live in a nice neighborhood that’s on the rise, not one on the way down. Those new $500,000 homes next door to a row of $50,000 homes are attractive, and moneyed neighbors bring new business and new life into old areas. Through no fault of their own, they also increase the chances that the rising property values will force their neighbors to seek shelter elsewhere, perhaps in another city.
A similar thing happened a few years ago in San Francisco. Many areas of the city, previously neglected, became hip, hot and happening. People began moving in, fixing up old houses and building new ones. Property values skyrocketed. Sounds great, right?
Except that poor people, people of color, seniors, and other residents on fixed incomes found themselves living in homes they could no longer afford. The mortgage stayed the same, but their property taxes shot through the roof. Slowly, gradually they all began to move out of San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, Richmond, and other less expensive areas. As they moved out, eager buyers with disposable income snapped up the homes. Now, the city by the bay is the most expensive place to live in the United States.
I have a good friend who runs a nonprofit organization in San Francisco who cynically calls the phenomenon “the city’s Negro Removal Program.” That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it’s also not that far from the truth. Census figures show far fewer people of color, and low income folks living in San Francisco now than ten years ago, while Oakland’s population rose exponentially.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not an indictment of the folks who see opportunity in certain neighborhoods, and take advantage of the chance to buy low and sell high. That’s the American way. They don’t set property tax rates, and they don’t collect those taxes — they pay them.
But for those who watch helplessly as they are literally priced out of house and home, not blaming the new neighbors is small consolation.
You have one chance here, fellow Philadelphians — and probably only one. There is something you can do.
Scream bloody murder.
Call your city council representative, call the mayor, call your elected representatives and tell them to write effective legislation to ease the burden on those who are facing the fight of their lives. Get together with your neighbors, pass out flyers, take action.
The house you save may be your own.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.