Randy and Debbie Blough, volunteers at the Honey Brook Food Pantry, stopped by the mobile home of a client — a young mother in the Chester County borough who was struggling to make ends meet.
“We could see how modest it was,” Randy Blough said of their 2018 visit to the home. “She showed us [her] property-tax bill and we were just floored.”
Her bill was five times what it should have been, based on her home’s value. And she was behind in her taxes because she couldn’t afford them.
Through that meeting, the Bloughs learned about a disparity that stems from state tax laws meant to ensure equal treatment. Then they went to work. Last year alone, they and other volunteers helped to cut more than $170,000 off the collective annual property-tax bills of 177 mobile-home owners in Chester County. And advocates and state lawmakers want mobile-home owners across the state to see the same kind of relief.
Mobile homes tend to be overtaxed. That’s because they are assessed as homes, which tend to gain value over time. But mobile homes depreciate like vehicles. And according to state law and legal precedent, counties can’t go into mobile-home parks to reassess those properties without reassessing all other properties, too, a costly effort.
The Bloughs and fellow volunteers filed assessment appeals for the young mother and about 20 others in 2018, lowering their 2019 taxes. Then the United Way of Chester County saw a story in The Inquirer about the Bloughs’ work. The organization teamed up with pantry volunteers, Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and the Chester County Paralegal Association to appeal those 177 assessments last year.
In 2020, the volunteers are aiming to appeal the assessments of 1,000 mobile homes. Chester County has more than 3,600 owner-occupied mobile homes.
“For a lot of our clients, it’s the only way to have that American dream of owning a home,” said Rachel Houseman, managing attorney of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Chester County division. ”These people are paying far beyond their fair share according to the rules, and they’re the ones least able to absorb the extra cost.”
Seventeen of the 177 homeowners helped last year were facing sheriff’s sales for back taxes they shouldn’t have owed, according to the United Way of Chester County. The previous combined assessed value of the 177 homes was $6.5 million, the United Way said. After reassessment, the total value dropped to $1.9 million. Residents were, on average, paying four times what they should have owed.
One owner was paying 14 times more. Her mobile home had been assessed at $35,250. But after an appeal, the home’s new assessed value was $2,510. So her taxes dropped from roughly $1,600 to $114.
“It’s the difference between survival or not,” said Stephanie Miller, senior director of community impact strategies at the United Way of Chester County.
Other areas are looking to replicate the results in Honey Brook, and “the interest level is spreading across the state,” said Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania. She mentioned the project to Gov. Tom Wolf at an October meeting about innovative projects to help the “ALICE” population — an acronym for people who are “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.”
County assessors feel their hands are tied without a change to the state tax code, said county officials and Christopher Saello, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Chester County.
“It’s just a system that’s set up against people,” he said.
The appeals process can be daunting if someone doesn’t have the means to pay the county’s $25 processing fee or to find the value of their home online, Blough said. State legislation introduced in June would direct assessors to take into account the differences between mobile and manufactured homes and other types of homes for a more permanent and sweeping fix.
In the Chester County program, lawyers and paralegals collect details about the mobile homes, determine their values with a software subscription, and appeal the assessments before county officials. United Way finds funding.
Chester County commissioners awarded the initiative a $10,000 grant in November, and county officials are looking for ways to ease the appeals process for mobile-home owners.
“If a large commercial property owner can come in and get their [assessment] reduced because they know how, we should be able to figure out how to make sure the people whose properties actually depreciate are able to do it in a way that also recognizes the possible challenges they have, like transportation or money for certain information,” said Kathi Cozzone, who served as a commissioner until this month and is on the board of the United Way of Chester County.
Randy Blough said that for the roughly 200 reassessments volunteers have won so far, most of the mobile-home owners will have to appeal again in three to five years “to keep their taxes equitable as their home depreciates further.”
Michael Quinlan, 76, said he successfully petitioned the county to reassess his mobile home “quite a while ago,” before his wife died. The assessment of their home became reasonable and stayed that way at first.
“Then it kept going up, up, up, up, up, to about four times its value,” he said. “We beat it down and they keep creepin’ it up every year.”
Quinlan is battling pancreatic cancer, “so I don’t have a lot of kick in me right now,” he said. He picks up some jobs inspecting floors when he can because he can’t pay his bills on his Social Security income.
So after he saw flyers around his mobile-home park advertising the reassessment project and talked to a neighbor who got her tax bills lowered, he welcomed help.
“I’m very thankful. Very thankful,” Quinlan said.
Houseman of Legal Aid called the stories she’s heard “really gut-wrenching.”
One woman feared she’d lose her home to a sheriff’s sale after her husband and son died and she lost the help she was getting paying her tax bill. Thanks to an appeal and additional tax relief through the state, she’ll owe only $17 for 2020.
Ora Hoover, an 88-year-old owner of a mobile home, knew her property taxes were high, but she figured that’s just how it was.
“I pay my bills when they come,” she said. “That’s what I do.”
Then she got a note in her mailbox about the program and made an appointment. She and her 102-year-old husband, Garland, were “pleasantly surprised.” Their home’s reassessment will save them more than 60% on this year’s property-tax bill.