If you're a homeowner in Philadelphia, your property is likely one of your most valuable investments.
Which is why the Inquirer attended the Center City Residents Association meeting last Thursday to hear how the city's Office of Property Assessment arrived at the reassessments for Philly residential properties.
About 150 enraged homeowners packed the meeting at Tenth Presbyterian on 17th and Spruce Streets, many saying they'd received notices saying they may owe upward of 100 percent, 200 percent, or more in higher property taxes. The vibe at the meeting? Disbelief, anger, and, among the seniors and multigenerational homeowners, frustration that they'll be pushed out.
So here's how to appeal your Philly property reassessments, step by step.
Homes represent most Americans' most-illiquid investment, but it's likely a huge part of your net worth, even including retirement savings or investments, so it's important to address how taxes might rise. Last month, the Office of Property Assessment sent out reassessment notices to property owners in Philadelphia.
Former City Comtroller Alan Butkovitz proposed another solution: City Council should scrap the proposed assessments.
"City Council knows it's an election year coming up. They're scared of you, the voter," he told the crowd during the Q&A session. "Let's put a stop to this."
First level review
You received a form with your 2019 proposed reassessment, called a "First Level Review." Send in the form. We repeat – send in the form! It's the initial step to have your property assessment reviewed. You don't need a lawyer to send in the form, due by Friday, May 25. Explain why your assessment is faulty, including location, improvements, recent sales, etc., and request a meeting or review from the Office of Property Assessment.
Homeowners can also appeal their property assessment, and the deadline is Oct. 1 — if City Council doesn't throw out this reassessment before then. You'll sit before the Board of Revision and Taxes and state your case as to why your assessment isn't fair. Probably best to have an attorney with you. You can still appeal even if you don't send in the First Level Review form.
You can file a second appeal to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. For that, you'll need a lawyer.
Meanwhile, file for a homestead exemption
If your home in Philadelphia is your primary residence, you can apply for a homestead exemption. This means you can knock off $30,000 from your current assessment. There's some discussion of raising that to $40,000 or $45,000, depending on City Council.
You can apply at the OPA website (beta.phila.gov/services/property-lots-housing/get-the-homestead-exemption) via the online Homestead Exemption application, over the phone by calling the city's Revenue Hotline at 215-686-9200, or by mail using the Homestead Exemption Application.
The Office of Property Assessment is located at the Curtis Center, 601 Walnut St., Suite 300W, Philadelphia, Pa. 19106. Phone: 215-686-4334.
As my colleague Caitlin McCabe has reported, property valuations changed through a mysterious formula (which the Office of Property Assessment could not make clear even last week). You can access the Inquirer and Daily News database of proposed property reassessments at http://data.philly.com/philly/property/tax.
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke attended Thursday night's meeting at the Center City Residents Association.
"I got a significant bump-up too," he said of his reassessment. "In three weeks, City Council has to make some decisions as relates to the assessments. I need to hear you firsthand. I need to make an intelligent decision based on real people that will minimize the negative impact."
Overall, the median market value of Philadelphia single-family homes increased 10.5 percent from the 2018 assessments, jumping from $112,800 to $124,600, according to an Inquirer and Daily News analysis of the city's data. Some individual homeowners could see two, three, or even 10 times that. And for renters, tax-bill increases could be passed on to them.
"I have an elderly tenant who has cancer," one homeowner told panelist Michael Piper, deputy chief assessment officer at the Office of Property Assessment. "How in good conscience can I raise the rent on that person?"
Piper didn't have an answer. Nor could he explain the OPA's formula for reassessments. Carl Washington, who lives within the Center City District (between Market and South), said the OPA isn't transparent with property lot values (which aren't online) and couldn't fully explain why the land underneath homes varies from lot to lot — even on the same block.
"We've lived for three generations in the same house, and made only a few improvements. So how can the assessment go up so much?" said Washington. "They won't answer."
Butkovitz, the former city controller, has some ideas.
"Don't for a minute think there's nothing we can do. This [reassessment] is not a doomsday machine. The state legislature passed a law in 1984 saying not only can people get abatements for new construction, but if you live in an area with new construction, the city could say there's a cap of assessments for long-term residents, for those who've lived there 10 years," he told the audience.
"Second, the financial industry gets the valuations of properties right all the time" on such sites as Zillow and Realtor.com, he added. "I suggest an amendment of state law that allows assessments from financial institutions as binding on the Board of Revision of Taxes on an appeal."
The rate of inflation in America is 2 to 3 percent a year, Butkovitz added, which is the normal rate of price appreciation for a lot of residential real estate.
"And yet some house values have tripled. It's a mistake. They'll never admit it's a mistake. It's overreach that now justifies a legislative fix."
How do other cities reassess their properties?
In some New Jersey counties, the formula is transparent, an established ratio with a margin of error, plus or minus a percentage, using market-rate comparables.
Why isn't the OPA's formula for reassessments available on its website?
"We don't have that yet," Piper said.
Hmmmm. If Philadelphians are going to be paying higher property taxes to support schools and maintain services and streets, we should be able to see how OPA arrives at those property values.
If other American cities help citizens assess their biggest investment, why can't we?