In Defense of Higher Property Tax Assessments
My column in this week's paper looks at a persistent issue in D.C.: the city's underassessment of properties, and the resulting lost tax revenue. I can already anticipate the comments on the piece. Why the fuck should I pay more taxes when the city's running a huge budget surplus?
It's a valid question. But ultimately, there are two good reasons why we should be paying more taxes—particularly property taxes. Here's why property assessments closer to market value would be a good thing.
1. If the goal is to lower taxes, there are much better ways to do it than to selectively underassess properties. First of all, about 55 percent of D.C. residents are renters, and while property tax bills theoretically get passed along to renters, it's naive to think that a windfall for the owner will result in proportionally lower rents for the tenants. And even if underassessment somehow did affect owners and renters equally, there's the matter of unequal assessment: While single-family homes will be assessed at 97 percent of their 2012 sale values after the Office of Tax and Revenue's revisions for 2014 taxes, commercial properties are only getting valued at 90 percent, and apartment buildings at 79 percent. In other words, owners of big buildings are getting off easier than average homeowners.
2. The goal probably shouldn't be to lower taxes. D.C.'s taxes are already the lowest in the region. In fact, they're considerably lower than they were in the late 1990s. As laid out by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute earlier this week, property tax rates have declined across the board since 1998. So have income tax rates: While income north of $20,000 was taxed at 9.5 percent in 1998, it's now taxed at 6 percent from $20,000 to $40,000, and under 9 percent from there on up. Our roads are full of potholes. Our schools are a mess. Homeless people need housing. There's a better way to spend our money than to allow some property owners to pay less in property taxes than they should.
Former D.C. Council candidate Paul Zukerberg complains on Twitter that higher assessments would force out longterm residents, because currently higher assessments kick in only after a property sells. But again, underassessment is a pretty blunt and awkward tool to help low-income homeowners. The Council has considered legislation to limit property taxes for low-income residents and seniors. If the aim is to help a certain class of homeowners, then help that class of homeowners directly. But underassessing properties—and particularly office and apartment buildings—isn't a great way to do it.
Graph by Aaron Wiener, with data from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute