Why Did the City Sock It to a Young Couple for $5,000?

What the Nutter Administration is doing with real estate taxes isn't just unfair, it's illegal

A young couple in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood received some very unsettling news in the mail from the city. A letter from the Office of Property Assessment informed them that the value of their property had increased and their real estate tax bill would jump from about $3,000 to about $8,000. This shocking tax increase was certainly nothing they had expected -– or budgeted for. But most outrageous was the fact that the stunned homeowners quickly found that theirs was among only a handful of properties across Philadelphia that had been whacked by the city tax man. I am helping them fight back and, if you have received an assessment increase, I can help you too (free of charge).

As we all must understand by now, real estate taxation in Philadelphia is a hopelessly unfair mess that places seemingly arbitrary values on properties. This forces some to pay unreasonably high tax bills, while others don’t pay their fair share based on the true value of their properties. Despite pronouncements over decades from various mayors and assessors that they would fix this broken system, assessments are as bad as ever and in desperate need of change.

Maybe there is hope that things will change for the better.

I have joined other neighbors in suing to compel the city to set fair and accurate values for properties, and the Nutter Administration has taken some steps in the right direction. Philadelphia hired a new Chief Assessment Officer to lead the effort to get values right, and the city has committed to releasing new, legitimate values for all city properties by next fall. Whether the city follows through on its own accord or under a judicial order, we may actually see light at the end of the tunnel.

Of course, that is no consolation to our friends in Fairmount who are the victims of an outrageous, one-year $5,000 tax increase while owners of comparable properties in the city are paying so much less.

Why is this couple (as well as the owners of a few thousand other properties across the city) so unlucky? The city has placed a moratorium on new assessments until it can generate correct values for all properties. But the city has reserved itself the right to continue to reassess certain properties, including renovations and new construction, while everyone else remains unchanged. So if you recently applied for a building permit or recently built a new home, the city has decided that your property should be assessed while all other properties, including those that were built or renovated a few years back -– or those properties where renovations were completed without proper building permits -– have their assessments frozen in time.

This singling out of some properties for a tax increase is just plain wrong.

First of all, the city’s moratorium is not legal. The city is obligated by law to reassess and re-value every single property in Philadelphia every single year so that the real estate tax is applied to fair and accurate values. The mayor has no legal authority to stop assessing properties. One could perhaps understand the “moratorium” if it were a complete pause in reassessment activities while the city works diligently to properly set values across the board. However, reassessing some properties while leaving other comparable properties unchanged is completely irrational, unfair, and illegal.

Assessing only some properties -– or “spot assessing” — treats similar properties differently, is against state law, and violates the U.S. Constitution. Pennsylvania law demands “uniformity” in taxation. Valuing certain properties accurately and others at a fraction of their true value treats similar properties differently in violation of state law. Similarly, by singling out individual properties for reassessment, Philadelphia denies the owners of those properties the Constitutional protection of equal protection under law to which they are entitled.

The only good news for our unfairly assessed friends in Fairmount –- and for anyone else in Philadelphia who received a reassessment notice this summer -– is that they can challenge this unfair tax increase and win a reduction on appeal.

If you are a victim of this illegal spot assessment, please contact me at [email protected] or call 215.380.4120 and I will help you fight back and win.

We absolutely must complete a fair and accurate reassessment of every property in Philadelphia, but unless and until we do, the city cannot continue to use unfair and illegal spot assessments to unfairly pick the pockets of our unsuspecting neighbors.