The So-Philly Tale of How the City Nearly Sold My House Without Telling Me

A thrilling sojourn into the heart of our municipal bureaucracy, featuring a mysterious tax bill, a pregnant woman (me!), a dead guy, computer equipment from the 1980s, and a few clear-eyed insights on why it can be hard to be a citizen of this city.

philadelphia property tax

Illustration by Matt Chase

In July of 2017, when I was eight months pregnant with my second child, my husband and I learned, rather by chance, that the city had plans to put our home — a 1,200-square-foot Fairmount porch-front we’d bought in 2014 — up for sheriff sale.

This was, to put it mildly, news to us. (I believe my even-keeled husband’s exact words were: “What the actual fuck?”)

Want to hear this story read aloud? Listen here.

Until that moment, we had enjoyed what I thought of as a run-of-the-mill Philly tax experience: Things had been fine, save for a few small bumps. Because of how messy our tax situation is — I’m a freelancer; my husband is part owner of a business — we’d always relied on accountants, so we never paid much attention to the ins and outs of city taxes. And mostly, ignorance worked just fine for us. Earlier that year, we’d gotten a note from the Department of Revenue saying we owed money for a school income tax — a sum we’d already paid. But the issue was settled with a phone call from our accountant. Then, in early July 2017, we’d gotten another notice: We owed $731 in Net Profits Tax, a business tax, plus $51.17 in penalties and interest. (As a freelancer, I’m a business.) Again, we’d already paid that bill; again we dug out our records and called the city to set it straight. Easy enough.

Only … the customer service representative in Revenue asked: Were we aware we had a property tax delinquency on our home? It seemed we owed money from 2015 and 2016. And because we hadn’t paid that money, we also owed interest. And penalties. All told, almost $3,700.

Um, no, my husband said. We were not aware. Coming off the second city glitch concerning money we “owed,” though, he wasn’t terribly worried. Clearly, this was another mistake. After all, we paid our taxes. Actually, no; our mortgage broker paid the city our taxes on our behalf, and it wasn’t exactly some flighty little lender.

But who ever really knows anything for sure? We called the bank to ascertain if something might have gone awry there and also started making calls to the Revenue Department. We had been receiving school income tax forms, we told them — mail coming from the Revenue office — addressed to the previous owner of our house. Donald Cleaver had been a lovely elderly man who died not long after he left the house in 2014. Was it possible they were confused about who owned the place?

No, the voice on the phone said: We know you live there. This was no mix-up.

Within a couple weeks, we received a bill from Revenue for $360, for something they called “tax liability.” Phew, we thought with the eager acceptance of people who were eight months pregnant and also with the blithe naïveté of people who believed that most answers lay at the end of a few probing phone calls. Clearly, something had been corrected, and we owed a less daunting amount of cash — although it was still unclear why we owed anything at all. Again, my husband called to get answers.

“Oh, no,” the customer service representative told him. “You still owe the other money.” The new bill was a fee associated with sheriff sale proceedings, she said. Just like that.

I should tell you now that this story does not contain a sheriff sale; we were so freaked out that we instantly paid the tax bill and fines, following advice from our mortgage broker. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. In retrospect, the whole episode now reads like a (deeply unfunny) comedy of errors. But back then, and for the two years following that phone call, it felt like a Twilight Zone of taxes, immersed as we were in a maze of calls and emails and visits to the Revenue Department inside the cold gray monolith that is the Municipal Services Building. (God, even the name of that place is terrible.) There were fruitless trips to the Office of Property Assessment, two failed appeals, a smattering of emotional breakdowns, a handful more letters addressed to Donald Cleaver, and, of course, a check for roughly $4,000 made out to the City of Philadelphia for … well, it’s a long story. We’ll get there.

The mystery wouldn’t fully unravel itself for several months yet, but as I regaled acquaintances with the tale, one thing was becoming clear: We weren’t the only people with what we might call “user friendliness” issues as Philly taxpayers. There was the freelancer who overpaid business taxes and wouldn’t get his cash back for four years; there were misapplied and missing exemptions; there were people being hounded by collections for money they didn’t owe; and so on, and on. Without even really trying, I began to string together stories with common themes: opaque processes; confusing back-and-forths with the city; time-consuming attempts to address mistakes. In short? Little headaches everywhere.

So as I tried to uncover what happened with our taxes — how could we owe money for two years and only find out by accident? — I also set about understanding, broadly speaking, how simply being a clued-in, contented, taxpaying citizen in Philadelphia could feel like such a slog.

After we paid the $4,000, we immediately set about trying to get it back. And to do that, we had to understand where the charge came from in the first place.

Meanwhile, our second child (and her child-care costs) had arrived; we kept thinking how much that $4,000 would help. Or if not the $4,000 — if we truly owed the $2,800 principal, and we were willing to concede we might — surely we’d find some city ally who would at least help us recoup the fines and penalties, since we never knew we owed anything in the first place. Right?

Per the advice of one friendly Revenue representative, we sent in a refund petition for those fines and penalties. In September of 2017, we got an answer:

The refund you requested has been denied. A review of your account shows that you have no credit available in the account, account ID, and period specified in your request.

The letter was addressed to Donald Cleaver.

We called the help line listed at the bottom of the letter. Yes, people inside the Revenue Department assured us, we know you live there. No, they had no idea why Don’s name kept coming up. We informed them he was dead. It would be helpful if we had a death certificate, they said. This was obviously insane. But they also suggested that we take our case before the Tax Review Board.

And so my husband began compiling the known facts, one of which was that our taxes had been raised in 2014 — the year we bought the house — with the Actual Value Initiative. Based off conversations with people in Revenue, we supposed something might have gone wrong communicating our new, higher tax bill to us or to our mortgage broker. Perhaps, we surmised, the city was sending mail for our property to Donald Cleaver, who was by this time unreachable in the Great Hereafter.

This is not what had happened. But we wouldn’t realize that for another several months, and neither would anyone we were speaking to in the city. We also didn’t realize all the should haves that were racking up as we muddled through: We should have gone to Revenue lawyers for help the moment we heard “sheriff sale”; we should have been looking regularly at our property records on the city’s website; we probably should have retained a lawyer of our own.

Eventually, I did approach a Philly-based tax lawyer to try to help me understand some of the inner workings of the system. (Like many people I spoke to for this story, she asked not to be named, as her job involves working with the city.) There remains, she believes, “an asymmetry of information” wherein “people with a lot of experience and knowledge in this area get the benefit, while other people don’t.” There are many employees within Revenue who are competent and dedicated and helpful, she allows, but in her experience (and mine), it depends to whom you’re talking: “The reason people pay me is because I have this basic knowledge, while it might take them 72 or 120 hours to reliably get this information.”

Never did this observation seem more apparent to us than in March of 2018, when my husband took the day off work to appeal to the Tax Review Board. When it was his turn to present his case — “I think I might have been the only non-lawyer there,” he observed — he got as far as the part where we paid the money.

“Wait,” a board member interjected. “So your bank paid the $4,000?”

It did, my husband affirmed, albeit with our money.

“If your bank paid,” the board member replied, “then the bank has to appeal. Not you.”

And there it was: the moment, at almost a year in, when we finally realized that no ally was going to emerge with an answer and a check. We’d lived in Philly for a decade, but no matter: We had no home-court advantage in this arena. None of the people we’d talked to about the appeals process had mentioned anything about the bank appealing. (I cannot, to this day, find where on the Revenue website this is noted.)

Dejected, my husband came home to explain it all to a nonplussed banker (“So Donald Cleaver used to own this house … ”) who might appeal on our behalf. In June of 2018, the bank mailed us the answer.

According to your tax locality, a refund is not available at this time.

I called to ask the city why we’d been denied. Because the bank appealed, we felt very much in the dark. In my frustration, I accidentally called the Board of Revision of Taxes (the people who deal with assessments appeals) instead of the Tax Review Board (the people who denied our appeal). Without realizing my mistake, I impatiently briefed the woman who answered the phone and told her I needed to speak to someone in charge. She didn’t mince words. Nope. The board didn’t owe anyone an explanation for its decision at any time, ever, she said.

To our city’s credit, this was the only rude employee we really encountered. And yet, I felt this call crystallized the entire ordeal: There I was, deeply lost despite a decent amount of effort, asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. And there the city was, not catching the mistake, not digging too deep, and essentially saying that nobody owed us anything. Least of all information.

As a citizen, I was mad. But as a reporter, I was curious (okay, mad and curious) and wanted to understand why clear answers and real help were so hard to come by. Still, for weeks, I felt a bit apprehensive about approaching the man in charge of the Department of Revenue, Frank Breslin, to talk about taxpayer friendliness. Here’s why:

“He’s done a really good job,” City Councilman Allan Domb told me when I visited him in February of this year to talk taxes. This city knows Domb as the budget-obsessed Councilperson most likely to call out governmental ineptitude and waste; he’s also intimately familiar with Philly taxes and has made the wildly rational declaration that the city ought not to raise taxes until we collect what is owed. And that, he says, is what Breslin and his crew are doing, with gusto. Consider: Collection rates for real estate taxes are at an all-time high, with on-time payments at 96.1 percent and a 39.7 percent reduction in overall delinquent tax debt of all types over five years. Missing business taxes, too, have seen a major bump in collection rates. Breslin and his crew have tapped into behavioral economics — “nudging” people to pay early — and piloted programs like sequestration, which deals with delinquent landlords by channeling renters’ checks directly toward the city tax debt until it’s paid. They’ve also made it easier to pay online and expanded both relief programs for people who need help paying taxes and outreach about those programs.

My point here: It occurred to me that maybe the troubles of one irritated family — even the troubles of many irritated families, and of user friendliness writ large — would sound like small potatoes in a city tackling entrenched tax-collection issues, not to mention the big-picture tax fights still (always!) raging over assessments and abatements and our historically screwy tax structure.

But then I kept coming back to something a local tech entrepreneur once told me about the litany of frustrations he’d endured while registering a new business here: dead ends on email, unclear processes and such. It just felt unnecessarily hard, he’d said, like the city didn’t care about keeping him. This perfectly captured the way I had been feeling as a citizen.

philadelphia property tax

Illustration by Matt Chase

Meantime, over the months I was entrenched in my own issues, I was also reading in the Inky that the city’s property assessment process was flawed; that unchecked overtime for city employees was costing unplanned millions; that the city lost $33 million, then hired auditors (for $500K!) to find the money, which they did, chalking the deficit up to sloppy bookkeeping … except for a half-million that’s still unaccounted for. None of these issues had a thing to do with my taxes, but it seemed fair to harbor some serious misgivings about the general state of Philly’s financial stewardship.

Finally, there was the socioeconomic factor. There are a great many programs to help people deal with tax bills, but a friend of mine who was relentlessly pursued by city collections while in the midst of sorting through a mistaken tax debt zeroed in on the crippling amount of time he spent dealing with it.

“It took forever,” he says. “And if upper-middle-class people with accountants and lawyer-dork friends are being run around this much, you think about, like, the lower-income single mom, and it’s frightening, because she might not have access to these resources.” What, he wonders, would the process be like then?

Revenue Commissioner Frank Breslin gets it. When I finally do end up having a conversation with him in early March, he says it outright: He knows dealing with tax issues hasn’t always been easy. In fact, improving taxpayer service experience is something that is “near and dear” to his heart, and they’ve been working to make things easier for people.

“A few years ago,” he says, “we were seeing 20-minute-plus wait times in tax season. Last week, our average was three minutes.” They’ve also worked on communication, he says, hosting upwards of 200 weekend and evening information sessions a year about taxes, assistance programs, entitlements and the like. They began — sensibly — sending tax bills in plain English. (And you can now pay electronically, and the web portal is, at long last, compatible with all browsers.) They’ve also done employee training for working with citizens affected by trauma. This is all in service to Breslin’s overall vision, which he says is “where the customer experience is comparable to what you expect at any high-level organization.”

It’s true, I tell him, wait times weren’t bad at all, and I found Revenue employees almost to a person to be friendly and obliging. But that didn’t get us helpful (or correct) information or a refund — or spare us the endless hours of teeth-gnashing.

“As happy as I am that our reps were courteous, if the information isn’t accurate, then we fail on that front,” Breslin says. And of course, he adds, issues do happen; mistakes get made — there’s a learning curve for employees, and it’s a complex tax structure. It’s actually a small percentage of the 518,000 residential parcels in the city that are experiencing problems, he says. Not that he’s trying to minimize it: “We take it seriously.” In fact, he adds, they’re changing the way they do training, hiring two full-time trainers and scheduling more refreshers. …

There’s another thing, though. “Technology is a little bit of a challenge for us,” Breslin says. It’s the biggest challenge, actually, elaborates Rebecca Lopez Kriss, the outreach coordinator for the Revenue Department. They operate off a 34-year-old system for billing and accounting, which, Breslin says, “was built in a different time for a different purpose.” Thirty-four years! (Perspective: That’s 1985. The year Microsoft Windows debuted and the first commercial internet domain was registered.) Not surprisingly, that system is expensive to maintain and hard to make changes to, Lopez Kriss wrote me in an email, which can hamper efforts to be “nimble and responsive to both taxpayer demands and legislative changes.”

The city’s Revenue Department operates off a 34-year-old computer system for billing and accounting. Thirty-four years! (Perspective: That’s 1985. The year Microsoft Windows debuted and the first commercial internet domain was registered.)

One former Revenue employee tells me that she couldn’t imagine millennials who came to work in the department acclimating to software designed when they were in utero. “It’s like, ‘Press F12’ to get to some certain screen,” she says. “There were screens I still hadn’t seen after three years working in the tax unit. I’d go to this guy who’d been there for 30 years and ask for help. What happens when he leaves?”

Another Revenue service rep I visited for help noted that there were sometimes discrepancies in information — like, say, whether my property had a Homestead Exemption or not — between the Office of Property Assessment and the Department of Revenue, which don’t share the same computer system: “We’ve been saying for years how they should be connected.”

As it happens, the Revenue Department is right this minute in the early stages of replacing its old accounting system. The new system still won’t connect to the other department’s records, but nevertheless, “People will see an amazing improvement,” Breslin promises, including more access for citizens who want to see or change information on their tax accounts. The timeline for that upgrade? Three to five years, they guess. Then again, remarks the former Revenue employee I talked to, “They’ve been saying that for five years.”

That a city department in 2019 would have to deal with antiquated technology isn’t exactly breaking news. And it’s not just Revenue. It’s not even just Philly. In February, Bloomberg ran a piece about how lots of American cities are “running on software from the ’80s.” (The writer actually cited our Streets Department as one urban entity running on “chicken wire and duct tape.”) Why? The expensive, time-consuming process of modernizing tech isn’t an easy sell for voters, the story noted … even if those same voters denounce the rotten service that’s a side effect of old technology. (Hi, Philly!)

Contemplating the scope of this problem is enough to make a reasonable person want to give up and move to the wilderness, but Chris Alfano is a bit more optimistic than that. He’s a founder and the chief technology officer of Philly-based software company Jarvus Innovations and also the co-founder of Code for Philly, a volunteer group of coders and other tech-minded professionals who aim to make the software practices they’ve seen work in the private sector more accessible and applicable to governments and nonprofits. Its members have been behind Philly improvements in everything from data accessibility to website design. There’s a “cottage industry” that’s sprung up in this country around this problem, Alfano says; even here in Philly, “The city knows what’s up. There are some very talented people who are trying to fix this.”

Just look at the city’s newly revamped website. “There were years of work and battles for that,” Alfano says. “It all started with the question, ‘What if our user doesn’t care what department something is at and they just have a need?’” The site, which officially debuted last year, is under constant construction to merge more information, he says — though he adds that it’s already “the most comprehensive city website in the world.”

It’s the same thinking, Alfano says, that can address user friendliness throughout the city, although obviously that’s a fix on a way more massive scale. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the old technology was generally structured according to the internal organization of a particular department; today, our needs and expectations are different. Ideally, “user-centered” software would be built around what someone today might need, without assuming that the user — whether that’s a citizen or a city employee — understands where every piece of information lives under the giant umbrella of city government. It would, in essence, be easier get all pertinent information in one fell swoop instead of, say, 10.

Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle he sees with a project of this mind-bending breadth isn’t the scale. “It’s rethinking our questions,” he says. “We’re used to saying, ‘When will this be finished, how much will it cost, and whose head will roll when it fails?’” Alfano doesn’t think any of that can work when it comes to flipping the way the city’s systems serve its citizens. He knows this isn’t how government is set up — what with accountability and fixed budgets and elections and all. But as he sees it, the city needs to take on “measured risk” and let a team of technologists spend some time poking around, asking questions, trying new things — you know, the way successful software developers do, and also the way the city did with its website — and then focus on progress rather than predetermined goals, hewing to a more open-ended timeline as the team rethinks and restructures everything. In the long run, he tells me, doing it that way is more likely to save money and yield real results. The catch? To see it happen, we just have to change, well … everything. Or at least, as he says, “the press, the City Council and the residents.”

And speaking of difficult changes: Breslin tells me another challenge is overcoming the public’s perception of the Revenue Department as it tries to shape more and more positive experiences while collecting our taxes. “It’s a barrier for us,” he says. “But I think we’re making inroads in getting that message out there. We’re here to help.”

You don’t have to know much about Philly to know that changing our perception of anything related to our hometown is a Sisyphean endeavor, and if there’s a poster child for Revenue’s challenge here, well, I’m sorry, Commissioner, but it’s probably my husband. A few hours after I get off the phone with Breslin, I mention to my partner in life and tax woes the plans for a more modern computer system. “They said it will get a lot better,” I tell him.

“And you believe them?” he says. Then he laughs.

At long last, we did eventually land on an answer. Mostly.

Not long after my foiled attempt at appealing our appeal in the summer of 2018, I called the Revenue Department again. The customer service representative — a lovely woman who clucked sympathetically as I wearily recounted the story — clicked away on her keyboard as I spoke.

“Oh, what I see here is that you had a LOOP exemption applied to your account in 2015 and 2016,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

This was the first time I’d heard of LOOP, which, she explained, is the “longtime owner occupants program” put in place following the Actual Value Initiative of 2013. It was aimed at people who had lived in their houses for 10 years or more and had seen their home values spike with the new assessments. We obviously didn’t qualify for this, having only bought the house in 2014.

But Donald Cleaver did.

After a year of trying, we had finally stumbled on someone who gave us the missing link, and over several more emails, calls and visits, we pieced it together. In early 2014, Donald apparently applied for the LOOP exemption. At the time we bought the house, in August of 2014, the city’s official records showed no exemptions: Nobody — not us, not our realtor, not our title company, not our bank — claims to know anything about a LOOP exemption. It wasn’t part of the seller’s disclosure; I’m sure it never occurred to Don to mention it. Why should he? Those were his taxes, not ours.

In 2015, the exemption apparently went through, and it stuck around through 2016. I’m sorry to tell you that to this day, I have no idea why the exemption didn’t appear until 2015. But according to a Revenue rep, in 2016 the city did an audit, and we got found out. The city then sent us a notice in January of 2017. It was a delinquent tax bill for the money we should have paid but didn’t on account of the misapplied LOOP discount: $2,800, roughly. Before interest and penalties.

Here’s where things go really off the rails: We never got the notice. “Could this all boil down to a single piece of lost mail?” I asked one Revenue rep, near tears, as she showed me records indicating a notice was indeed sent out.

“Well, you know the postal service,” she said, without a whisper of irony.

This realization — lost mail!? — felt incredibly anticlimactic. “I never got the bill” seemed a weak argument; I was deeply aggrieved that something so pedestrian would have felled us. But then, I reasoned, we only found out about the delinquency when we happened to call, and at that point, there were fines tacked on. Shouldn’t the city have sent more notices before the penalties kicked in? (They do now, actually; this is one of the changes Breslin instituted.) And anyway, the mail was really only one piece of the puzzle. There was the bigger question of why the exemption got applied in the first place. Which is where it gets messy. Well, messier.

I’ll spare you the dullest of the brass tacks and tell you simply that the popular opinion within the city is that this all began with an oversight from our title company, which didn’t make note at the point of sale of Donald’s LOOP exemption. The title company, however, strongly begs to differ and points to all the times it has dealt with similar, er, miscommunications with the city. As for me? Well, I’ve seen the records from 2014 — the very same records the title company got from the city when we settled on the house that year — and they show no exemptions.

The point here is that two years later, the definitive answer as to what, precisely, went wrong at what point remains cloudy to us. Should we, as responsible taxpayers, have been checking the city records online with regularity? Sure. Had we done so, we might have noticed an exemption pop up, or realized our tax bill in 2015 was lower than the recorded tax bill for 2014. Maybe.

But also, the city was the sole entity in this saga to know that Don had applied for an exemption in 2014 and to also know that we bought the house in 2014, and — they swear — to also know that we are not Don. In an updated, ideal world, these pieces of information would have intersected in city records, the exemption would have been wiped off this address the minute we bought the place, and none of this would ever have happened. And I would still be blissfully ignorant about Philadelphia taxes.

“What if you had ended up going to sheriff sale?” Councilman Domb asked me the day I visited him. “There’s a recovery process for getting the house back, isn’t there?”

There is. I know this now because I’ve found information about it scattered across city websites; I also know now that it likely wouldn’t have gotten that far. There are lots of steps in a sheriff-sale process.

Here’s what else I know: Like anyone in a long-term commitment, we’re willing to work through issues sometimes to make this relationship — the one between us and Philly — last. So we deal with the occasional mouse in the basement or — as has happened to us twice — rat in the ceiling. So what? We pick up the trash the garbage guys leave strewn across our street; we’re mostly okay with the high wage and business taxes. The fund-raisers to make sure our schools have basic necessities, the multiplying traffic, the fact that just this past spring we got another school income tax form addressed to Donald Cleaver — well, look, we wouldn’t choose any of it, but it’s part of the deal we make as city-dwellers who appreciate the many, many perks of living here. We might hold a grudge, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still love this city.

But to answer Domb’s question: If we’d gone to sheriff sale? If I were writing about how we’d had to buy our house back because of a misapplied LOOP exemption that nobody can fully explain to a couple of baffled homeowners? Here’s what I know for sure: That would have been it for us. The end. Finito. We’d have given up and moved to the wilderness.

Because love or no, a taxpayer can only take so much.

Published as “The Taxman Bummeth” in the June 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.