“Should I Protest My Property Taxes?”

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“You absolutely need to protest your property taxes,” states a Texas realtor

There’s a theme of injustice written throughout the United States tax assessment system. Its opaque presence has caused deep-rooted tensions and damaging prospects for many citizens. In counties across the nation, the property tax burden has shifted from owners of larger and more expensive properties to people who own smaller and less expensive homes. It’s uprooted many from their homes in the form of foreclosures, it’s been the cause of serious health issues, and it’s put crushing financial strains on many homeowners due to overassessments.

In Detroit, Michigan, (since 2011) one in four properties throughout the city has experienced foreclosure for not paying property taxes. The Coalition for Property Tax Justice states that multiple studies have found that Detroit’s local government has systematically inflated properties to be worth more than 50% of their value, causing homeowners to be overcharged in their property taxes.  

With property tax prices rising in Texas, the Texas Tax Protest has come about to help residents appeal their assessments. Dr. Christopher Berry, recognized for his nation-wide analysis on the property tax assessment process, discovered that in Anderson county alone, 58% of the lowest-value homes are overassessed while 36% of the highest-value homes are overassessed. This trend results in homeowners over-paying hundreds of dollars to the state. 

In Buncombe County, North Carolina, arbitrary property tax assessments have been the center of debate for a local ad hoc committee as they develop recommendations for staff members. The Just Accounting for Health consortium (JAfH), which includes Strong Towns, has been collecting data and researching the potential causes and health effects of property tax inequities in Western North Carolina, which has impacted some of the decisions of this committee. Along with Dr. Berry’s research, Urban3 concluded that many lower-income homes in Buncombe county are being overassessed, while high-income homes are being underassessed. In addition, many commercial properties are being taxed as residential (which, at the time this article was written, is now subject to change in Buncombe county as a recommendation by the ad hoc committee). 

But even as these recommendations are voted on in the commission’s office, there is still much work to be done in developing a fairer property tax assessment system. 

The property tax assessment system is incredibly dense, filled with bias and confusing standards. It is difficult to revise, and sometimes feels difficult to appeal against. Local coalitions, data science teams, and journalists are working to bring light to the systemic inequities and bias within the assessment process. But what can concerned citizens do to help? Each property owner has the legal ability to appeal their property tax bill if they have any reason to believe they have received an unreasonable charge. With the majority of Americans facing inaccurate property tax bills, many who want to make a difference in bettering the property tax assessment process or just lowering their own property tax qualify for an appeal. 

Sometimes, the process of appealing is easy and quick. Other times, it is not so easy. Without wealth in your pocket to hire a lawyer, the system can feel designed to work against homeowners. Many Americans, especially those of low-income households, tend to not appeal their property taxes even though they are generally the most qualified for it. The process for appealing your property tax is sometimes as unclear as the assessment process itself, and the steps to make a successful appeal can seem daunting. 

When appeals are made, each one must be reviewed by the assessor staff. It takes up time and while appeals are expected, it has the potential to muddle up the system. There’s reason to believe that if there are a comparably abnormal number of appeals, it could send a message that there is a serious flaw in the system that is causing homeowners to be overcharged. The more signs of a broken system, the better a chance for change. 

At Strong Towns, when we want to make immediate and meaningful changes in our communities, we follow a four-step process:

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.

  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?

  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

  4. Repeat. 

In the terms of our property taxes, this system for addressing and managing problems can apply just as well. Check out your local county or state: Is there a consortium or coalition that’s working to dispute the injustices of property taxes? What can you do to further the mission? 

For some, “the smallest thing” may be learning more about the process of tax assessment and working to appeal your property tax bill. Actionable, systemic changes need to be made to fix the inequities within the property tax system. The system is clearly broken, and appealing your property tax bill is just one possible avenue for sending a message that the system isn’t working. 

Each state has its own variations in the appeal process, but hopefully this guide will help you get started in taking those first immediate steps in making a positive change in your community. 

Step 1: Understand the basics of the assessment process and how your tax bill gets calculated. 

Check out this video (or watch it below). 

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