The Hidden Problems of Property Taxes

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This graph shows the “ratio gap” of sales prices to assessed values of homes in Buncombe County. As we saw in the chart before, lower-cost homes are being pulled up, and higher-cost homes are being pulled down. In the graph above, 1.00 represents homes being sold exactly at the assessed value. You can see that homes being bought in the $200,000 range are right in the sweet spot, where they’re being assessed fairly close to the sales price. But looking at the other portions of the graph, you’ll notice that homes above $200,000 are being assessed for well below their selling price, and homes below $200,000 have a much higher sales-to-valuation ratio. In other words, higher-income households are getting a break in county taxes, while lower-income households are getting inflated assessments and seeing their taxes increase.

This analysis revealed a systemic issue in the reassessment process in Buncombe County. The error is not in any one assessor’s actions but in the math and processes of the assessments. These disparities create a compounding problem, where low-income households are under more of a burden to pay higher taxes, which means they have less money left over to pay for basic needs. Meanwhile, when a wealthy person ever gets an inflated assessment, they just call up their attorney—a resource most low-income people don’t have. 

The moral of the story is that the people buying the high-cost homes need to be paying their fair share into the tax system. While Buncombe County is effectively subsidizing wealthy, sprawling neighborhoods, it’s expecting low-income neighborhoods to pick up the slack. At the end of the day, most places need more resources to pay for community-wide needs, such as infrastructure updates, so it’s unsustainable to continue letting wealthy households get this discount on their county taxes.

Thanks to Urban3’s work, we know the scope of the problem in Buncombe County, but this is not the only place with obscure and obfuscated assessment practices. It is likely that inequities such as this can be found in many counties across the United States. Maybe your property tax bill skyrocketed this year, even though you haven’t made any major home improvements. It’s worth taking a deeper look into how your county or city does their assessments…

Meanwhile, we’ve got more to share from Buncombe County. This is the first story in a series of articles coming soon from Strong Towns, in partnership with Urban3. In future articles, we’ll talk about how tax neighborhoods came to be, learn how this is impacting people on the ground, and discuss some potential solutions to address the assessment inequities. 

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