Homeowners voice concerns to councilman, OPA about reassessments

With some residents seeing their home nearly double in market value, local homeowners questioned formula behind appraisals.

South Philly Review stock photo.

South Philly homeowners continue to voice concerns over April’s citywide property reassessment — the first mass reappraisal since the Actual Value Initiative in 2014.

After receiving revised property market values in the mail last month, Girard Estate Area Residents — or GEAR — recently held a meeting led by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and Residential Administrator for the Office of Property Assessment Jaye Divine to shed light to the latest colossal increases, as well as guide residents in filing the First Level Review or FLR, the first step to appeal proposed assessments.

“It was important to get everybody together because of the First Level Review, which is just an appeal, so that the mayor can see how upset the people are,” Jody Della Barba, president of GEAR, told SPR. “Because, this is totally without rhyme or reason.”

Some South Philly residents were hit with a nearly 30 percent increase while other homeowners saw their property market values more than double, ranging from hundreds of dollars to more than $1,000 increases in property taxes. These jumps come before the potential 4 percent property tax increase proposed by Mayor Jim Kenney to benefit the school district.

The First Level Review, which can take up to a year to fully process, allows homeowners to officially refute the assessments using evidence they believe proves an inaccurate projection. While appealing, homeowners pay only half of their tax bill.

If residents are not satisfied with the result of their FLR reviews, the next step entails appealing to the Board of Revision of Taxes, in which they will meet with the board, the OPA and an attorney to present any documentation substantiating homeowners’ opinions on the actual value. Finally, the last resort is appealing to the court of common pleas.

While the FLR deadline has passed, homeowners have until Oct. 1 to appeal with the BRT.

Noticing a series of inconsistencies, even within the same block, residents questioned the OPA’s methodology behind assessing properties, as a “uniformity argument” was a common point of discussion.

According to the letter sent to residents, the OPA considers various factors, including size, age, location, condition and the sale of nearby properties.

“If you live in this area, and you know that there’s been a demand for this location, and an increase in the number of people buying and it has affected the value — you will see an increase in all of the property assessments, and that’s what’s been happening over the years,” Divine told attendees at the meeting.

Since 2000, the 19146 Zip Code, which includes Southwest Center City, Pointe Breeze and Grays Ferry, saw a 404 percent increase in median home value, according to a recent study by RENTCafé. As of the end of April, the average home in 19145 area was worth $209,300, which is a 21 percent increase over the past year, according to data from Zillow, an online real estate database.

Divine stressed the OPA is making “painstaking” efforts to not assess older properties like newer ones, as several residents noted they own homes that received little to no improvements, yet received values that were equal to or even above homes that underwent major renovations. Some residents even said they live next to abandoned properties and still saw massive increases on their own homes.

Homeowners also inquired about how the city knows whether houses received internal and external improvements.

Divine explained that, when houses undergo renovations, homeowners or developers usually file for permits, which assessors receive on a weekly basis. The OPA also reviews sale records, as well.

However, some people with renovations do not always apply for city permits.

“When the evaluator discovers that there were renovations done, then they will react,” Divine said. “If they did not get to that, then it’s just not on the books yet.”

She says maintenance is not included in renovation evaluations.

Residents questioned why sale prices do not necessarily align with assessments. But, under state law, the OPA follows a method to assess all properties at once, as it’s illegal to spot assess the sale of each home. An aggregate of five years of sales is used to assess.

Along the lines of uniformity, the public also voiced concerns about how recently booming neighboring areas, such as Pointe Breeze, are heavily concentrated with the ten-year New Construction for Residential Properties abatements. With this ordinance, homeowners only pay land tax during the first decade of residence.

However, lifelong residents are not affected by this advantage.

“These abatements drive development — people feel like they’re subsidizing new houses being built on the backs of long-term residents who always lived inside the neighborhood,” Johnson said to the attendees. He noted that Council recently held a meeting to reevaluate the tax abatements.

“We’re generations. … We’re not just coming and going. This is where we’d like to be,” said resident Leighanne Savloff, who suffered a $287,300 assessment, more than doubling her 2018 market value of $141,800

She also questioned why mass appraisals are not performed incrementally every year, as, instead, homeowners were hit with a significant jump this year.

Divine explained the OPA is considering performing blanket assessments on an annual basis to prevent such surges every few years.

Relief programs were also discussed during the meeting, as the most common form is the Homestead Exemption, which reduces the taxable portion of property assessments by $30,000, averaging homeowners about $400 a year on their real estate tax bill. The only requirement is to own the property and live in it as your primary residence. However, Council recently voted to raise the exemption to $40,000.

Other relief programs include Longtime Owner Occupants Program — or LOOP — which is an abatement for homeowners who have had their property taxes triple over one year and have lived in their home for a decade or longer.

But residents, despite the relief programs, say they’re still perturbed by the reassessments, feeling as though the mass appraisal has unjustly impacted South Philly compared to the rest of the city.

“At the end of the day, we can’t keep…balancing the votes and the budget of the city on the backs of the residents who’ve been here, who’ve always lived here,” Johnson said. “And so, that’s what we’re fighting for.”

“This is just the start. This is just the beginning of what we’re doing. … You can’t keep going to the well all the time when you run out of money,” Della Barba said to SPR. “You can’t keep going back to the people that you think have it, because the well is dry. We can’t afford it anymore.”