By Rich Lord, Public Source
May 31, 2022
Tanya Todd twice considered giving up the North Homewood home that had belonged to her family since before she was born.
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More than a decade ago, a lawyer who advised her on delinquent property taxes told her “stay there until you’re kicked out,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable with it,” so she started paying taxes as best she could.
Then, around 2017, she and her neighbors began experiencing sewer backups. She considered retiring to a skyscraper.
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“I decided to stay and fight,” she said. “I’m really easy going, but sometimes I’m like Popeye.”
She got help from Operation Better Block [OBB], a Homewood-focused revitalization agency, and became one of the few owners to challenge the rating system. She walked away with a clean basement and a cheaper tax bill than dinner for two.
It is relatively unusual for property owners to appeal their property assessments. From 2015 to 2021, more than 49,000 assessment appeals were filed on residential properties in Allegheny County, but only 15,000 of those were filed by residential property owners. It’s in a county with some 350,000 owner-occupied homes. About 60% of residential property owners who appealed eventually had their assessment reduced.
The other 34,000 appeals were filed by school districts or municipalities, according to data available through the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. Tax agencies are calling for higher tax bills.
In Allegheny County, most assessments have been static since 2012, when County Executive Rich Fitzgerald instituted a basic property tax system.
With rising home values, most homeowners might have little incentive to appeal, as it could result in a higher tax bill. But frozen appraisals don’t account for situations in which a change in condition — like sewer problems — lowers a home’s value.
“I absolutely think there are still overvalued properties out there,” said Irene Clark, a former Pittsburgh Housing Court magistrate who now practices housing law and who represented Todd in his appeal. The Allegheny County property tax “is not a fair system. It’s a very difficult system to make fair.”
Here’s how Todd made it work for her — but also why hers probably isn’t a path many others can easily follow.
Sewage came from savings
“Since I was born, since the hospital, I’ve been here,” Todd said, sitting in a room she decorated with African-themed artwork. “As a child, I was not allowed to enter the living room. Now it’s my favorite room.”
She became a nurse, moved around 1975, married and raised two sons. “And in 1999 I came back here,” after other relatives who had lived there died and left. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Tax arrears were already piling up before she came back. Despite the lawyer’s advice, she paid enough to avoid the tax sale.
Then, following construction work nearby, the sewer began to back up. “I’m the woman who had 8 inches of sewage in her basement for four years,” she said.
She put herself on a waiting list for an apartment at Swissvale, but really didn’t want to leave. “I love this community! It’s the community that I know, that I grew up with,” she said. “And I’m a community-oriented person.”
Finally, Todd connected with Operation Better Block, which helps Homewood owners operate property stabilization programs. Gabrielle DeMarchi, community and economic development manager for OBB, immediately identified a problem: the programs are for homeowners, and Todd’s house was still being given away to long-dead relatives.
This is called an entangled title, and OBB regularly works with Clark to deal with such situations. At the end of 2019, Todd officially took possession of it.
OBB took the opportunity to review Todd’s property tax bills, which were based on an assessed value of $28,200. That’s low by many neighborhood standards. But in Homewood, prices for typical homes stayed stubbornly below $25,000, even as they soared in other parts of the East End. And his was a house with persistent sewer backups.
OBB paid for an appraisal, which put the value – given the basement issue – at $12,000.
OBB then paid Clark to represent Todd, and they appealed to the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review. [BPAAR]. The board maintained the assessment at $28,200. So Todd and Clark appealed to the Board of Views, a panel of the Court of Common Pleas that can overrule BPAAR decisions.
Negotiations ensued. “We basically settled with the school district,” Clark said. The two sides agreed to set the valuation at $12,000 for 2020, then $18,000 from 2021.
The county property tax exemption excludes the first $18,000 of the value of an owner-occupied home from property tax. The school district waives an amount that varies each year and is currently $29,944. The city exempts $15,000.
This left Todd with a property tax bill of around $24 a year. It saves her just over $100 a year – not a windfall, but significant for her.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time, dealing with the sewers and dealing with ups and downs in my income and sometimes zero,” said Todd, now retired.
Armed with the property, she was able to get help with the sewer problem. The media attention led to the free help of Cuccaro Plumbing. His basement has been dry for almost a year. “I’m as safe as I was growing up in this house,” she said.
Not available everywhere
This year, 12,659 appeals were filed, including less than 900 by residential owners. The others were filed by school districts or municipalities seeking to raise assessments, or by commercial landlords.
The deadline for filing appeals passed on March 31, but an ongoing court case may require the process to be reopened for further appeals.
Savvy owners who think their valuations are above market values may be able to handle the BPAAR process without a lawyer, Clark said. They would need to research information about similar homes nearby (called comparables) that have recently sold for less than their appraised values.
“I would say you have to have really strong comparables because they [BPAAR] are looking for really solid evidence,” she said. Documents can be submitted online and hearings are often conducted by telephone.
The Board of Views process, which can involve negotiations with tax agencies, is more of a challenge, she said. “I would have been uncomfortable if a client had to talk about it alone,” she said. “I think people need to be represented.”
OBB pays Clark with funding from the state Department of Community and Economic Development’s Neighborhood Assistance Program. However, many neighborhood organizations do not have the means or personnel to provide such assistance to residents.
In Todd’s case, the service gave her the power to decide exactly how long she will stay at home. “Before this encounter, the feeling of uncertainty and not being grounded was not a very good feeling,”
Allegheny County Property Valuation and Sales Information Released by the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center was used in this story.
This story has been verified by Sophia Levin.
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