Durham County

Durham officials weigh property tax relief program as part of gentrification talk

Rachael Riley; rriley@heraldsun.com

DURHAM -- Homeowners in Durham’s Southside neighborhood whose tax appraisals increased following city rehabilitation efforts are part of a larger gentrification discussion with which city officials are grappling.

Residents in the neighborhood on the southern edge of downtown Durham just north of N.C. Central University are grateful for the rehabilitation work, said Camilla Foust, president of the Southside Association.

“The home values did increase after the rehab, but some of the homeowners’ taxes did increase 2-3 times because of the new homes that have been built on that street,” Foust said. “We are just asking for help with the increase of the taxes and repairs, especially for the citizens (with property taxes) over their limit.”

Foust’s request is one of several Mayor Bill Bell has heard specifically from Southside neighborhood residents, which is why he’s proposing a housing stabilization forgivable loan program.

“There’s no question that for the Southside community (increased property value assessments) happened because of the positive actions that the City Council had taken in terms of the revitalization of that neighborhood,” Bell said.

The program he is proposing would be specifically for Southside neighborhood homeowners, based on income criteria, and if they’ve applied for other exemptions but are still seeing a “gap,” of what they paid in taxes prior to 2016 property valuations.

County Tax Administrator Kim Simpson said about 15 Southside homeowners are now seeing the tax increase since the last time they had appraisals in 2008.

Bounded by statute, Simpson said property values are set by the market and not by a resident’s ability to pay taxes.

Yet if residents in the Southside neighborhood receive assistance overseen by the city or county, Simpson said it’s her concern other residents will ask why they aren’t receiving the same.

“I don’t know how we can explain that to our citizens,” she said.

Bell said the explanation is that the city is focused on rehabilitating the Southside neighborhood and North-East Central Durham.

“I don’t have a problem defending the fact that we’re taking the proactive measures that we’re needing to be taking to revitalize neighborhoods and as a result, some people have seen their property taxes and their evaluations go up because of what we have done,” he said.

Added to discussions is whether a nonprofit organization or city administrators would oversee the program.

County commissioners are weighing a separate stabilization grant proposal from Reinvestment Partners, which would allow a nonprofit organization to award grants.

Reinvestment Partners has identified 217 homeowners both inside and outside the city limits who saw an increase in taxes of 60 percent or more.

The grant program it is proposing would require homeowners to still pay property taxes, but they would be able to apply for the grant to seek relief of the higher property assessment compared to 2008, minus a 12 percent increase of values the county saw as a whole.

The estimated cost for the grant is $221,231, or $165,750 to represent costs associated with city homeowners who say more than a 60 percent increase of taxes and $56,481 to represent the county.

County Board of Commissioners’ Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said she would like to see staff research of the proposal related to long-term costs, or what happens during the next property tax evaluations.

Commissioners Brenda Howerton and Heidi Carter agreed they would like to know how to sustain the plans.

“We also know that we want to do what we can to mitigate against the negative effects of gentrification --- and one of those is the displacement of low income homeowners,” Carter said.

While wanting to address the current issue, such as the Southside neighborhood, Carter said she thinks the city and county should work together on a comprehensive affordable housing plan so decisions aren’t “made in isolation.”

Councilman Steve Schewel said he thinks a program for low income homeowners is beneficial.

“We want a diverse downtown area in terms of homeownership,” Schewel said.

Steve Hopkins, district 1 PAC co-facilitator and a resident of North-East Central Durham, asked officials to consider other matters.

“When you do these housing programs you’ve got to think about it from an economic standpoint, too,” Hopkins said. “ Because if you don’t, you’re in the same situation over and over if you don’t help their income increase, you’re going to be keep having this same discussion.”