Durham County

Grants would assist homeowners to pay property taxes

Rachael Riley; rriley@heraldsun.com

DURHAM -- Nancy Graves works about 24 hours a week as a certified nurse’s aide.

Graves describes her home on Chestnut Street as the smallest one there. In 2015, she paid $620 in property tax -- a price she’s used to.

After participating in a city rehabilitation program in the past year, Graves saw a 158 percent increase in her property value and now faces a $1,500 property tax bill.

“As far as the size of my home, I don’t see the reason for why my taxes went up so much,” Graves said.

City Councilman Steve Schewel met with Graves and a few of her neighbors and said he was

“taken back” by her increase but checked the math and found it correct.

Camillia Foust, president of the Southside Association, said others are in a similar situation.

“We've got a senior citizen on a fixed income that’s handicapped if y’all come in and do a bunch of work to her house it’s just going to shoot her taxes up,” Foust said, using Graves’ home as an example.

Graves’ home, Foust said, is surrounded by newer, more expensive homes, but other residents received more extensive rehabilitation or replacement work than she did.

Although Mayor Bill Bell and fellow city council members said property valuations lie with the county’s appraisal district, some offered reasons for why they think there’s an increase.

Councilman Don Moffitt said the city’s spent “a lot of money” improving the community and neighborhood.

Councilman Charlie Reece said the last time the county assessed property values was eight years ago.

“And the real estate market in Durham has increased dramatically over those eight years,” Reece said.

Schewel said repairs and taxes are a focus for the city.

“I think we’ve got a problem with the fact that we have low income homeowners -- many of them seniors in a city that is in the near downtown neighborhoods where the home values are going up a lot -- and I think their ownership of the homes in threatened by the increasing of taxes, and I think we need to figure it out,” Schewel said.

Prior to meeting with homeowners in the southside neighborhood, Schewel had mixed feelings about a property tax grant idea presented by housing advocates in the past few months.

He weighed the tradeoffs for how the city is spending its housing money.

Now he’s convinced of the grant’s benefit.

At the council’s Nov. 22 work session, Lorisa Seibel, director of housing services for Reinvestment Partners, asked the the council to consider a proposal for a Southside neighborhood stabilization grant that would help Graves and 12 others whose homes were replaced, rehabilitated or repaired.

“They all had tax increases more than the average and some quite dramatic,” Seibel said of the southside neighborhood. “As we visited homeowners and talked with homeowners -- most of whom are elderly, disabled and on very low incomes -- we found that people also needed help in home maintenance that people didn't have the savings they needed to maintain their homes.”

The grant program, she said, would be a pilot program to help others in the city maintain their homes through free housing and financial counseling, while providing some financial assistance.

During a Board of County Commissioners work session earlier this month, Jim Svara also spoke on behalf of Reinvestment Partners.

He said issues like southside in Durham are countywide.

Although North Carolina law does not allow providing reduced tax rates for low income homeowners, Svara said research through the county attorney’s office indicates it is possible to provide funding to a nonprofit organization to award grants.

In discussing more specifics, Svara said the grant is intended to assist low income homeowners residing in their homes since 2008 and having a 60 percent or greater increase in their property appraisal.

“This unexpected increase in taxes will affect their ability to maintain their property and perhaps even stay in their homes,” Svara said.

About 150 city residents and 67 in the county are estimated as eligible.

If the estimated 217 families applied for the grant, Svara said, the total cost for grants and administrative costs would be $151,000 for the county and $71,000 for the city.

For the city, Schewel, Moffitt, Reece, Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden and Councilwoman Jillian Johnson all said they support exploring the program’s possibilities.

“Many homeowners were left with the impression that their taxes would not increase and are placed in a very precarious financial position based on the fact that they have increased, and I feel like the city has a responsibility to assist them,” Johnson said.

Reece said he thinks if there are homeowners with special cases, it should be looked at.

Schewel said he would like to see residents seeing homestead or other exemptions as a first step.

“if we are going to assist them, I would want them first to have achieved everything the maximum they could savings from the existing state mandated exemptions,” he said.

Bell requested Reinvestment Partners help residents understand that values determine the taxes.