Story at a glance

  • Property tax in the United States is directly based on the value of the property, including land, owned by individuals.
  • A new study from researchers at the University of Chicago found that homes in poor areas are taxed at twice the rate as rich neighborhoods.
  • With data from millions of sales records for properties throughout the country, you can see the differences between property tax rates in your neighborhood and others.

Cities, counties, school districts and special districts in the United States raise roughly $500 billion per year in property taxes, research shows — roughly 70 percent of local taxes. A new study reveals that much of that is paid by low-income property owners, who are taxed at twice the rate as those living in rich neighborhoods.

"In addition to violating principles of good taxation, property tax regressivity often violates the law. The 14th amendment’s equal protection clause requires that all property of the same class--e.g., residential--be taxed at the same rate," author Christopher Berry, a researcher and professor at the University of Chicago, argues in the study, noting that courts interpret this clause to protect property owners from intentional and systematic discrimination. 

Because of the economic impact of centuries of slavery, wealth and race are intertwined in the United States, meaning that regressive property taxes are disproportionately exacted from Black Americans, according to the study. In an analysis by the Center for Municipal Finance of 26 million residential homes sold between 2006 and 2016, homes in neighborhoods where 90 percent or more of the residents are Black are taxed roughly 50 percent higher than they are in other neighborhoods in the same county.


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Using data from CoreLogic, a commercial firm which collects local data records from both public and private entities, the center generated reports for more than 99 percent of all residential properties in America available on the Harris Public Policy website. Users can select a county or city to see how property assessments in their community compare with other communities throughout the nation.

Part of the problem is the way property values, and thereby taxes, are assessed, according to Berry, which allows some property owners to undervalue their homes while others are overvalued.

“Generally speaking, assessors are not allowed to enter homes to do inspections, nor do many have the labor power to do so,” Berry said in an email to The Washington Post. So, “consider two neighboring homes that were identical at the time of construction (same square footage, number of bedrooms, etc.). But over the years, one owner has not maintained the property and now has peeling paint and a leaky roof. The other owner has kept the property in pristine condition and even added a chef’s kitchen and spa bathroom.”


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An assessor can’t necessarily tell the difference, which means the two homes will be valued the same — skewing the property tax curve. And while property owners can appeal these assessments, Berry found that owners of high-priced property were more likely to do so than other property owners, who may lack the knowledge or resources to do so. 

Mike Ardis, a spokesperson for the International Association of Assessment Officers, a trade group for property tax assessors, said in a statement to the Washington Post that “homes at both ends of the value spectrum tend to present a valuation issue for assessors because there can be a lack of quality data, and the motivations of market participants tend to be different at those extremes.”

This is only one of several factors that Berry concludes is contributing to a system that disproportionately burdens non-white Americans. Still, Ardis told the Post the organization was “focused on improving the accuracy and precision of the appraisal methodologies on which assessments are based, and helping assessors more accurately identify and locate regressive assessments.”


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Published on Mar 12, 2021