For thousands, homestead exemption a big secret

JAN RANSOM / DAILY NEWS STAFF Ingrid Perez's tax bill is increasing sixfold. Homestead exemption could help, but she never heard of it.
JAN RANSOM / DAILY NEWS STAFF Ingrid Perez's tax bill is increasing sixfold. Homestead exemption could help, but she never heard of it.
Posted: March 01, 2013

MORE THAN 100,000 homeowners, including huge clusters in some of the city's poorest areas, haven't gotten the message about the homestead exemption, a relief measure that could save them hundreds of dollars a year under the city's new property-tax system.

The problem is particularly acute in some of the city's predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods - partly because the brochures, ads and mailers on which the city spent $414,000 were only in English. The information about the exemption, which would lower a home's taxable value under the Actual Value Initiative by $30,000, was translated into several languages, but those versions were available only online.

Ingrid Perez of the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia, where the median household income is $17,489, didn't know about the exemption. Her two-story brick rowhouse, on 3rd Street near Cambria, has been assessed for $10,400 for 2013, but for 2014 it's $160,000. The tax bill would jump from $325 to $2,000 under a 1.25 tax rate, which is subject to change because City Council has not finalized it. With the exemption, she could save $180.

"Es mucho dinero,"  Perez, 49, said in Spanish, meaning, "It's a lot of money."

 She and her husband are unemployed, do not speak English and share the house with their two daughters and granddaughter. "I am concerned, but can't really do anything," she said through a translator.

Only 180,000 homeowners out of 320,000 who are eligible have been approved for an exemption, the city said.

Setting the language barrier aside, application rates have been low in most of the city's low-income areas, including North Philly, Bridesburg, Kensington, Port Richmond, Point Breeze, parts of West Philly and Tacony, according to data compiled by AxisPhilly.

In one part of Feltonville, the homestead application rate is 32 percent, compared with areas like Bustleton, Torresdale and Northwest Philadelphia, where at least 90 percent of eligible homeowners have applied.

"The biggest, number-one thing we did, was we mailed brochures to all homeowners last August. We offered [homestead exemptions] by phone and online," said Marisa Waxman, assistant administrator for the Office of Property Assessment, adding that OPA reached out to churches and 300 community groups, provided information via social media, overhauled the OPA website and held news conferences.

"We knew we were going to have a problem in some areas," Waxman said, adding that now, it's time for phase two: targeting specific neighborhoods.

Council members say that they'll inform residents about AVI, the appeal process and the exemption. Council President Darrell Clarke says he'll disburse extra money to Council members to aid in AVI outreach.

"We've been doing outreach, allocating resources to do targeted mailing. We're considering going door-to-door," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose 7th District includes Kensington and Fairhill. "We know there's a huge gap. Everyone's going to have to do more work."

Eric Banks, 49, of West Philadelphia, was unaware that the city is undergoing such a major change to its property-tax system.

"I think I read about it," said Banks, who didn't know about the exemption or appeal process. Under AVI his property-tax bill could triple. Banks has been unemployed since Thanksgiving and said he couldn't afford the increase.

"The underlying issue, I think, is that the people in these neighborhoods are a little less likely to be following the AVI story and news media that are covering it," said Zack Stalberg, president of government-watchdog group the Committee of Seventy, adding that the city should spread the word the old-fashioned way: with door hangers, or by going door-to-door.

Regarding the language barrier, Stalberg said that many low-income residents have little to no access to the Internet, so online translations wouldn't help much.

"The city has known this reassessment process was changing for a long time now and should have been prepared to offer this information in various languages and to do it at ground level," he said. "Printing in Spanish should have been a no-brainer."


On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom

Blog: PhillyClout.com

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