Deadline nears for Phila. property tax relief

Posted: September 10, 2013

PHILADELPHIA The new property tax system that took effect in Philadelphia over the summer was supposed to be relatively painless for the majority of homeowners, as long as they took advantage of the tax breaks offered.

But many are not taking advantage. The deadline to apply for one of the breaks - the homestead exemption, open to every homeowner in a primary residence - is Friday, with about a third of eligible homeowners yet to sign up.

The other tax break, so-called gentrification relief for longtime homeowners in fast-growing areas of the city, has been held up because state legislators did not pass a critical bill to implement it.

City and state officials expect the bill to pass shortly after lawmakers return from their recess this month. But that leaves the Nutter administration with a small window to inform and enroll eligible homeowners.

A City Council study in the spring found that as many as 72 percent of homeowners could receive lower tax bills under the new tax system if enough people took advantage of the two tax breaks.

The homestead exemption deducts $30,000 from the assessment of an owner-occupied home before the tax rate is applied. A home worth $100,000 would be taxed on only $70,000 of its value.

The Nutter administration budgeted for 80 percent of homeowners to participate, but through the end of August, around 207,000 of an estimated 320,000 to 340,000 homeowners had done so, about 61 percent.

Homeowners in low-income areas, such as Kensington and North Philadelphia, have been slowest to enroll.

Kate Dreher of the city's Office of Property Assessment (OPA) said officials hoped one final publicity blitz could boost the number of homeowners in the program as high as 260,000.

This is the first year the city has offered the homestead exemption.

"We're pretty pleased with that number as far as it being a brand-new government program," Dreher said. "I'm positive we'll see an increase [in the last week.]"

The city has taken a number of steps to promote the program and get information to the public, including sending fliers home with children on the last day of school and putting brochures in June water bills.

Individual City Council members also have been working with the administration to get out the word through community newspapers and radio ads, robocalls and billboards, and by going door to door.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, whose Seventh District has the lowest percentage of homeowners enrolled, said she had helped organize a campaign to knock on 19,000 doors.

She said the language barrier in her heavily Hispanic area played a part in the low enrollment, but she generally was concerned about "how little people know about this stuff."

"We still have a lot of doors to hit in the next week," she said.

Homeowners who still need to apply can do so through the homestead hotline at 215-686-9200, or they can apply or print an application through the OPA's website at www.phila.gov/opa.

Gentrification relief applies to those who have lived in their homes for more than 10 years and whose assessments tripled this year, when the property tax reform was implemented.

The idea behind the tax break was to help lower-income homeowners who have lived for decades in neighborhoods, such as the Graduate Hospital area, that in recent years have undergone explosive growth.

Council and the administration, however, want to apply a means test to the tax break to ensure it goes only to residents who need the help.

But means-testing requires state permission. A bill to provide that permission stalled in June in the state Senate but is expected to pass in the fall.

Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said the administration had been identifying longtime homeowners whose assessments have tripled and would begin sending them information soon, most likely before the legislature acts on means-testing.

"We're sending it out to more people than who ultimately might qualify," McDonald said.

The deadline for applying for gentrification relief is Jan. 15.


HOW TO APPLY

Deadline is Friday.

Homeowners can call the homestead hotline at 215-686-9200.

Apply or print an application at www.phila.gov/opa.


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

72

Percent of homeowners who could receive lower tax bills under the system.

80

Percent of homeowners the Nutter administration budgeted would participate.

61

Percent of homeowners who have participated.

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