By John Washington
This post was originally published in The Buffalo News: Another Voice: Buffalo tax reassessment will widen income inequality.
The City of Buffalo’s Assessment and Taxation Department has publicly stated that the goal of the 2020 tax reassessment is to ensure that property owners pay only their fair share of property taxes.
Given that there hasn’t been a tax reassessment in the city of Buffalo for 18 years, on its face that would seem reasonable. The reality is this tax reassessment is another attempt to put profits ahead of people.
First, the tax reassessment will only increase the income inequality that exists in the city and that has been continuing to grow since the start of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion “economic development” program. In an already hypersegregated city, the tax reassessment threatens to, once again, segregate the city based along economic and racial lines.
It also threatens the generational wealth of many of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods when combined with changes to the auction that give the city the right to surplus funds.
I have spoken to dozens of residents who feel that their anxiety over the tax assessment isn’t being heard from those in elected office. Instead it’s being downplayed or dismissed entirely as unfounded. I can’t look at those residents in the eyes without affirming their truth and the broader truth, which is that the threat of displacement is very real.
It’s true that low and moderate income people, as well as those on a fixed income, are under a direct threat of being displaced from their homes. This reassessment will strike the heart of gentrifying communities, pushing out longtime residents in neighborhoods holding on by a thread. And that doesn’t just apply to renters but homeowners as well. Rising property values only benefit those with access to banking options and who want to sell.
The City of Buffalo has the highest rate of tax-exempt properties in the county. This means that while the talking points coming from City Hall include fairness and equality, the policies being championed within its walls promote anything but.
The state property tax exemption program called 485-a was passed in 2002 at the state level and later that same year the Buffalo Common Council opted in. The 485-a program excuses developers from paying property taxes for 12 years on developments that they convert from nonresidential to mixed use. That means that while developers, who can afford to pay their fair share, don’t pay property taxes, that burden is redistributed to the rest of us.
Buffalo is putting the burden of tax breaks for the rich on the backs of the poor. As residents in the city anxiously await news of their tax reassessment, let’s remember that while a few stand to profit, many in our community stand to lose.
<em>John Washington is co-director of organizing at PUSH Buffal</em>