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Unbalanced
How property tax assessments create winners and losers

Twice Tanya Todd considered giving up the North Homewood house that’s been in her family since before she was born.

More than a decade ago, an attorney advising her on overdue property taxes told her “just stay there until you’re put out,” she recounted. “I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” so she started paying the taxes as best she could.

Then, around 2017, she and her neighbors began enduring sewer backups. She considered retreating to a high-rise.

“I decided to stay and fight,” she said. “I’m really easy to get along with, but I’m like Popeye sometimes.”

Tanya Todd sits in the living room of her house in North Homewood. Back taxes and sewer backups have sometimes made it difficult to stay in the home she’s known all her life. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

She got help from Operation Better Block [OBB], a Homewood-focused revitalization agency, and became one of the rare homeowners to challenge the assessment system. She came out of it with a clean basement and tax bill that’s cheaper than dinner for two.

It’s relatively unusual for homeowners to appeal their property tax assessments. From 2015 through 2021, there were more than 49,000 assessment appeals filed on residential properties in Allegheny County — but just 15,000 of them were filed by residential property owners. That’s in a county with some 350,000 owner-occupied homes. Around 60% of the residential property owners who appealed ultimately had their assessments reduced.

The other 34,000 appeals were filed by school districts or municipalities, according to data available through the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. Taxing bodies appeal to increase tax bills.

In Allegheny County, most assessments have been static since 2012, when County Executive Rich Fitzgerald instituted a base-year property tax system

With home values rising, there may be little incentive for most homeowners to appeal because that might result in a higher tax bill. But frozen assessments don’t take into account situations in which a change in condition — like sewer problems — reduce the value of a home.

“I absolutely do think there are still overassessed properties,” said Irene Clark, a former Pittsburgh housing court magistrate who now practices housing law, and who represented Todd in her appeal. Allegheny County’s property tax “is not a fair system. It’s a very difficult system to make fair.”

Here’s how Todd made it work for her — but also why hers isn’t likely a path many others can easily follow.

From sewage came savings

“From my birth, from the hospital, I came here,” Todd said, sitting in a room she has decorated with African-themed art. “As a kid, I wasn’t allowed in the living room. Now this is my favorite room.”

She became a nurse, moved out around 1975, married and raised two sons. “And in 1999, I moved back here,” after other relatives who had lived there passed away and moved on. “And been here ever since.”

Back taxes were already piling up before she moved back. Despite the attorney’s advice, she paid enough to avert tax sale.

Then, following nearby construction, the sewer started backing up. “I’m the woman who had 8 inches of sewage in her basement for four years,” she said.

She got on a waiting list for an apartment in Swissvale, but really didn’t want to leave. “I love this community! This is the community I know, I grew up with,” she said. “And I’m a community-oriented person.”

Finally, Todd connected with Operation Better Block, which helps Homewood homeowners to tap property stabilization programs. Gabrielle DeMarchi, OBB’s community and economic development manager, immediately identified a problem: The programs are for homeowners, and Todd’s house was still deeded to the long-gone relatives.

Gabrielle DeMarchi (left), community and economic development manager at Operation Better Block, joins Tanya Todd on the porch of her house in North Homewood. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

That’s called a tangled title, and OBB regularly works with Clark to address such situations. In late 2019, Todd officially took ownership. 

OBB took the opportunity to look at Todd’s property tax bills, which were based on an assessed value of $28,200. That’s low by many neighborhoods’ standards. But in Homewood, typical home prices remained stubbornly below $25,000, even as they’ve soared in other parts of the East End. And hers was a house with persistent sewer backups.

OBB paid for an appraisal, which put the value — given the basement problem — at $12,000.

OBB then paid Clark to represent Todd, and they filed an appeal with the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review [BPAAR]. The board kept the assessment at $28,200. So Todd and Clark appealed to the Board of Viewers, a Court of Common Pleas panel that can overturn BPAAR decisions.

Negotiations ensued. “We basically settled out with the school district,” said Clark. Both sides agreed to set the assessment at $12,000 for 2020 and then $18,000 from 2021 forward.

The county’s homestead tax exemption excludes the first $18,000 of the value of an owner-occupied home from property taxation. The school district exempts an amount that varies every year, and is currently $29,944. The city exempts $15,000.

That left Todd with a property tax bill of around $24 a year. It saves her a little more than $100 a year – not a windfall, but meaningful to her.

“As a kid, I wasn’t allowed in the living room. Now this is my favorite room,” said Tanya Todd, a North Homewood resident. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

“This couldn’t have come at a better time, dealing with the sewer, and dealing with my income being up and down and zero sometimes,” said Todd, now retired.

Armed with ownership, she was able to get assistance with the sewer problem. Media attention led to free help from Cuccaro Plumbing. Her basement has been dry for almost a year. “I am as secure as I was when I was growing up in this house,” she said.

Not available everywhere

This year, 12,659 appeals have been filed, and fewer than 900 of those are by residential property owners. The rest were filed by school districts or municipalities seeking to boost assessments, or commercial property owners.

The deadline for filing appeals passed on March 31, but a pending court case could compel a reopening of the process for new appeals.

Savvy homeowners who believe their assessments are higher than market values may be able to handle the BPAAR process without a lawyer, said Clark. They would need to search for information on similar homes in close proximity (called comparables) that recently sold for prices below their assessed values.

“I would say that you’ve got to have some really strong comparables because they [BPAAR] are looking for really strong evidence,” she said. Documents can be submitted online, and the hearings are often done by phone.

About Unbalanced: This year, PublicSource is exploring the effects of property taxes on people and communities a decade after Allegheny County’s last reassessment.

The Board of Viewers process, which can involve negotiation with the taxing bodies, is more of a challenge, she said. “I would have been uncomfortable if a client had to talk through that alone,” she said. “I think people do need representation.”

OBB pays Clark thanks to funding from the state Department of Community and Economic Develpment’s Neighborhood Assistance Program. Many neighborhood organizations, though, don’t have the wherewithal or staffing to provide residents with such help.

In Todd’s case, the service has given her the power to decide exactly how long she’ll stay in her home. “Prior to this coming together, the feeling of uncertainty, and not being rooted, was not a very good feeling,”

Allegheny County property assessment and sales information posted by the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center was used in this story.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...