The massive overhaul of the city’s property tax assessments drastically increases the previous outdated values of homes in many neighborhoods that have changed dramatically in the last decade or more — think Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital. To cushion the blow, last fall, homeowners could opt-in to a ‘homestead exemption,’ in which, say, $30,000 would be knocked off a primary residence’s taxable assessed value for a period of time, as planned by the administration and some in City Council.
It’s a chance to save hundreds of dollars for the price of a stamp and the act of printing and filling out a single-page sheet of paper. So the fact that more than 100,000 Philadelphia households didn’t act on it, as the Philadelphia Daily News reported, might mean than a fair chunk of property owners didn’t know the program existed.
One explanation for the information gap centers around Philadelphia’s digital divide, since a fair amount of the outreach came online — the fact that more than half of households don’t have access to the Internet, and shows how the divide must shape how the city interacts with its residents.
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…..Only 180,000 homeowners out of 320,000 who are eligible have been approved for an exemption, the city said.
It’s worth noting that Mayor Nutter’s Press Secretary Mark McDonald tweeted that there are foreign language hotlines for the information and more outreach is due to come this month. There is a lot in the data, visualized by AxisPhilly, to be processed, but the shortcoming, too, highlights the unfailing need for connective community institutions.
The city spread the word about homestead exemption by reaching out to community groups and churches and using social media and a revamped Office of Property Assessment website, a city official told the Daily News. But for populations that aren’t online and not involved in traditionally accessible neighborhood associations — like non-native, non-English speaking families or others who create isolated pocket communities — what’s a city official to do?
The irony here may be that the homestead exemption is meant to be a tool to benefit homeowners generally, particularly poorer ones, rather than commercial property owners, which are making off good in the property reassessment and would benefit best if the exemption were tossed aside altogether in favor of a lower property tax rate, as some in council want. The lack of perceived transparency could be another feather in the cap of the lower rate, but, to date, the administration seems fully supportive of maintaining the exemption.