The hundreds of visitors in Roxborough Memorial Hospital’s auditorium this weekend shared at least one thing in common: an opened white envelope from the City of Philadelphia.
Inside the envelope were the results of the city’s Actual Value Initiative, the mayoral prerogative which seeks to address imbalances in residential and commercial property assessments.
On Saturday, dozens of volunteers from the Office of Property Assessment, various city agencies, and the office of Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. were present at the hospital’s auditorium to guide residents through their assessments and the appeals process, the first round of which concludes at the end of March.
In just over two hours, approximately two hundred residents from both the Fourth Councilmanic District and across the city turned out, bearing sentiments about AVI as diverse as the residents themselves.
Overbrook resident Wendy Wall was exasperated when she walked away from her consultation.
The assessment given to her home was for approximately $120,000, but feeling the need for a second – and third – opinion, she consulted a realtor and a home investor, both of whom gave her house an $80,000 value, to which Wall added, “Tops.”
In addition to the apparent incongruity between actual values, Wall said that her block has become home to drug dealers, whose presence is serving as a disincentive to performing costly-home improvements and, despite a professed sense of optimism, might cause Wall to move away from the city.
“I can see why people are leaving the city,” she said. “Why would I want to pay more taxes when my neighborhood is now drug-infested?”
Fear of tax increases
Haddington resident Leta Johnson was concerned over her assessment, which tripled, and the potential for dramatic increases in her property taxes, expressing little hope for additional city services despite the higher tax bill.
Johnson related that numerous properties on her West Philadelphia block had been demolished as part of the Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, with many nearby homes experiencing collateral damage. She felt that this was not accounted for in resultant reimbursements or present assessments.
Accompanying Johnson was Kurt Constantine, the neighborhood’s block captain who was unhappy about perceived disparities in between investments in Center City and in the neighborhoods. While admitting that he understood the macro effects of such decisions, he felt that AVI would do little to remedy the plight of the average citizen.
“It seems to me more like a thing to push people out than to help people,” he said.
With the assessment of his home nearly tripling, Wissahickon resident Ken Sawyer came to the workshop seeking answers on the taxation rate. Sawyer’s primary concern – that his taxes would similarly triple – was unfounded, according to the staff he spoke with, and Sawyer was thankful for the explanation.
However, with rumblings of a lowered Homestead Exemption – reduced to $15,000 from $30,000 – Sawyer voiced some aggravation with the process, expressing a sense of deception on the behalf of municipal leaders.
“I guess that’s politics,” he said. “We’ll have to stay tuned and see where that stands and how much it’s going to be.”
Lou Agre, leader of the 21st Ward, which serves Roxborough and Manayunk, said that AVI has been a primary topic of conversation, with concerns being voiced “day and night, night and day.”
“Some of it looks political, some of it looks fair,” he said.
Agre observed that several neighborhoods in his domain are enduring AVI, but said that Manayunk was particularly hard hit, specifically citing multi-generation Manayunk residents who have not benefited from commercial and residential development in their hillside community.
Citing a need to protect the interests of long-term neighborhood residents, Agre said, “I don’t want to see what happened to Fairmount happen to Manayunk.”
Similar house, different assessment
But not everyone leaving the auditorium was downtrodden, as some residents attended simply to get basic information or updates about AVI, while others expressed relief when they found out that their taxes could be lowered.
East Falls residents Peggy Sgarra and Joanne Timmons arrived together, sharing much, but not all in common with regard to AVI: their identical homes on Midvale Ave. were assessed $3,400 apart.
“We live in the same exact house, and my assessment was $3,400 dollars less than hers,” said Timmons of Sgarra. “It made no sense, so she appealed.”
While satisfied with the service afforded to them by the volunteers, Timmons was even more pleased by the tax estimate she received, relating that her tax bill could be reduced by about $400.
She won’t be appealing.