Eloise Franklin-Magitt, 71, was behind on her property tax payments a few years ago and, if not for her children, she said, she feared losing her home.

Her bill dropped in 2019, and she was able to catch up, but she worried about future increases. The next year, she got on a payment plan through the county.

Franklin-Magitt, who lives on a fixed income in Kansas City’s Vineyard neighborhood — nestled between 39th Street and Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard east of Prospect Avenue saw her home’s value drop by $5,488 in 2019. This year, it went up by $526. And while she can make it work with the payment plan, she’s worried about massive increases in the future. She knows others have lost their homes because they haven’t been able to pay their tax bill.

“We really do need to get a hold on the taxes situation,” she said, “because you’re taxing people right out of a place to live. And that’s not right.”

In the 2021 assessment, the Jackson County Assessor’s Office, led by director Gail McCann Beatty, made conservative estimates for property taxes primarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented much of their work from happening as it normally would. Still, her office is working to get every Jackson County property up to market value, she said. Over the next two years in partnership with a third-party, they’ll be visiting each home to make that happen.

Beatty said the purpose is to make sure everyone pays a fair amount. That hasn’t always happened. All she can do is attempt to value properties fairly — her office does not determine the tax rate; that is done at a legislative level.

A fight for equity

Properties are reassessed every odd-numbered year. The assessments are done to put a value on a property so it can be taxed. Homeowners have been given an estimate of their tax bill, which will be mailed in November and is due at the end of the year.

In 2019, outrage ensued across Kansas City when many homeowners received increases in their assessments that in some cases as much as doubled their home’s value.

The American Civil Liberties Union Missouri chapter sued on behalf of four neighborhood associations: Vineyard Neighborhood Association, Westside Neighborhood Association, Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, and Washington Wheatley Neighborhood Improvement Association. The lawsuit accused the Assessment Department of unfairly treating mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

“It seemed like they targeted neighborhoods,” Ike Graham, president of the Vineyard Neighborhood Association, recently told The Star.

While his assessment went down, the threat of what it could mean and how future reassessments might impact his tax bill worries him.

The lawsuit filed in 2019 claimed that Beatty violated the federal Fair Housing Act. In November 2020, Jackson County Circuit Judge John M. Torrence dismissed the lawsuit brought by the neighborhood associations, finding the court had “no subject-matter jurisdiction,” in the challenge of the methodology of the property tax assessments. The judge also found the associations and the ACLU could not bring the claim since they are not property owners, but organizations.

Across the country, the same fight for equity has played out. Studies have repeatedly found that minority homeowners face a disproportionate tax burden.

Home ownership is key to building generational wealth, especially among Black families who have long faced systemic barriers — such as racially restrictive covenants, redlining and segregation — to possess assets like a house.

Black people own homes at the lowest rate of any race in the United States at 45.1%, according to Census data from 2021’s first quarter. That compares to white Americans at 73.8%, Hispanic Americans at 49.3% and those including Asian, American Indian, and Pacific Islander at 57.1%.

One study published in March through the University of Chicago found that the property tax system “disproportionately burdens owners of less valuable homes.”

Another study, published in June 2020, found that Black and Hispanic homeowners faced a 10%-13% higher tax burden. It also found that the outcomes of homeowners’ appeals vary by race.

In April, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II introduced the Real Estate Valuation Fairness and Improvement Act in hopes of combating disparities in the appraisal industry.

“If we are to address the widening racial wealth gap in our nation, we must deliberately address the decades-long and deeply rooted legacy of discrimination in America’s housing sector,” Cleaver said in a news release.

Reaching market value

There were 14,000 informal appeals in 2019, Beatty said.

“We understand it was pretty hard on property owners,” said Beatty, who has worked in the property appraisals field for about 30 years. Many of the properties were “substantially below the market,” she said, but the increases in 2019 “didn’t get us where we need to be. There are still properties in the county that are substantially below market.”

Typically, when the assessor’s office does property assessments, they don’t go out to see the homes in person due to a lack of staffing and funding. Instead, they’ve used a modeling system to assess properties virtually.

This year, because of the restrictions COVID-19 placed, they used a trending system. The trending system groups properties together, Beatty said, which helps to tamper down the impact on lower-income neighborhoods.

“Our objective is to be fair and equitable, meaning everyone pays their fair share, based on market value,” Beatty said. “We don’t want anybody’s property over-assessed.”

So far this year, she said, there have been just under 2,600 informal reviews and just under 400 formal appeals, though she expects to see more formal appeals as the July 12 deadline approaches.

“That speaks volumes to how conservative our values were for this year,” Beatty said.

While more properties got closer to where they needed to be, she said, the process will take several cycles to get everyone to market value.

Beatty said it could take until 2025 to get every property to that point.

For many Americans, their homes are their largest assets, said Stephen Menendian, assistant director and director of research at the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. He said the disparities in market value contribute to the racial wealth gap.

“They reflect disparities in wealth between communities,” Menendian said. “If you have a community that has a really rich property tax base, it’s not just that they can raise more revenue and services, they have more wealth to provide more amenities and public goods beyond what’s collected by the government.”

Often the majority of property taxes go to support school districts. In areas that lose tax revenue, which can be for reasons such as tax incentives for development, schools can be impacted.

“The reason it’s so important is because there are very few critical revenue streams that are used to provide resources, services and amenities to the public,” Menendian said.

Those critical revenue streams, he said, are property, sales and income taxes.

“Disparities in those can produce disparities in investments and resources that are allocated to communities which then shape their life chances,” Menendian said.

She added that this year the amount of increase in the low income areas was less than the higher income areas. And for the most part, properties faced less than a 7% increase.

Balancing it out

Larry Clark, a former assessor who now works as the director of strategic initiatives for the Kansas City-based International Association of Assessing Officers, said the group pushes for four cornerstones of equitable property assessments: appraise regularly at market value, follow IAAO technical standards, allocate adequate resources and provide training to assessors.

The organization, a trade group for property tax assessors, sets the best practices for the mass appraisal industry.

Beatty said they are now encouraging staff to attend IAAO classes, which, she added, was not encouraged in the past. They’re also encouraging staff to get IAAO designations.

Homeowners with concerns about reassessments should contact the assessor’s office, Clark said.

In 2019, 78-year-old Gerry White faced an increased market value of more than 22% on her mother’s home — a nearly $7,000 increase of the market value.

“That increase was just too much for me who was on a limited income,” White said.

She appealed the assessment, but said nothing changed. This year, the value increased by about $900, she said. She plans to appeal again.

Beatty said her office is attempting to take a more hands on approach and is in the midst of doing a parcel by parcel review — a review of each of the nearly 300,000 properties in the county. It’s a partnership with public sector software solutions company Tyler Technologies, which has added staff to ensure the physical reviews that often aren’t possible get done.

That review will see staff assess each property in person through 2022, in preparation for the 2023 assessment.

“Long term it’s going to balance out,” Beatty said. “Everyone’s going to pay their fair share.”

Franklin-Magitt, the 71-year-old, has lived in her Vineyard neighborhood home since 1975. And as she sat on her front porch, surrounded by bright pink philodendrons, a 3-foot tall snake plant and a yellow rose bush battling some form of pest, she said she doesn’t want to leave.

“We gonna make it through,” she said.

How to appeal

Homeowners have until July 12 to appeal their property assessment.

Beatty said homeowners should ask themselves if they would sell their home for the value the county assessed it at. If the answer is no, they probably don’t need to appeal. But if they say that they couldn’t sell their home for that much, they should appeal.

“Mass appraisal is not an exact science,” Beatty said. “Therefore part of the process is the appeal process. If you truly believe your property is not where it should be, we want to know about it.”

To appeal, homeowners can go to jacksongov.org and search Board of Equalization Appeals to appeal through the Parcel Viewer website.

  • Click “I agree” on the screen that pops up.
  • Enter your address or parcel number in the upper right corner.
  • Click on the “Click for property info” button
  • Under the tab “Property Requests,” you can choose informal review or formal appeal. Fill out that form and then hit submit.

If you do not have access to a computer or reliable internet, you can call the board at 816-881-3309 and someone will submit your appeal for you.

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Cortlynn Stark covers breaking news as well as race and class issues for The Star. Cortlynn studied journalism and Spanish at Missouri State University.