Guest op-ed: Fixing a Broken Property Tax System

It’s no secret: the New York City property tax system circa 2018 is badly broken. It’s outdated, unfair and excessively complicated.

Over the past nearly four decades, inequities have sprung up across the city because of the way current tax laws were structured back in 1981.

As a result, people living in million-dollar brownstones in scorching hot real estate markets have lower effective property tax rates than homeowners elsewhere in Brooklyn who have lower property values. The homeowners I represent in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, and Bensonhurst have certainly not been immune to this dysfunction.

Knocking on doors last summer and speaking with homeowners during my campaign for City Council, the defective property tax system was one of the issues I heard about the most.

So after I got elected, I fought hard and got Mayor de Blasio to finally establish the NYC Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform that he’d promised way back when.

Now, I’ve asked this commission to forge quickly towards a fairer, simpler and more transparent system, and to keep in mind inequities between neighborhoods as it moves forward.

Homeowners in my district cannot afford to be paying to subsidize lower property taxes in our city’s hottest housing markets. It makes no sense that they should. But that’s exactly what they’re doing under the current system, and we have a responsibility in government to offer them some relief as soon as possible.

Property tax reform needs to be a fight for homeowners and also for renters. Our city has been hit hard by skyrocketing rents, and landlords passing down exorbitant property taxes to their tenants have only made the problem worse.

We need to make sure that tenants benefit not at homeowners’ expense, but along with them. Because, right now, both groups are hurting.

The way I see it, we need to do three things.

First, New York State needs to correct the problems with its current law. Albany needs to start a shift away from the current capped system and towards an alternative that allows property taxes to reflect real property values of the present day better, or, better yet, step aside and grant New York City the authority to solve its own problem.

Second, we need to create a provision that would limit property taxes by tying them to family income, which would protect middle and low-income families living in rapidly booming housing markets from getting socked with skyrocketing taxes.

Third, if and when property taxes decline on rental properties, we need to guarantee that savings are being passed down to tenants and not redirected elsewhere. This would prevent landlords from hoarding the relief rightfully owed to tenants, especially of rent-controlled and stabilized units – of which our area has a very large amount.

All of these steps should serve the simple goal of reducing disparities in effective property tax rates among residential properties. Property taxes as a percent of market value would be similar across the city, with the “circuit breaker” protection for homeowners of lower incomes. Renters too would see savings in a city plagued by an affordable housing crisis.

Make no mistake: The people of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst are right up there with those hit hardest by our busted property tax system. This reform effort needs to be about bringing fairness, simplicity and sanity to our system. The hardworking people we serve deserve nothing less.

Councilmember Justin Brannan represents the 43rd Council District and is a Lindsay Fellow at the City University of New York.

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