When’s the last time you thought about property taxes? We mostly accept them as a part of society, and assume that they’re being calculated fairly. But a leading University of Chicago scholar says that assumption is wrong.
A breakthrough study from Prof. Christopher Berry has shown that, on average, homeowners in the bottom 10% of a jurisdiction pay an effective tax rate that is double of what’s paid by the top 10%. Essentially, the poorest homeowners are subsidizing the richest, with disproportion effects on people of color who own property. We talk with Berry about why this happening, how it’s affecting communities—and what we can do about it.
(Episode published May 20, 2021)
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Paul Rand: When’s the last time you thought about property taxes? If you’re a homeowner, maybe you think about them a lot. If you’re a renter, maybe haven’t even thought about how they trickle down either way. You probably assume that they’re calculated fairly, but,
Christopher Berry: Some people are paying too little. Some people are paying too much.
Paul Rand: Christopher Berry is a professor at the university of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the college.
Christopher Berry: Every year, the local and state governments in the United States raise something on the order of $500 billion in property taxes.
Paul Rand: For the last few years, Berry has led a new nationwide analysis that has uncovered a huge problem with our property tax system. On average, Berry found that people with properties in the bottom 10% of a jurisdiction, face an assessment that is more than double those in the top 10% relative to their actual market values.
Christopher Berry: I estimate that about 90% of the jurisdiction does the United States have this regressivity problem, to some extent.
Paul Rand: Essentially the lowest income homeowners are subsidizing the tax bills of their higher income neighbors, fueling an equities across racial and economic divides.
Christopher Berry: Homes located in 90 to a 100% black neighborhoods are paying essentially one and a half times. What other homes in that same jurisdiction pay.
Paul Rand: And we’re not just talking about a couple thousand dollars on the margins here. The amount of money at stake is staggering.
Christopher Berry: In Chicago, what I found is that over a 5 year period, we had about $2 billion in taxes that were misallocated, that as they were shifted from the top 10% of homes that should have been paying them onto everybody else, the nationwide number obviously is much bigger than that. But I think there’s no question that there’s many billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars at stake here.
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, property tax fairness, I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: To start, we need to answer a basic question. What is a property tax?
Christopher Berry: Well, if you’re not paying them, consider yourself one of the lucky ones and maybe you don’t want to know everything that’s to come. But a property tax is the primary source of funding for local government in the United States. And it is an annual tax on the value of property that folks own. It’s meant to be a tax, just like a sales tax. At the time you buy something, you pay a certain percentage of your purchase and taxes. And similarly with a property tax, you’re meant to pay a certain percentage of the value, in this case of your home each year. And the issue is that we don’t always know the value of a person’s home. In fact, we usually don’t know it. And so I compared the property tax to the sales tax earlier, but there’s one important distinction. The sales tax is levied at the time of the transaction.
Christopher Berry: So there’s really no mystery about what the product is worth. That you’re buying. You’ve bought a pack of gum, you’ve bought a TV, there’s a price you’re paying right there at that time. And the tax is taken right at that moment,
Paul Rand: Right.
Christopher Berry: With the property tax, most homes, they don’t sell every year or anything close to that. In fact, usually 2 or 3% of the homes in a jurisdiction might sell in a year. And for all the others, we have to estimate what they’re worth and not just we, but in fact, the local assessor. That’s, the job of your local assessor is to figure this out. What is the home worth if it hasn’t sold? How do we know?
Paul Rand: Okay. So the assumption that I think I’ve always had, and maybe others have always had is that my neighbors are likely paying taxes to the same degree as I am. Is that not actually the case, is it?
Christopher Berry: Well, that’s not actually the case. It is, as you said, an assumption, and it is a principle of property taxation, and it should be true, but in practice people in the same jurisdiction, which is to say the same city or the same county, often pay very different tax rates. Even though that’s not the way the law is designed.
Paul Rand: The fairness and the accuracy of property taxes hinge on local assessors. So how does their job work? How are they deciding how much your home is worth?
Christopher Berry: The assessor begins by trying to create a value for every property in the jurisdiction. At that point, your property has something called an assessed value. And that’s just another word for the assessors best guess of what the value of your home is. We take the tax bill for the whole jurisdiction, that is, you know, how much do all your overlapping jurisdictions, what in taxes, your city, your school district, your county. And we divide that up amongst all the people in the jurisdiction, in proportion to the value of their property. So somebody that has a more valuable property should be paying a higher dollar value of tax. It would be the same tax rate, but because the home itself is more valuable, it should be a greater dollar value of taxes. And somebody with a lower valued home again, would pay the same tax rate, but because their home is worth less, it will be a lower tax bill.That’s how it should work.
Paul Rand: But as you’ve guessed,
Christopher Berry: Well, that’s not how it’s working in most places most times, unfortunately. What I have found is that errors in the assessment step lead to inequities in property taxation. The assessors tend to overvalue low priced homes and undervalue high priced homes. So a person who’s bought a low priced home is likely to have an assessed value that’s higher than the actual price of the home. And a person that’s bought a high priced home is actually that likely to have an assessed value that’s lower than the price of that.
Paul Rand: Okay. And so what’s the net effect of that actually mean.?
Christopher Berry: Well, there’s so many direct and indirect effects that are important to think about. Obviously the most immediate effect is that the owner of the overtaxed home is paying too much every month in taxes. And that is a burden on that particular homeowner. And particularly if we’re talking about low valued homes, these are people who might want to use that money for things like healthcare and groceries, but there’s lots of indirect effects that are equally pernicious. So one of the things I’ve studied is what happens to people when they can’t pay the taxes? And this is work I’ve done in Detroit, but you know, staggeringly in that one city alone, fully one quarter of all homes have been foreclosed on for failure to pay property taxes. So, that’s 100,000 homes that have been lost. And then of course, a lot of economists believe that property taxes are capitalized into the value of the home.
Christopher Berry: Which means that if the tax bill is high, then the buyer is not going to pay as much to acquire your home because they realize, that in addition to the mortgage, they get, they have to pay a higher tax payment. And so the value of your home will be less, which means you’re going to have less equity in your home. It is especially concerning that this is a problem that disproportionately affects people of color. The reason for that is one of correlation. It is that people of color tend to own lower valued homes and lower valued homes tend to be over assessed and therefore this over assessment problem, disproportionately burdens people of color.
Paul Rand: At this point, all homeowners out there are probably wondering, am I being overtaxed?
Christopher Berry: Yeah. How can an individual person know whether they’re being treated fairly or not? It turns out that’s much harder than you might think, because you have to know not only how you’re being assessed, but you have to know how everybody else is being assessed. Because, one of the tricks that assessors often use is the under-assess everybody. They just under assessed the people at the top by more.
Christopher Berry: And so let’s say you own a low priced home. You might get an assessment and see that your home is assessed at only, let’s say 90% of what you think it’s worth. Maybe you have a $100,000 home in the assessor tells you it’s worth 90. You might think you’re getting a good deal, right? What you don’t know is the person at the top is under assessed by 30%. And that is the unfairness that leads to you paying too much in taxes. It really doesn’t matter your absolute assessment. It matters your assessment relative to everybody else. And so that makes it hard for an individual person to figure out whether they’re being treated fairly or not. Cause they have to look not only at their bill, but at everybody else’s bill.
Paul Rand: As part of his analysis, Berry built a website where you do exactly that. And it maps all the data that he used in a searchable portal. It’s at propertytaxproject.uchicago.edu.
Christopher Berry: If you go on the website, you’ll see, what is the average level of assessment where you live? You can see it for homes of different prices. You can see what the average tax rate is. So at least, you don’t have to go try, as an individual person, where this really shouldn’t be your job, to search around the whole jurisdiction and try to figure out what tax rates are like in other neighborhoods and for other prices of homes. But it’s really hard on the individual homeowner to figure this out.
Paul Rand: So our assessor’s doing this intentionally.
Christopher Berry: I don’t think so. When you see a problem that is this pervasive, right, and it’s in 90% of jurisdictions, that leads me to think it’s not an intentional thing. I don’t have evidence on this. It’s hard to get into the mind of an assessor and know their intentions, but I certainly don’t think they sit down and say, Hey, here’s a neighborhood filled with low priced homes. Let’s jack up their assessment rate, or let’s give a break to people with the high priced homes. I think it’s more an unintentional result of the limitations they face in terms of both data and methodology.
Christopher Berry: But that’s sort of the very definition of structural racism, is a structure that leads to outcomes that are dis favorable for minorities and favorable for whites. Even if, nobody intends it to be that way. That’s what makes it structural racism. And so I think that’s, what’s going on. And it’s a textbook example of why are black people, brown people paying higher tax rates than white people? Not because assessors sit down and target those neighborhoods, I believe, but because the practices and data sources and methods that have been used historically in this industry are biased.
Paul Rand: Berry says, part of the issue is that the practices and methods these assessors use aren’t really reliable or regulated.
Christopher Berry: Most assessors are kind of on their own in terms of how they want to do it. And in some states they’ll be more regulations than others, but really each assessor is kind of figuring this out for himself or herself.
Paul Rand: That often means that assessors are doing guesswork about the value of the home, which leaves out important details about what its market value may be. And they end up relying on averages. And this is really the crux of how this ends up happening.
Christopher Berry: All our statistical models, in one way or another, are conditional averages and their average is based on the things we can observe about people. And therefore when there’s unobservable things that make people different from average, those are going to lead to differences in the fairness of our estimates. And so I sometimes explain this to people by asking to imagine we did income taxes this way. So imagine at the end of the year, and the IRS only saw W2’s for 1 or 2% of the population. And then they had to use that information to estimate the income from everybody else. And imagine at the end of the year, rather than filing your taxes, you just got a notice from the IRS that said, Hey, here’s what we think you’ve made this year, pay us taxes. Well, first of all, most people wouldn’t stand for that, but let’s think about how it would work.
Christopher Berry: Well, they’d know something about people, hopefully, maybe they know your education and your occupation. And they’ll say so, you know, you’re a 40 year old journalist, when we know what the average 40 year old journalists banks pay us taxes on that average amount for the 40 year old journalist. Well, as you know, it’s a lot of variation in what 40 year old journalists makes. Some of them makes many times the average and some pinks, only a fraction of the average, always this tendency towards pricing people at the average is going to lead to this unfairness. And that’s really what’s going on in the property tax is that they know the square footage, they know the number of bedrooms and they can assess you at the average of a home of your size and your number of bedrooms, but there’s going to be huge variation. And so that’s where I think people really need to understand what’s at the root of this. Why is this problem so pervasive? Its this tendency towards averaging that leads to people below average to be treated fairly.
Paul Rand: Now, if you think you’re paying too much, you can appeal your property taxes. But Berry says, the people who tend to do that are usually living in higher valued homes.
Christopher Berry: The people who are most overtaxed are actually the least likely to appeal.
Paul Rand: After the break, how Christopher Berry broke open the story of regressive property taxes in Chicago and later in Detroit. And whether he thinks we’ll ever find a solution.
Paul Rand: Chris Berry’s research has sweeping implications for the way that jurisdictions levy property taxes across the country. And this work ended up having huge consequences here in Chicago. It actually appended a local election.
Christopher Berry: So Chicago is the first place that I began to study these issues. And that research got a lot of attention in the local media, particularly Chicago Tribune, and a series of stories known as the tax divide written by Jason Grotto. They became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for those stories. Suffice to say it was a very big issue here locally and the assessor’s election, which is usually not the highest profile election in any jurisdiction, really did become the highest profile election here by a long shot. And what made it especially interesting is that the assessor at the time was a guy named Joe Berrios, who not only was the assessor, but also the chair of the Cook County democratic party. So a really powerful entrenched politician. And when these stories broke and the inequities became known, it became, as I said, a very high profile election and there was a challenger emerged named Fritz Kagy, who was kind of a reformer who promised to fix the system.
Christopher Berry: I was watching this election really closely because it was going to be a story of what would the voters choose. Because there was a segment of the city, particularly on the north side, an affluent part of the city, where it was very clear that they were being under taxed. And so to vote for the reformer was effectively the vote to raise your own taxes.
Christopher Berry: And what was really encouraging to me about that is that those parts of the city, where it was clear that taxes would have to go up. If the system were fixed, they voted, if anything, even more enthusiastically, a higher rates for the reformer and against the machine. So they were voting to fix the system, even though it was going to cost them something. I think that’s really encouraging sign.
Paul Rand: You’re not a politician, you’re a researcher and an academic. How did it feel being actively part of the political process?
Christopher Berry: Boy, I’ll say that’s an ambivalent experience. On the one hand, it feels great because all of us that do research, we do it for a reason and we hope that our research will have some impact on the world. And so on the one hand, it’s great to see headlines about the research, to see people debating it, to see it become a big issue that voters are talking about. The part that’s not so gratifying as what it actually means to get involved in that political process.
Christopher Berry: And, you know, to have to debate the assessor in public forums and have them say untruthful things, to have people on the other side, levy personal attacks against you, to have them, of course in academia, we have certain standards about how we treat data about the kind of analysis we do, the rigor that we use and what you find when you go into the political process, as you’re going up against people that have none of those standards and will manipulate the data in whatever way is convenient to them. None of that was enjoyable. Let’s say as gratifying as it was to see the research have a real impact.
Paul Rand: And it sounds like it had a real impact. And, but that’s Chicago you’ve also studied Detroit. And is that even, even more of a challenge than what you found in Chicago?
Christopher Berry: Oh boy. You know, when the Chicago work came out, I wasn’t sure at that point, if this was just a Chicago thing, of course we’re known for corruption and questionable government practices. And so at that point, I thought that maybe this is just another example of Chicago gone wrong, but pretty immediately after the work came out, I started to hear from people in other parts of the country saying, we read about this in the Tribune and you know what, something similar is happening here. And one of the first places I heard from was Detroit. And so I went to study Detroit and boy, if anything, they make Chicago look good.
Christopher Berry: The assessments are much worse than Detroit, much more inequitable. Whereas, in Chicago, the people at the bottom maybe paying 40 or 50% too much, and people at the bottom of Detroit might be paying 5 or 7 times what they should be paying.
Paul Rand: My goodness.
Christopher Berry: So the inequities are just amazing in Detroit. And then as I mentioned earlier, you pile on top of that the tax foreclosure process. There’s a law in Michigan that says, if somebody hasn’t paid their taxes for three consecutive years, they have to be foreclosed on by the county. So in a lot of jurisdictions, it’s an option, but it doesn’t happen automatically. In Michigan, it happens automatically.
Christopher Berry: And as I mentioned, one-quarter of all homeowners have lost their homes. A 100,000 homes have been lost. That is lost, not to a bank here, but to their own county, who’s taking their home for failure to pay property taxes. So the Detroit system is worlds worse than what I’ve seen in Chicago or frankly, anywhere else. They did make some attempts at reform. And unfortunately my second study on Detroit showed that their reforms didn’t work. They did a citywide reassessment, reappraisal, and they improved things a bit. I do want to give them credit for improving things a bit, but those inequities are still there. They’re still overtaxing the people at the bottom. And you know, this is an example of, the work having some impact in terms of raising attention and, there being a reassessment, but it didn’t work. And those problems persist in Detroit. And there’s a lot of activists there who are still fighting the system and trying to get them to continue improving it.
Paul Rand: Well, all this sounds like a real mess. So what’s the solution?
Christopher Berry: I Would use the word improvement rather than solution, because for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, I don’t think the problem can be solved. I want to be very clear about that. I don’t think it can be solved, but I think it can be improved.
Paul Rand: Okay.
Christopher Berry: So let me first say like how I think it could be improved and then I’ll explain why. I don’t think it can be solved. Assessments, as I said are essentially statistical predictions. And so how do you improve statistical predictions? You got to get either better data or better models. And I think assessors have lots of room to get better on both of those dimensions. So improving data quality, getting data on more features, keeping data up to date. There’s lots of new data sources available that assessors are beginning to make use of. And just to give one example of where I see assessors, not doing a great job with data, they already have location.
Christopher Berry: Location. Location is the old adage in real estate. And if you look in most jurisdictions, they’re not doing a great job of capturing locational differences in prices. And you can see that in the fact that their errors and their mistakes are highly correlated across space. And so I think, garbage in garbage out, right? Just having better data to go into the model is really important step. And then the models themselves can be vastly improved. Most assessors, I would say, are not using state-of-the-art statistical approaches. I mean, we are now in the world of machine learning where sort of the exercise of prediction is become a much more advanced, in recent years. And I don’t think that has quite made it into the assessing world yet. So I think on the statistical side, there’s lots of room for improvement.
Christopher Berry: Now, let me come back to why I said, I think it could be improved, but not fixed. There’s a whole bunch of information about properties that are visible to buyers and sellers, but are not visible to the assessor. Most notably assessors are generally prohibited from entering your home without your permission.
Paul Rand: Got it.
Christopher Berry: And most people are not going to give the assessor permission to do that. So most assessors really don’t even try. So what that means is you might have two homes that look the same from the outside. They have the same number of bedrooms. They have the same square footage, but the interior could be quite different. Maybe one home has beautiful new kitchen, a spa-like bathroom. The other hasn’t been maintained very well and has a leaky roof. Well, of course a buyer can see that when she visits both homes, the assessor can’t.
Paul Rand: Got it.
Christopher Berry: And as long as there are these important features of homes that buyers and sellers get to see, but assessors don’t, it’s going to be impossible to completely fix this progressivity problem.
Paul Rand: So are assessor’s scrambling to get Berry’s input? Are they interested in improving?
Christopher Berry: No, there has not been tremendous receptivity on the part of assessors or mayors or politicians for the most part, because I think they’re afraid of acknowledging the problem. And so they tend to respond rather by denying and deflecting criticism. And so I think that’s what we want to see now that the issue is beginning to get attention ,because in a lot of places nobody ever heard about this, this is the first time it is getting attention. Will constituents put on the pressure? Will local journalists continue to follow the issue. And the next round of assessment comes out. I think that’s going to be the key towards, towards getting changed. If it’s just one report that comes out, then I think assessors try to hold their breath and hope that people will have forgotten about this in 6 months when the next issue comes up. So it’s really the question of, can, can we keep the pressure on, can we keep the attention focused to this issue so that assessors won’t be able to just kind of wait it out?
Paul Rand: Okay. Well, you have called out in your research, some places where you don’t see this type of inequality, I think you said it was maybe 10% of places that in the country are not seeing that, what are they doing right? And what can be learned from that?
Christopher Berry: When you look at the places that are doing things better, maybe they just got lucky. I mean, when we’re talking about 10%, out of 100%, it could be random. Let’s hope that’s not it. I think there’s a couple of things that go on. One of the things that places have in common is they tend to be more homogeneous. And the assessors job is easier in places that are more homogeneous and they tend to be places that are growing and it’s easier to assess places that are growing. So I think there are some just circumstances that are fortunate and some places to get better quality assessments, but there’s also just a matter of professionalism in assessing that is having a better assessor, just kind of like so many tasks that life, there are people who are better and worse at it.
Christopher Berry: And you know, in this country we have many thousands of assessors and many thousands of jurisdictions and they’re not all equally good and bigger jurisdictions can have more professional assessors with better training, for example, and bigger staffs and be able to keep their data up to date. It is also possible to reform and one example of a place that went from having pretty bad assessments to pretty good assessments is Philadelphia under Michael Netter’s tenure.
Christopher Berry: You know, when he was Mayor, he saw this problem, he got rid of the assessor they had, he brought in a new assessor, they did a city-wide re-evaluation and things are not perfect in Philadelphia. I don’t want to say that, but they sure went from pretty bad to pretty good in a relatively short period of time, by doing the kind of things. I talked about getting a high quality assessor who really had skills, getting better data and using better models. So I do think it’s possible to make improvements for places that are committed to doing that. I think the real challenge is they had a Mayor who took leadership of the issue and said, we need to fix this most places. The mayors are M.i.a.
Paul Rand: Should we just get rid of property taxes?
Christopher Berry: Well, That’s a tough one. There are some desirable features of the property tax and we don’t want to overlook them. And so I think if we talk about getting rid of the property tax, we want to ask, compared to what? What could it be replaced with? And as I’ve said, people criticize the sales tax for being regressive. The income tax is not regressive. It’s progressive, but it’s not totally fair because we know people at the top are better able to avoid paying taxes on some of their income, but it probably is on the whole a more fair tax. And so, yeah, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made for replacing the property tax with an income tax.
Christopher Berry: There’s a whole host of other questions tied up with that, that are very controversial there though. Like for example, would this income tax be collected by the state government and then reallocate it to local governments? That unto itself would be a huge controversy. Could local governments administer their own income tax? My own view is there’s probably from an equity perspective, really good reason to try to do that and even recognizing how difficult it would be and how controversial it will be, that at the end of the day, it will have been worth it. But, but I understand there’s no obvious, simple, easy answer Here.
Paul Rand: What about paying people back for all of those overpayments?
Christopher Berry: Should Local governments be paying people back is a tough one? Because it boils down to, I think a political rather than a legal question. My understanding, I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is legally speaking, people can not recover this money. So then it’s the question of political will, are there jurisdictions that would just be willing to do it? And there’s a couple of problems there.
Christopher Berry: One is, as I said, there’s a ton of money. So as I estimated just in Chicago alone over a 5 year period, it was $2 billion and Chicago doesn’t have an extra $2 billion lying around most jurisdictions don’t. And so that’s a barrier. I think logistically it would be tricky to find out who they were and how much they overpaid and who the current owner is. And just some issues like that. But I mean, I’m sure, I’m sure you’re going to hear people. And this falls under the heading of reparations of so many things that were unjust and so much money that’s been taken out of communities of color over the years to be repaid. And this could be added to that, unfortunately, a long list of damages.
Paul Rand: And does this work that you’re continuing to do and, and continuing to drive?
Christopher Berry: Yes, This will be on my agenda for, I think the foreseeable future. And I think what I’ve just finished now is what I always thought of as kind of phase one of the work, which is diagnosis and figuring out the nature of the problem. How widespread is it? How extreme is it? And I think the results of that diagnosis are not good. The problem is very widespread and it’s pretty bad. The next phase has got to be treatment. How do you fix this? What can we do? And as I said, that’s going to involve better data and better models. And I think that’s where I, where I want to turn next.
Christopher Berry: As I was kind of alluding to earlier machine learning tools, new forms of data, these are all possible contributions to fixing the problem that as I said, I don’t think are really widespread in the assessing industry yet. So I’m looking to work with colleagues from computer science and elsewhere to figure out if we can build better models that we can then give to assessors. You know, there isn’t a standard default way of doing this, but if we can have free open source software that do this well and point assessors to good sources of data, I think that would be a way to try to move this forward in the next step of the work.
Paul Rand: If you’re getting a lot out of the important research shared on Big Brains, there’s another University of Chicago Podcast Network show you should check out it’s called Not Another Politics Podcast. Not Another Politics Podcast provides a fresh perspective on the biggest political stories, not through opinions and anecdotes, but through rigorous scholarship, massive data sets and a deep knowledge of theory. If you want to understand the political science behind the political headlines, then listen to Not Another Politics Podcast. Part of the University of Chicago Podcast Network.
Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like, what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. Show is hosted by Paul Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.
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