In the Gordon Square neighborhood where I live, landlords and tenants often cite Cleveland’s property tax policies as favoring new residents over longer-term residents.
But no story brought all this to light for me more vividly than that of Helen Massie.
Helen and her late husband moved to Cleveland from West Virginia in the late 1960s. They raised three boys and both worked for the General Electric plant in East Cleveland – a famous place in northeast Ohio for its annual holiday lights display.
The Massies bought their home for around $16,000, an amount that remained the average sale price for a home in the neighborhood until 2002. Now, however, things are different.
“The house next door was $474,000 or something,” she told me. “And [investors] came here to buy this house.”
But she doesn’t want to sell.
“I want to be like my husband,” she said. “I want to live here until I die.”
A matter of fairness
For years, his plan to stay seemed entirely reasonable. For more than 30 years, Hélène’s taxes increased very slowly. That’s not entirely a good thing, because it also means that his home’s value was stagnant – or, really, falling if you take inflation into account. This is the fate of so many homes in so many neighborhoods of Cleveland to this day.
But the good news was that for Helen, the cost of living here was very predictable and very affordable from year to year.
That changed a lot in 2018when his property taxes more than doubled.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to ask my kids for help.”
There is an official way to appeal a property tax increase. Owners can file an appeal with the Cuyahoga County Board of Review, the government agency that decides the value of homes. It involves gathering a lot of paperwork and then appearing before a board of commissioners.
Bobby Larsen (left) and Fatimah Johnson believe some wealthy people are ‘surfing the tax cut’, moving from house to house to avoid paying high property taxes. [Justin Glanville / Ideastream Public Media]
One of Helen’s sons recently filed an application on her behalf, she said, but the appeal was denied.
“They said, ‘You can’t do anything,'” Helen said. “And [my son] said, ‘Well, my mother will probably have to sell her house.’ They said, ‘Well, that’s what you have to do. They don’t lower taxes.'”
Helen said she wasn’t worried about having to sell her house anytime soon. She receives income from social security, as well as her pensions and those of her husband. Still, that’s not a ton, especially considering the maintenance costs of an old house. And with her taxes rising again in 2020, she fears she won’t be able to spend the rest of her life here as she always planned.
Worse still, she says, is what she sees as the injustice of a tax system that raises her taxes while providing tax breaks to the wealthiest and newest people in the neighborhood.
She gestured across the street to the high-end townhouses, the ones she looks at every time she walks through the front door.
“I think these people here have a 15-year tax deduction,” she said. “And I think what they’re doing is uplifting everyone else to make up for that or something. I don’t know. I think that’s wrong.”
Helen talks about the City of Cleveland’s tax abatement program. Since the 1990s, this program has given developers and owners a 15-year pass on paying taxes on new construction and a 10-year pass on major renovations. Some neighborhood leaders credit it as a huge factor, perhaps the single most important factor, in bringing back a functioning housing market to my neighborhood and a few others in Cleveland.
But almost since its inception, longtime owners have also criticized the tax abatement as unfair. And it doesn’t just affect homeowners. Landlords pass these increases on to their tenants.
Tax abatement policies were recently reformed to relieve development pressure in working-class neighborhoods, but they still exist. This episode explores our very unequal property tax system in Cleveland and attempts to make it fairer.