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Fix the inequities of the homestead property tax credit

As a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, I purchased a shell in Upper Fells Point in 1985 for $12,000 and borrowed $40,000 to restore it. I am a union bricklayer, so I also contributed hundreds of hours of uncompensated labor toward the restoration of my home.

In the mid 1980s, Upper Fells Point was a distressed neighborhood; so few people of means lived there that hardly anyone had a car and I could park next to my house at any time of the day or night. In 1987, after I moved in with my sister, I used to joke about having a $100,000 house in a $40,000 neighborhood.

At the time, I had no problems paying the property tax on my home. In 1997, after a year of harassing me to buy his house so he could move to Florida to be near his children, my elderly next-door neighbor convinced me to purchase his smaller house for $23,000.

I refinanced my home and paid cash for the house, becoming a very reluctant landlord. I cleaned it up, did some masonry repairs, slowly replaced windows and gave the front a face lift; the inside still looks pretty much as it did at the turn of the last century.

So in my mind I lived in a $100,000 home and owned a $40,000 rental property, which I leased at very reasonable rates to a string of artists and teachers for the next 10 years. Again, the income from the rental, meager as it was, was enough to cover the property taxes.

But who could have foreseen the insanity of the housing bubble or the greed of the speculators that fueled it? As a result of this madness, the state of Maryland is now telling me that my houses, which are pretty much the same houses they were 10 years ago, are now worth $260,000 and $202,000. Their valuation is not based on my actual houses but on what nitwit speculators were willing to pay and what my new, well-heeled neighbors could afford to pay for nearby homes.

This to me seems to be the crux of the problem. Certainly The Sun has done a fine job of uncovering the lax record-keeping and other errors that contribute to the unfairness of the Homestead Property Tax Credit.

But I have never earned more than $50,000 a year, and I am approaching retirement. If I had to pay the full property taxes on my "$260,000" home, I would be in dire straits.

My daughter, who is a graduate student, now lives in the house next door, and she and her roommate pay just enough rent to cover the almost $5,000 property tax bill, the insurance and other maintenance expenses.

This house could hardly be referred to as an "investment property." These are our homes, we love the city and we have every intention of staying here until we can no longer afford it. And don't get me wrong, some of the wealthier new folks who have moved in over the past five years are great people who have contributed a lot to our community. But we also have our share of foreclosed properties, and don't think you can park here after 5 p.m.

There has been much discussion about how to address this issue, including a bill to make property taxes based on income, which seems insanely complicated. Wouldn't it be easier for the state to valuate properties based on their sale price plus the cost of improvements made (which are already documented through the building permit process), rather than on the vagaries of the market?

Long-term residents would know what their homes were worth and could stop living in fear of skyrocketing markets. We could get rid of the Homestead Tax Credit altogether. I wouldn't gripe about paying taxes on my home, even at our higher rate, if it were valued fairly.

Barbara Moore, Baltimore

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