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Editorial

Property tax cut failed, but goal of addressing Baltimore’s housing inequities? Let’s make an offer | COMMENTARY

Attention should be paid when a well-publicized petition drive to put a charter amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot to force Baltimore to lower its property tax rate came up short, while one to give the city the ability to create a regional transit authority appears to have met or surpassed the 10,000-signature threshold. The transit authority measure is most certainly the better and more well-considered proposal. But one assumes there are enough self-interested, affluent property owners from Roland Park to Silo Point facing a potential windfall on their tax bills to make the tax cut that the easier pitch. The regional transit authority requires a bit more salesmanship to explain — for example: how the state currently operates the city’s transit systems and how it’s not yet clear exactly how such an authority would be financed or which counties would be involved.

So what happened? The most obvious explanation is that tax-reform-minded Renew Baltimore — top heavy with economists and former government officials — lacked the boots on the ground for a petition drive that involves knocking on doors or setting up a table at a farmer’s market or similar venue, not just typing away on a laptop. Another is that a lot of Baltimoreans aren’t all that worked up about property taxes. Baltimore’s tax rate may be the state’s highest, but, as an everyday concern, it takes a back seat to gun violence, schools, police reform and perhaps quite a few other issues. For those on the lower end of the income scale who don’t own a home, have never owned a home, why would they fret about a bill they’ve never seen? A lack of decent rental housing (even for holders of Section 8 vouchers), rising rents and gentrification of certain neighborhoods, seem a more pressing concern.

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Yet Renew Baltimore insisted from Day 1 that their plan to lower the tax rate from 2.248% to 1.25% over six years was about equity. And that didn’t fly. While you can certainly make the point that higher housing costs (of which the property tax is a part) hit low-income, predominantly African American families harder, the benefits of a tax cut greatly favor the rich. Just look at the numbers. The owner of a 6-bedroom rowhouse in Walbrook pays $128 monthly in property tax while the owner of a Harborview pier home forks over $2,727. Cut taxes in half and feel the love as one gets a $64 handshake, the other a $1,363 bear hug.

So here’s our counter offer. We agree that Baltimore’s high property tax rate hurts growth and is not sustainable. Yet, as we’ve noted before, the revenue is also crucial to sustaining vital city services. Reducing it gradually over time still makes the most sense. As for equity, well, that’s actually the more pressing issue, and what is needed here is a broader approach than just some across-the-board tax cut. As observed two years ago in an Abell Foundation report on city homeownership, reversing the slow decline of ownership among Black families requires outreach and counseling to attract potential first-time buyers, support for older existing homeowners on how best to pass along their property to heirs, changes in housing policies to address racial disparities (especially in the credit market), an increase in housing stock and higher wages.

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We would go further. Why not convene a public-private task force to investigate policy choices? For example, might there be tax credits focused on low-income, first-time buyers and not necessarily out-of-town speculators? What if, instead of a cut in the tax rate, the first $100,000 or so in assessed value was left untaxed for qualified owner-occupants? Surely, there are measures that could be taken at both the city and state level to more directly increase homeownership rates that have fallen in recent years. And, given that the leading candidate to be Maryland’s next governor knows this subject matter well as a city resident and advocate for the poor, it’s not difficult to believe that help could be coming from Annapolis on a variety of fronts when it comes to urban revitalization.

In a statement after the petition drive came up short, a leading member of Renew Baltimore called their effort a “tax revolt” destined to prevail in the next election if city officials don’t take action on their own. Instead, let’s call it a “fizzle” that could yet spark productive reforms that legitimately address the city’s housing inequities — with a little better effort.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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