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State by state, neighborhood by neighborhood, black families pay 13 percent more in property taxes each year than a white family would in the same situation, a massive new data analysis shows.
Black-owned homes are consistently assessed at higher values, relative to their actual sale price, than white homes, according to a new working paper by economists Troup Howard of the University of Utah and Carlos Avenancio-León of Indiana University.
African Americans have long said they bear a disproportionate burden for taxes that support local police, schools and parks, but nationwide measures of this type of systemic racism are hard to come by.
To expose the structural and historical factors behind these discriminatory property tax assessments, the economists analyzed more than a decade of tax assessment and sales data for 118 million homes throughout the country.
In almost every state, property tax assessments were higher in areas with more black and Hispanic residents. In city after city, the authors show it is not just differences in the buildings or land but also the racial composition of the neighborhood that matters. The gap between white families and minority households remains large — 10 percent — when you combine data for Hispanic and black families. (The authors excluded California because Proposition 13, passed in 1978, drastically changed how property is valued there.)
“We’ve always considered that in addition to paying your regular tax, there was a black tax that goes along with it,” said Charles, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, citing elevated personal and professional risks faced by black men right now.
Eighteen years ago, high and rising taxes drove Charles from his longtime home in a black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side to a predominantly white neighborhood in Northwest Indiana. His was the only black family on the block, but his property taxes were much lower than in Chicago — and they stayed that way.
“It’s almost like it’s in the soil,” he said. “It stretches all across the board. It’s not just real estate. It’s not just housing. It’s not just food deserts. It’s not just racism on the street. It’s not just that you can’t get a cab at night. It’s everything.”
Dorothy Brown, an Emory University law professor who researches systemic racism in tax policy and was not involved in this study, sees the same pervasive effect. “The structure of the property tax system operates to disadvantage black Americans,” she said. “That’s how structural racism is. It’s built into the system. The property tax system itself discriminates against black Americans.”
Inequities in tax assessment are among many factors weighing on black homeownership rates nationwide. Facing the accumulated disadvantages of centuries of repression and systemic racism, black Americans are likely to earn less than similar white workers in lower-paying service jobs, a dynamic that makes it more difficult to buy a home. Now, by hitting those jobs first and hardest, the coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation worse. One in five black households have reported missing a mortgage payment since mid-March, compared with about 1 in 20 white ones.
“During the Jim Crow era, local white officials routinely manipulated property tax assessments to overburden and punish black populations and as a hidden tax break to landowning white gentry,” said University of Virginia historian Andrew Kahrl.
Many county assessors intentionally overvalued black properties, sometimes in direct retaliation for black political action. Kahrl, whose has long researched the history of property tax discrimination against black Americans, has found white officials going to extreme lengths to hike black taxes. In one such case in 1932, a black North Carolina resident was taxed for the value of two stray dogs that had been seen on her property.