Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 30, 2014

Reforming NYC’s Property Tax Regime

By David Reiss

Andrew Hayashi has posted Property Taxes and Their Limits: Evidence from New York City to SSRN. There probably could not be a more obscure and dull topic than this to the general reader (and coming from me, as the author of this blog, that is saying something!). But for those of us who think about such things, this is an incredibly important topic that is at its heart fundamentally about fairness and treating like people alike.

Hayashi argues that

The property tax is the largest source of tax revenue for local governments. It is also an almost irresistible policy instrument for municipalities, which typically do not have control over any other tax with which to influence the urban landscape and the local distribution of income and wealth. The widespread use of the property tax for planning and redistribution means that virtually no jurisdiction straightforwardly calculates the tax liability for a property as a fixed percentage of its market value. Instead, property tax rates tend to vary with the use to which a property is put or the identity of its owner. As a consequence, many of the potential benefits of the property tax, such as ease of administration, transparency, the clear reflection of the costs and benefits of local services, and the intuitive fairness of imposing taxes in proportion to property wealth, are lost. (2, footnotes omitted)

He concludes

The property tax is a hated tax, but attempts to curtail its most offensive feature, the rapid increase in taxes that can accompany paper gains in property value, have had unintended distributional consequences that are hard to justify on policy grounds. In New York City, the caps are regressive and tend to benefit new homebuyers and sellers rather than current homeowners on fixed incomes. The caps should be replaced with a property tax circuit breaker [that limits increases for lower-income homeowners] or deferral system [that delays full payment until the property is conveyed]. (27)

This issue is even bigger than these selections suggest as there are big disparities in the tax burden among different types of property. For example similarly priced single family homes have a lower tax burden than coops or condos in multifamily properties. NYU’s Furman Center (with which Hayashi is affiliated) has studied these issues and, even better, has highlighted them as part of the De Blasio transition.

Property tax fairness is not a Republican or a Democratic issue — it is a good government issue. Hopefully, the De Blasio  Department of Finance will take up this obscure but important issue. Fairness demands it.

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