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We renters are entitled to a break, too

I thought I'd be over it by now. But it's hard to heal when Albany keeps picking at the wound, reminding millions of us of our second-class citizenship.

After the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement and the gay rights movement, there's only one beleaguered, downtrodden, spat-upon class that it's still OK to discriminate against: renters.

Politicians have fallen all over themselves this month bragging about the $1.3 billion in property tax rebates the new state budget showers on homeowners. In Erie County, the checks are expected to average a tidy $316.

And what about nonhomeowners?

"Renters struck out," was how a state tax department spokesman summed up the way the new budget treats the rest of us. In Erie County, that's fully 35 percent of the population.

But instead of equality under the law, we get headlines that mock our predicament, reminding us that "May 1 is filing deadline for school tax relief," while the rest of the story says, in so many words, "Renters need not apply."

And spare me the blather about renters not deserving a rebate because we don't pay property taxes.

"Any time you tax a provider of a service, at least some of that is passed on to the consumer," said Mark Obrinsky, vice president and chief economist of the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.

That's a tactful way of saying renters get gouged because they don't even know they're paying more than their fair share of property taxes because it's hidden in the rent.

Obrinsky forwarded an analysis his group did several years ago concluding that "apartments pay property taxes at a much higher rate than do single-family homes."

Using a variety of analyses that look at "how much tax is paid relative to the market value of the property" -- dubbed the effective tax rate -- the council concluded that renters are taxed at a much higher rate than homeowners.

The council also cites a Minnesota Taxpayers Association study that looked at the ratio of effective tax rates between renters and homeowners across the country. That study found -- why am I not surprised? -- that New York State is the second-worst place in the country for renters: We pay an effective tax rate nearly six times that of homeowners.

While the 1998 study has yet to be updated, Obrinsky said in an e-mail that they "still stand by the analysis and conclusions."

And why shouldn't they? What's been done to help renters since then?

Every year, politicians pander to homeowners while ignoring the common-sense mandate that tax policy be used to pursue desirable social ends.

With our cubbyhole apartments stacked one on top of the other, renters take up far less space and help combat sprawl. Concentrated in one location, we make more efficient use of roads and other infrastructure. And with fewer children, we place less demand on schools. If anybody deserves a rebate, it's us.

Instead, I'll have to wait for some crafty lawyer to forget about those small-potatoes "hurt in a car" accidents and file a massive class-action lawsuit:

Screwed by the state?

We'll get your rebate!

Better yet, we need a lobby: the National Renters Association. As soon as politicians hear it's the NRA on the phone, they'll pass our bill so quickly they'll never notice it didn't come from the gun industry.

Of course, we could just take the easy way out. We could go out and spend $100,000 on a house so we can get our $316.

Only in Albany might that be considered good math.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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