John Howell and his wife have begun to wonder where she will live when he is dead.
The 65-year-old retiree has terminal cancer – and since the city reassessed his home late last year, he’s unsure his wife can pay the taxes without him.
Those taxes, on a dated, three-bedroom home south of Forest Lawn, for years totaled roughly $1,000 a year. But this year, following Buffalo’s first true revaluation in almost two decades, they rose to more than $2,500.
“So my wife will have to sell the house and figure something else out,” Howell said.
Like hundreds of other low- and fixed-income homeowners in fast-appreciating neighborhoods, the Howells fear they can't keep pace with the speed or the scale of the reassessment. The project, which concluded in September and will hit city tax bills next July, logged steady growth in most neighborhoods, though some parts of the city saw no real appreciation, and others experienced staggering spikes.
Average assessments spiked most dramatically on the West Side, a Buffalo News analysis of more than 60,000 preliminary assessment records shows. They increased by as much as 272% on the blocks south and west of Symphony Circle, raising property tax bills by hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
Residents of a number of traditionally working-class and mixed-income neighborhoods, including Allentown, the Fruit Belt and Elmwood-Bryant, also saw assessments jump far above the citywide norm, hiking tax bills, escrowed mortgages and rents. Citywide real estate values grew at four times the rate officials predicted in 2015, according to The News’ analysis.
With few remedies or relief programs available, many residents now say they’ve considered selling their homes to avoid tax delinquency or foreclosure.
If they do, it could trigger an unprecedented wave of displacement in a city already facing urgent questions about the unintended consequences of redevelopment.
“Me, I see a lot of people moving out because they can’t afford it,” said Lisa Luciano-Perez, whose parents bought her West Avenue home 50 years ago. “It’s a really sad situation. We have families who have been here all their lives who can’t afford it anymore and may have to leave their homes.”
John Howell is, by his own admission, a diminished man. Doctors diagnosed him with a recurrence of metastatic uveal melanoma in August 2018 and gave him 18 to 24 months to live. Pale and soft-spoken, with white lashes and blue eyes, he spends much of his time these days reading and posting to Facebook and his personal blog: “It has often occurred to me,” he wrote in December, “that I don’t need to worry” about the future.
But Howell still worries about his wife’s future, and the future of their well-appointed – if slightly worn – house, which the couple bought with family help in 2010. At the time, the recession had wiped out both their savings and their former careers in Chicago. They turned to Buffalo, where Howell’s father lived, to start again.
Howell and his wife, Maria Arza, both took new jobs downtown. They and their preteen daughter, today a graduate student, all served the Oxford Square Block Club in leadership positions.
“We've done everything we could to be good citizens of Buffalo,” Howell said. “We really appreciated the fact that when we needed somewhere to go where we could find affordable housing, Buffalo was here for us.”
In the years after the family moved to Buffalo, however, the city’s cheap housing stock also attracted other buyers. Since 2010 – the last year Buffalo completed limited assessments of some neighborhoods – demand from young and returning homeowners, investors and speculators roughly doubled local list prices, according to Zillow.
In response, and in order to bring property tax bills back in line with home values, the Assessment and Taxation Department launched a citywide revaluation in 2015. At the time, officials estimated the total value of taxable real estate in the city would increase by 19%. In reality, total value quadrupled, according to preliminary city records – yielding dramatic, and sometimes confounding, swings to homeowners’ assessed values and estimated tax bills.
Buffalo reassesses homes through a standard process called mass appraisal, which estimates each property’s value based on the sale prices of other, similar properties on nearby blocks. By design, the system’s estimates track the movement of the local housing market, though they do not account for some interior details, such as remodeling, that might motivate bidders.
On Howell’s section of Oxford Avenue, where aging Foursquare- and Queen Anne-style homes had largely escaped the mania of Elmwood-Bidwell, investors bought and flipped at least half a dozen houses in recent years, Howell said. That helped drive his assessment from $48,500 to $182,000, despite the water damage cross-hatching his ceilings and the drawerless cabinets gaping from a tiny kitchen.
At a fall meeting of the Oxford Square Block Club, neighbors recounted similar bombshells before voting to join a citywide coalition against tax-based displacement. One resident voiced skepticism that anything could be done: “That's what the houses are going for now,” he said.
"Real estate in our city has changed drastically in the past few years, and for some homes, assessments have tripled or even quadrupled," said Sarah Wooton, a policy analyst at the Partnership for the Public Good and an organizer with the Buffalo Property Tax Coalition. "This is great news if you’re an investor, but it’s disastrous for low-income homeowners. They’re not going to be able to pay this tax increase, and they’re going to be forced to either sell their homes or face foreclosure."
For some families, Wooton added, the line between solvency and tax delinquency is thin. It’s not unusual for low-income families to default over mortgage increases as small as $40 per month, said Colden Ray, the housing programs manager at Belmont Housing Resources.
Tax-delinquent homeowners also lose eligibility for weatherization and emergency repair programs, said Stephanie Simeon, whose Heart of the City Neighborhoods fixes leaky roofs and other hazardous conditions for homeowners who can’t afford to repair them.
“I don’t think [the reassessment] is some horrible thing,” Simeon said. “At the same time, we don’t want to force people in financially vulnerable situations to choose between paying the electric bill, buying groceries or paying their taxes so they can fix a roof with a leak in it.”
And yet, in fast-appreciating houses across the city, homeowners say they now face exactly those kinds of decisions – even before they receive their exact tax bills, which will vary according to the impact of successful appeals and the amount of this year’s levy.
With estimated months to live, Howell has cut back on dinners out with his wife and jazz concerts at Pausa Art House with friends. Luciano, from the Lower West Side, makes extra money on Airbnb, renting a second-floor unit to tourists.
On Johnson Parkway, just west of downtown, 66-year-old Marilyn Rodgers said she’ll sell her TV to pay her tax bill. The assessment on her house, which she and her ex-partner bought in the '90s, more than doubled to $150,000, even after she challenged it.
Three miles north, near SUNY Buffalo State, 58-year-old Lucy Velez dipped into her burial savings to cover her new mortgage payments. Her home, purchased two decades ago for $29,000, is assessed at $162,000 now.
“Everything in my community has been gentrified,” Velez said. “They’re beautiful people, very helpful to me, and I appreciate them. … But a lot of people are being priced out because of it.”
Low-income renters will also likely face new expenses. City records show average assessments rose even more on apartment buildings than on one- and two-family homes.
The federal housing choice voucher, or Section 8, program sets strict limits for the maximum rents it will cover. That could force some Section 8 landlords out of the program and push some voucher-holders into new neighborhoods or out into the suburbs, said Ray, the housing programs manager at Belmont.
One 2016 study, which examined 22 years of national population data, concluded that property tax pressure in gentrifying neighborhoods was far more likely to displace tenants than homeowners.
“This is the difference between people being able to live in the City of Buffalo and not being able to live in it,” said John Washington, the housing justice organizer for neighborhood group PUSH Buffalo, whose Plymouth Avenue offices themselves more than doubled in value.
“It will change the face of the entire city,” he added.
An inadequate fix
Such pronouncements have grown familiar to city officials, who expected public blowback to the revaluation project almost from its start. In a June 2017 Common Council committee meeting, members debated the public outreach plan for the project, wary that some residents would be, as Council Member David Rivera put it, "yelling and screaming and calling my office."
Voters almost never like reassessments, though they're intended to keep taxes fair, said Larry Clark, the director of strategic initiatives at the International Association of Assessing Officers, an industry group. Public polling consistently ranks property taxes among the least popular levies, which explains in part why politicians avoid conducting reassessments on regular cycles.
But in a city wracked with venomous debates over the rhetoric of “renaissance” and “resurgence,” the assessments have also become a proxy for gentrification. Community meetings about the process often spiral into criticism of new development and generous commercial tax-break programs.
At one community forum held last fall, protesters in the Central Library chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” as residents filtered out of a second-floor meeting room. Weeks later, a Common Council hearing on revaluation devolved into shouting after then-Council Member Richard Fontana instructed a young woman who cursed about the income gap not to swear in Council chambers.
To Howell, who also attended that meeting, such arguments make sense: Once a member of “the gentry,” he jokes, the Oxford Avenue homeowner feels he’s now been gentrified, himself. Dressed in a black windbreaker and his usual thick-framed glasses, he sat in the front row at the October Council hearing and read a brief personal statement about his finances and health.
“We intended for this house to be where we will live until we die,” he told the Council. “We have no other assets.”
When he finished, the chambers ticked with the sound of fellow attendees snapping in unison.
But only five of the Council’s nine members attended that hearing, and of those, only three stayed to the end. Fontana’s parting words to Howell – “Thank you John, and God bless you” – were the last he ever heard from City Hall, despite repeat messages and appeals to other officials, he said.
The next week, Buffalo’s Common Council passed a property tax exemption that froze assessments for roughly 350 longtime, low-income senior residents living in a handful of low-income neighborhoods. But the strict eligibility rules for the exemption – 25 years of ownership, 65 years of age or older, residency in one of seven census tracts – excluded thousands of at-risk homeowners, said Wooton and Washington.
Howell does not qualify, for instance: He and his wife fall short of the residency threshold and live outside the designated neighborhoods.
Neither do Luciano and Velez, who are narrowly too young; nor Marilyn Rodgers, whose home was held in her ex-wife’s name before New York recognized same-sex marriage. Ray, of Belmont Housing Services, said it’s also “common” for low-income homeowners to fail to transfer deeds when a home passes from parent to child or between spouses.
“There’s a lot of people out there like me,” Rodgers said. “A lot of people … they came out with this thing, freezing assessments – that’s all well and good until reality throws a monkey wrench in it.”
In both public appearances and repeat interviews with The Buffalo News over the course of more than six months, city officials on the Common Council and in City Hall expressed concern for residents in appreciating neighborhoods. On Oct. 15, the same day it approved the senior exemption, the Common Council also voted to request state permission to expand the provision across Buffalo. Since then, however, no one at City Hall or in the city's state assembly delegation has drafted the enabling legislation needed to move the expansion forward, said two advocates and one assembly staffer.
City officials also encouraged low- and fixed-income homeowners to appeal their assessments through a new system called “informal review.” In the brief, one-on-one meetings, homeowners met with assessors directly to argue down their home value.
But even after informal review meetings, many homeowners say assessors still overvalued their homes. For many of those people, said PUSH’s Washington, his group can do little but refer them to homeownership counseling and foreclosure-avoidance programs.
By comparison, advocates say, Philadelphia freezes assessments for even middle-class homeowners who see sharp increases in value, and Boston lets many residents defer property taxes until they die or their homes sell.
“We’re not asking for no one under a certain financial level to never pay taxes – that's stupid,” said Christiana Limniatis, a vice president of the Allentown Association and organizer with the Property Tax Coalition. “We're asking for sympathetic ways to tax people who can't afford the world created by the inflated prices in the market.”
Back on Oxford Avenue, Howell still debates whether he and his wife can afford that world. He challenged their assessment, but it didn’t budge. He emailed but heard nothing from their Council member.
Lately his wife, Maria, also doesn’t want to talk about taxes. While Howell has raised the subject with her in recent weeks, she “just feels like she doesn't know what she's going to do … and she doesn’t really want to go there,” he said.
So Howell got their papers together. He updated his will.
And now he waits, should he live to see it, for their next tax bill.