A national reckoning with racism, combined with the economic damage wrought by the pandemic, is prompting some state and local officials to take a closer look at an issue that has long bedeviled Black homeowners: inflated property tax assessments.
For decades, white tax assessors placed a heavier tax burden on Black residents by intentionally overvaluing their property. In the Jim Crow South, officials used property taxes to punish Black homeowners and churches that boycotted white businesses or hosted civil rights meetings.
Several recent studies and investigations show that, racially motivated or not, many tax assessors still routinely saddle Black and minority residents with property tax bills that are too high given the value of their homes.
With millions out of work and the economy sputtering, some cities and states have approved temporary property tax breaks to help people avoid tax delinquencies and foreclosures. Others, prompted by the recent protests, are taking a deeper look at the racial inequities baked into system.
"People are starting to think about this," said Paul Bidanset, project manager at the International Association of Assessing Officers, a professional organization that develops guidelines used around the world. "Assessors have tools to measure any inequities in their assessment and correct them."
Many historians and housing experts say the conversation is long overdue.
"We've seen these moments of crisis bring structural changes," Andrew Kahrl, associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, said in a phone interview. "What those will be, who knows?
"These are forms of structural racism that are very invisible," he said. "It's subtle. It's insidious and happens in ways the victims themselves aren't aware of."
Because property taxes are assessed locally, Kahrl said, there hasn't been a national movement for change. And the job of demystifying the opaque assessment process usually falls to city auditors and local reporters.
Furthermore, any effort to lighten the property tax burden on minority homeowners might run into resistance from local officials desperate to recoup tax revenue vaporized by the downturn.