Hudson Vaughan was surprised when he got his tax revaluation earlier this spring. 

His home, located in Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood, was valued higher than it had been for the previous four years. In turn, his property taxes went up about 35 percent. He didn’t think much of it until he spoke to a former coworker, Kathy Atwater, a community advocacy specialist at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center.

“I was talking to Miss Kathy, who works with a lot of older, longer-term homeowners, and she was saying that there had been tons of calls about how much some had [risen],” Vaughan says.

Property owners in Northside and Pine Knolls in Chapel Hill, Tin Top in Carrboro, and the rural parts of northern Orange County also saw tax hikes. The Jackson Center, which advocates on behalf of historically Black neighborhoods, says that the property owners they spoke with will pay 53 percent more on average in property taxes due to the revaluations.

The Jackson Center is appealing the revaluations of 144 properties in the Northside neighborhood alone through an informal process, according to executive director George Barrett. Eighty-four of the properties they claim are overvalued are owned by long-term residents, while 32 are undervalued. Most of the undervalued properties are duplexes or homes with more than three bedrooms that are rented out to students.

North Carolina’s tax laws dictate that homes being revalued must be compared to homes that sold recently in the same neighborhood. Northside neighbors say the majority of those homes were newer, bigger houses that were being rented to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students, while their homes are smaller and older. They also mentioned that these newer homes, which are mostly duplexes, are no longer allowed to be built in the neighborhood.

Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment Inc., which focuses on affordable living options in the area, says she will owe $3,000 in property taxes; her 1,300-square-foot home on 0.13 acres of land in the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill was assessed at around $300,000. Meanwhile, a nearby duplex that sold in 2019 for $750,000—a newer home with over twice the livable square footage—is paying taxes as if it’s worth only $535,700. These two were considered comparable homes in the tax assessment.

“What you have are older residents living in these homes that haven’t changed in the last 10 years, whose land value is going up based on these mega-mansions that are being built, and the fact that we were so close to Franklin and Rosemary Street,” Bailey says.

When leaders from the Jackson Center, EmPOWERment, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP contacted the county’s tax office, they were told that the assessors followed the same laws they’re bound to by the state. If the owners believe they’re being overtaxed, it’s on them to point it out.

Informal appeals are handled by the staff and were due to the county tax administration on April 30. Formal appeals, which have to be done in a presentation in front of the Orange County Board of Equalization and Review, can be filed until June 30. Advocates point out that either way, an appeals process still requires individual homeowners to correct a systemic issue, and they have to act fast to get the easiest possible process.

“We have around 40 volunteers who are trying to mobilize and connect with neighbors to do these appeals,” Barrett says. “That is a massive amount of energy and labor in a tight amount of time [to try] to get something in, and that is clearly inequitable.”

Christopher McLaughlin, a professor at UNC School of Government, says one solution would be to hire more assessors so that the neighborhoods could be divided into smaller home groupings. The issue, then, is county resources.

“I’m not blaming the tax office because part of it is they’re given the budget to conduct every appraisal,” McLaughlin says. “It may be that the county itself has to say, ‘We’re willing to spend more money on this. We’re going to need more staff to make sure we increase the accuracy because we’re worried about making sure we get this right and making sure there’s not inequity across the board.’”

Orange County has some of the highest property taxes in the state due to its lopsided ratio of residential to commercial properties. The county’s tax rate is 86.79 cents per $100 in assessed property value compared to a statewide average of 68 cents. This rate doesn’t include Chapel Hill or Carrboro property taxes, or the additional property tax for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. The high property taxes are something that could be mitigated by development that would bring in commercial taxes, but that solution would take years, says Todd McGee, an Orange County spokesman.

For folks living in these neighborhoods, waiting years for more development and better jobs is a gamble.

“This is like a textbook example of how process is biased,” Barrett says. “Process does have bias in how it affects individuals, and if we just rely on process and go with that process, we’re actually not doing anything to take away inequities.” 

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