In 2021, Joe Minicozzi, principal and founder of local urban planning firm Urban3, noticed a disturbing trend. As he and his peers analyzed Buncombe County’s latest round of property revaluations, they discovered that homes in historically poorer neighborhoods had disproportionate increases in property values compared with properties in richer parts of the city.
Areas such as Burton Street and Shiloh, both of which are well over 40% nonwhite, saw single-family properties valued at significantly higher prices in 2021 than in the prior year — 36.7% and 35% higher, respectively — significantly raising tax burdens on many of Asheville’s poorest homeowners. Many wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, however, saw much less of an increase. Single-family property values in Brucemont, which is adjacent to Burton Street and 89% white, increased by just 16.6%; values in Biltmore Forest, which has a 99% white population and is across Hendersonville Road from Shiloh, increased by only 11.6%.
Many high-priced homes, Minicozzi found, have seen their assessed values fall substantially short of their sale prices. The home of the late Biltmore Farms head, George Cecil, in Biltmore Forest, for example, sold in September 2021 for $9.5 million — a Western North Carolina residential record — but had been assessed at only $4.9 million.
“How could the assessor be 50% off?” Minicozzi asks. “If you scored a 50% on a test, would you be considered succeeding in that class? Of course not. That’s an absolute failure in estimating value.”
Urban3 prepared an extensive report analyzing the trend, evident in many other U.S. cities, and shared its findings with Buncombe Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman. In response, Newman tasked county Tax Assessor Keith Miller with forming an ad hoc committee to provide guidance for future assessments and identify potential equity concerns.
The resulting committee consisted of three real estate professionals (two from one firm, Christie’s Real Estate), city of Asheville Director of Equity and Inclusion Brenda Mills, three at-large community members and Ori Baber, an Urban3 analyst. The group recently concluded its work, having met 14 times since November 2021, and as of press time was scheduled to present its recommendations to the Board of Commissioners Tuesday, July 19.
According to Miller, the county’s assessment numbers for each property are generated via a formula that considers each structure’s type, market data and sales figures. The resulting values, he asserts, are simply reflections of market forces that exist outside of the control of the assessor’s office. He denies any suggestion that his office engages in any intentional over- or under-assessing of properties.
“Our appraisers have no idea who lives in these houses. We don’t know their skin color, their ethics; we know nothing. We know the property characteristics and what the sales numbers are,” he says.
Time is also a factor. Miller says that the county’s property assessments are really only accurate on the day they are generated. As time passes and property values increase or decrease, they can drift away from the number generated when the assessment was made.
“We just interpret what the buyers and sellers are doing,” Miller says. “In the areas that show larger growth, the numbers show what people are paying for properties. That’s just what the market is.”
“There is no proof of inequities,” Miller continues, when asked about what looks to be trends specific to certain areas of the city. “No one, Urban3 or [county consultant] Syneva, has said there is clear evidence of bias toward different types of neighborhoods. These properties that were overvalued and under-assessed, if you look at the map, they are scattered all over the county.”
But Baber claims Urban3 would have presented evidence of neighborhood-level inequities if given the opportunity. He says County Manager Avril Pinder constrained the length and content of the material Minicozzi was allowed to present to the committee.
“If you are white, you are eight times more likely to get an assessment discount of value than if you are Black — period,” adds Minicozzi, referring to tax values that fall underneath sale prices. “That is a textbook definition of bias.”
In keeping with Miller’s view, the ad hoc committee’s recommendations do not include any changes specifically addressing racial or economic inequities. Instead, suggestions include expanding access to the valuation appeals process, changing assessments for properties used as short-term rentals, boosting staff levels in Miller’s office and increasing levels of compliance around reporting property improvements.
Discussions during the final meetings of the committee, however, suggest disagreements around equity issues. Members considered two “ratio studies,” reports that evaluated discrepancies between a property’s assessed value and its eventual sale price.
The first, conducted by Urban3, found that the county’s most expensive homes had been assessed at about 78.3% of their sale price on average, while the least expensive homes were assessed at about 84.5% of their price — a difference of more than 6 percentage points. The second, commissioned by the county from consulting firm Syneva Economics, found virtually no difference in assessment between homes of different prices.
Baber of Urban3 argues that the Syneva study is off-target. He says that report used data that had been adjusted through “sales chasing,” in which assessments for houses that have recently sold are revised using data from those sales. Those sales only covered 2% of all Buncombe properties, he continued, meaning Syneva’s model wouldn’t be accurate for the remaining 98% of homes.
Conversely, it’s the Urban3 model that Miller feels is misleading. “It uses old sales data and old assessment data, which you cannot do,” he says. “If you compared a sale today back to when it was assessed, it’s going to look like the property was under-assessed. The values will sometimes look like inequities are there when they may not be. The market may just be responding differently to different areas of the county.”
Many Asheville homeowners of color are feeling the brunt of the property tax increases and are struggling to process these opposing views. Kristyn Harris is the fundraising coordinator for the Racial Justice Coalition, which she says has been following the ad hoc committee’s work.
“It was clear last year that Black homeowners were going to pay way more than their fair share and that this was going to make Buncombe County even less affordable for our dwindling Black population. We thought the property tax appraisal should have been scrapped and done again, this time with a racial equity lens,” Harris says.
“Buncombe County staff completely ignored the data that Urban3 had discovered and instead presented another analysis, one that was not conducted according to industry standards, which effectively whitewashed the property tax inequity problem and declared, in essence, that there was no problem,” she continues.
Eric Cregger, county tax systems analyst, wrote in a communication to the committee prior to their June 1 meeting that the assessor’s office’s procedures had been reviewed by state officials and industry professionals and were determined to be sound.
According to Newman, multiple perspectives may be considered when Commissioners get their turn to weigh in. “I’m aware that Syneva Group and Urban3 did not reach identical conclusions in their analysis,” Newman said. “I expect the board will want to hear about the different analytical approaches taken by the different groups to understand what can be learned from each of the different analysis that has been undertaken.”
Closer to equity?
For Harris, the committee’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, but much work remains to be done.
“The biggest concern that we have is that they don’t fully address the root cause and harm done to the Black community,” says Harris. “Because of the information provided to the committee, and the information withheld, it’s no surprise that their proposed solutions won’t really address the core issues. Moving forward, we wonder how the county can be intentional about providing real solutions to a problem they don’t fully understand.”
Miller acknowledges that Buncombe has failed to capture the full value of property in the county. In a sample of about 2,000 home sales from 2021, for example, assessed values fell roughly $96 million short of actual sale value. Asked why this was the case, he points to unreported improvements that had increased their value; he says the county’s valuation formula is sound and that the responsibility to record improvements falls on homeowners, not the assessor’s office.
But to Baber, that difference in value points to a need for bigger changes in the county’s approach. “This means that in 2020, and perhaps many years prior, these homeowners have been receiving a significant tax break,” he says. “If this trend holds up across the entire housing stock, there could be billions of untaxed value in the county. This untaxed value mostly exists in more expensive homes, so rich homeowners are benefitting from this flaw in the assessment system.”
Next, county commissioners will hear the report and have the opportunity to ask Miller about the ad hoc committee’s recommendations. While differences of opinion persist among Miller, Urban3 and others about how to best interpret the data and move forward, Miller suggests solutions to improving the process may best come from outside of his office.
“I understand the concern from property owners,” Miller said. “I don’t offer a solution. Every county in North Carolina lives by the same statutes. There hasn’t been a solution created for it yet. Will there be? I don’t know.”
Edited at 1:09 p.m. Aug. 2 to correct quote attribution for Kristyn Harris of the Racial Justice Coalition