BY JOE MINICOZZI
This election, Buncombe County is asking us to take out a pair of bonds to pay for affordable housing and open spaces. These are two issues that I deeply support and are laudable goals for every community, especially our community. They match my and our community values, but I’m asking you to vote no.
The simple reason we shouldn’t give county officials an additional $70 million is that they could already have those funds. Instead, they have chosen to subsidize our wealthiest households with property tax discounts.
Our wealthiest households are not paying their fair share now, and these bonds will simply add to the inequity, asking disproportionately assessed lower-income households to continue to shoulder more than their fair share of the burden. Simply put, poor folks are being assessed higher than rich folks, which means they pay a greater share of taxes. The bonds will be paid by property taxes, which means that the poor folks will be shouldering more than rich folks.
Subsidizing the wealthy
My company, Urban3, has done the math. Our analysis shows the county receives at least $1 million per year in taxes from poorer households whose properties are overassessed and loses $5.9 million per year from uncollected taxes due to underassessed luxury properties. This equals a $6.9 million subsidy to the wealthiest people in Buncombe County because of how our assessment process works.
We presented this math in 2021 and asked the county to stop the reassessment and make it more equitable. They chose to continue with the assessment, which means that this abuse will happen every year until the system is corrected. The county seems unwilling to reassess, which means that our next option to be fairer and more equitable will be 2025.
That means the four years of giving nearly $7 million in subsidies to the rich will swell to $27.6 million by then. The $300,000 homeowner grant program that the county offers comes nowhere near solving this problem.
Additionally, the county has admitted that it is not enforcing several state laws that, their own evidence shows, provided an additional subsidy to the wealthy of over $4.4 million in uncollected “property discovery” taxes. This was discovered from just 2% of the housing stock in 2021. These are no small errors. It is conservative to assume that there may be 25 times that amount in the remaining 98% of the housing stock, equal to another $110 million in tax subsidy. These subsidies mean the county is forgoing funds the community is owed that could be funding our urgent needs — such as affordable housing or open spaces.
$27.6 million in annualized subsidy to wealthy households
+ $110 million in missing “discovered” property taxes
– $1.2 million in rebates to low-wealth households
= $136.4 million in subsidies for the homeowners who need it the least.
Buncombe County is asking voters for another $70 million to do the right thing — yet they are investing $136 million in the wrong thing? Rather than throw more money at a problem, we should stop the rich folks’ subsidy. If we did, we’d have $70 million for open space and affordable housing, as well as $66 million left over for unfunded school programs, homelessness, opioid addiction treatment, better transit and more staff to properly assess properties, among other critical needs.
Talk is cheap
There is a lot of talk about equity and systemic racism, but talk is cheap. People of color in our community are more likely to be poorer, and our system works to perpetuate this. White property owners are eight times more likely to receive a property tax subsidy, a textbook example of systemic bias.
We have presented our findings to the majority of our county commissioners as well as county staff. The result has been token gestures, empathetic statements and empty promises. The commissioners created an ad hoc committee to study inequity but then chose to do … nothing. The commissioners even asked representatives from this ad hoc committee how they addressed equity issues, and the response was an awkward nothing burger.
We need affordable housing. We need to add to our open space infrastructure. We need to start following state laws and our state constitution with regard to the way property is taxed, and we need to do it fairly and across the board. We need to live up to the promise of equity in our community. We need to stop shorting our community to benefit our wealthiest members. We need to stop this “wealth fare” now.
Advocates of affordable housing and open spaces have asked me not to speak out against these bond referendums. The truth is that we wouldn’t need the bonds if we simply collected the taxes we are owed by law and by fairness. Asking the entire community to pay more and continue to let a small percentage pay less makes no sense. Putting another burden on those least able to afford it so that those most able to afford it can continue to receive a subsidy is simply wrong.
I do value open space, as well as affordable housing. I also value fair taxation and good government overall. If our government isn’t willing to ensure fairness and be accountable, then I can’t support throwing $70 million more at a problem when this same government cannot fix a $136 million failure of equity.
Let’s move the leadership beyond lip service and keep their hands out of our pockets until they stop subsidizing the rich. Please vote against the bonds and hold our leaders accountable.
Joe Minicozzi is the founder and principal of Urban3 and the former executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association.