Politics & Government

In affordable housing crisis, these Charlotte residents may get help with their taxes

Charlotte may launch a pilot program called "Aging in Place" to help low-income seniors in gentrifying neighborhoods like Biddleville and Smallwood near uptown.
Charlotte may launch a pilot program called "Aging in Place" to help low-income seniors in gentrifying neighborhoods like Biddleville and Smallwood near uptown. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

As Charlotte scrambles to build more affordable housing, the focus has been almost exclusively on people whose rents are rising, pushing them from apartment complexes where they may have lived for years.

But with Mecklenburg County's property tax revaluation looming, some longtime homeowners are worried they could be burdened with higher property tax bills, putting pressure on them to sell.

The city will likely launch a $500,000 pilot program later this year called "Aging in Place." If council members approve City Manager Marcus Jones's proposed budget next week, the city would use the money to help low-income seniors pay what are likely to be higher property tax bills, at least in some gentrifying neighborhoods.

"We have all these in-town neighborhoods that have grown so much and values have risen," said City Council member Justin Harlow, who pushed for the program. "I would say that's a good thing. Gentrification gets a bad rap, but it brings economic growth, it brings higher values. But a lot of seniors are on fixed incomes, and they may get a large tax bill in January."

Harlow said the city focuses so much on building new apartments that longtime homeowners are the "forgotten people."

Mecklenburg County is finishing its property revaluation, and new tax assessments will be mailed in January. Property values are expected to rise across the city, but especially in neighborhoods near uptown, where affluent residents have bought older homes, either to renovate them or demolish them with something new.

A higher property value does not necessarily mean a higher tax bill, which will be due in January 2020. The city and county are expected to lower their tax rates next year to bring them in line with the new home values.

But if residential property values rise by 20 percent, and some neighborhoods increase by 40 percent, those homeowners are almost certainly going to have a higher tax bill.

Leonard Jones, 56, lives with his sister on Gregg Street in Smallwood, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood near Johnson C. Smith University. He said his sister is worried about her tax bill.

"We all worry about it," he said. "We are near the center city. We see what's happening. (Wealthy people) want us out. It ain't right."

Mecklenburg County has similar tax-relief programs in place for seniors 65 and older, which are limited to people earning $29,500 or less.

The city program would expand that. It would also be for seniors, and would expand the income range from $29,500 to $45,000. It would be for people who own their own homes, and it would pay the difference between the old tax bill and the new tax bill, up to $1,000.

Pam Wideman, the city's director of Neighborhood and Business Services, said the city wants people to "age in place." She said studies have shown that's usually the best thing for seniors.

Harlow said the program would have another benefit: Helping longtime homeowners accumulate wealth.

He said if the program can help someone stay in their home another five or 10 years, that could mean their house appreciates more, creating tens of thousands of dollars of wealth that can be passed to heirs. Harlow called it helping people "wealth build."

He said he expects the city to spend between $300 and $400 per qualified senior.

He said there could be more people apply for the tax relief that the city can help with the $500,000. He said it could take as much as $2 million to help everyone who applies.

Jones has recommended the city ask voters to approve a $50 million housing bond in November, instead of the usual $15 million bond. Most of that money would be spent on building new housing.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs