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Residents say population surge is pricing Austinites out of their homes

Thursday, May 22, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

A number of Austin homeowners aired their frustrations with rising residential tax appraisals at a community forum Tuesday. The forum was hosted by the Brentwood Neighborhood Association, the First Universalist Social Action Committee and Brigid Shea, the Democratic nominee for Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner.

About 300 people attended the forum, and homeowners lined up to speak, saying rapid population growth in Austin is causing property values to rise, raising taxes and forcing longtime residents out of their homes.

One homeowner said his land value has more than tripled since 2008. Another homeowner said he purchased his property in October, and the appraised value is now higher than the purchase price.

Marya Crigler, chief appraiser for Travis Central Appraisal District, said a property appraisal can go up by 10 percent every year, and the percentage can only be lowered by the state legislature.

Crigler said 110 people move to Austin every day causing land values to skyrocket, especially in East Austin.

“There’s not enough supply to meet the demand,” she said. “The Austin market is really, really strong.”

Bruce Elfant, Travis County Tax Assessor Collector, said, “Appraisals are only part of the equation.” He said the tax rate could also be lowered legislatively if more homeowners showed up to the polls.

“Texas has the lowest voter turnout in the country,” he said. “You’ve got to vote.”

Elfant said tax exemptions are very common and proposed lawmakers reconsider tax exemptions for certain organizations. He also noted many large properties in Austin aren’t on the tax rolls, such the State Capitol complex, the University of Texas, the Federal Building and most churches.

Shea, who moderated the event, said commercial properties often sue the county to keep their taxes low, leaving residential homeowners to make up for lost funding. She said homeowners need to call their lawmakers and petition residents in other parts of the state to do the same.

“I don’t think they have felt the heat on this at all,” she said of the Texas Legislature. “We have the numbers to elect better people. So get out and vote.”

Mustafa Tameez of Real Values for Texas, a statewide campaign that aims to reform the state’s property tax system, said in the last decade homeowners have become the source of 50 percent of the state’s revenue, but public services have not improved.

“We’re actually paying more of the burden and getting a lot less,” he said.

He said commercial properties in Texas pay an average of 60 percent of the real market value of their property. A large company can afford to hire a lawyer and sue the county until it agrees to lower the company’s tax appraisal, he said.

Tameez said in April, the Hyatt Place Austin Downtown sold for more than $80 million, but its appraised value is only $39 million.

Crigler said in her district, 90 percent of commercial values are protested every year. Only 26 percent of residential values are protested, she said.

“In the last several years, it’s cost us $4 billion,” Tameez said.

Homeowners must petition the legislature to change the law so commercial properties are forced to pay their fair share, Tameez said.

“In order to get justice, you have to organize,” he said. “The solution will require all of us.”

In 2011, more than 150 Texas school districts filed a lawsuit against the state, accusing lawmakers of perpetuating an unfair school funding system after the legislature cut public school spending by more than $4 billion to close a gap in the state’s budget.

Tameez said the state will get money for the schools districts from somewhere, and it will likely look to homeowners unless they fight back.

“Either you’re at the table, or you’re on the menu,” he said.

Shea said State Sen. Kirk Watson was unable to attend the meeting, but that he plans to take the legislative lead on an initiative to force commercial properties to pay more in property taxes when the next legislative session begins in 2015.

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