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  • Writer's pictureRyan Zickgraf

The great divide

The county’s property tax system exacerbates inequality between the northern and southern parts of Fulton County—and between Atlanta’s richest and poorest homeowners

 
Illustration: Khoa Tran

A decade ago, Ed Hall’s property taxes were the equivalent of lunch for two at McDonald’s. For much of the 2010s, the annual bill for his three-bedroom brick bungalow in southwest Atlanta was around $20, he said. That changed when the Atlanta BeltLine popped up a few blocks away. The 22-mile loop of multiuse trails and adjacent projects—like nearby Lee + White, a sprawling redevelopment with breweries, restaurants, and shops—triggered real estate speculation that is driving up housing costs. “It used to be like a deserted village here, but it’s very different now,” said Hall. “It’s heavily gentrified.”


That has come with a price tag. His property taxes doubled from 2021 to 2022, to slightly below $2,000. Hall, a writer and editor, enrolled in the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s Legacy Resident Retention Program, which helps low-income homeowners cover the costs of property tax increases through 2030. Without the partnership’s help, he might not have been able to keep living in his home. “It would be completely untenable for me to stay here,” Hall said. “An extra two grand a year for someone whose work can be unpredictable is a strain.”


Over the last decade, a wave of new development and what’s been described as a real estate gold rush have caused a massive spike in many Atlantans’ tax bills, especially for those living near the BeltLine. Property owners can try and push back on big tax increases by filing an appeal with Fulton County. One avenue for appeal is to have a hearing on a property’s assessed value before a board of equalization, which is a panel of citizen property owners. Regardless of the appeal’s outcome, the property’s assessment value is frozen for two years. 


Credit: Nicholas Polimeni, the Urban Research Group

Many residents living on the south end of Atlanta and the bottom half of Fulton County, including Hall, have never appealed a property tax assessment notice. This situation is different for downtown Atlanta and North Fulton, however, according to an analysis by the Urban Research Group at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, which studied Fulton County tax records from 2011 to 2022. Homeowners living in areas like Sandy Springs and Alpharetta filed more appeals and were more likely to win some tax relief. Last month, Nicholas Polimeni of the Urban Research Group published a report on the tax data that maps out Fulton County’s geographic appeals divide: Downtown Atlanta, Midtown, and Buckhead, which have the highest property values in Fulton County, also have the highest concentrations of serial appeal filers. In south and southwest Fulton cities, such as South Fulton and Palmetto—which have significant Black and lower-income populations—property owners file appeals less often, if at all. 


Since there is no limit on filing appeals, the process can be exploited by serial filers, Polimeni said. The Georgia Tech data show that properties with six or more appeals filed over the 11-year tax period are concentrated in the higher-value areas of Midtown, Buckhead, and North Fulton. Polimeni wrote in the report that “serial appealers may burden the county’s resources and ability to fairly consider other appeals.” 


Credit: Nicholas Polimeni, the Urban Research Group

Overall, the data suggest that the current property tax system exacerbates inequality between Atlanta’s richest and poorest homeowners. “There is already an existing geographic disparity between south and north [in Fulton County],” said Georgia Tech assistant professor Brian An, a researcher with the Urban Research Group. “Because people aren’t appealing as much in the south, I think there’s a possibility that it’s affecting income [inequality] in the city.”


A “regressive tax”

Property taxes are regressive taxes because the lowest-income taxpayers pay at higher rates, relative to their income, than wealthier taxpayers, said Michael Davis, the deputy executive director for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. “It’s part of the generational wealth gap that people of color experience,” he said. Georgia’s property tax appeals process and homestead exemption (which reduces property taxes for a property owner’s primary residence) were supposed to help even the score, but critics say that’s not how it worked out. The higher-income strata of Atlanta and North Fulton property owners appeal more often—and they also have access to lawyers, appraisers, and other resources that enable them to win more of their appeal cases.


Some Fulton County officials acknowledge this: “This is probably not surprising, but we have found that the more valuable a property is, the more successful they are in having their value of that property reduced in an appeal,” said Fulton spokesperson Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez.


That’s if appeals occur at all. 


“This is probably not surprising, but we have found that the more valuable a property is, the more successful they are in having their value of that property reduced in an appeal.” — Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez, Fulton spokesperson

John Sherwood, an Adair Park resident whose back deck overlooks the BeltLine’s Southside Trail, saw his property taxes skyrocket from $300 in 2021 to about $3,000 in 2022. But, he says, he missed the appeal deadline. Fulton property owners have 45 days to file an appeal after receiving their annual property value assessment notice.


Sherwood, a retiree, says he could afford the jump for now, although he will soon live on a fixed income. He’s more worried about some of his neighbors—who may not even be aware that they can appeal a big jump in their property’s valuation. “I worry especially about seniors, especially widows, who may need help thinking through the appeal process,” Sherwood said.


Fulton County Chief Appraiser Roderick Conley partially blames the education gap for the geographic divide in property tax appeals. “It’s got to start with education. The process is not well understood,” he said. “It’s why we stay very active in trying to educate taxpayers on their rights and the benefits of appeals.”


Credit: Nicholas Polimeni, the Urban Research Group

Fulton County sends each property owner a pamphlet along with their tax bill that shows the millage rates for the county and each city within the county. It also tells property owners that they may qualify for a homestead exemption discount on their property valuation and how the appeals process works. 


But it’s unclear what effect Fulton County’s education efforts have had. 


The Legacy Resident Retention Program was launched in October 2020 to help longtime homeowners pay their property taxes in neighborhoods where the risk of displacement was greatest. But Davis, of the BeltLine Partnership, said it was challenging to get the word out, especially during the pandemic. “You’ve got a huge digital equity issue that we don’t have in some other areas. Some seniors do not have email or internet, so we had to reinvent the program,” he said. 


“You’ve got a huge digital equity issue that we don’t have in some other areas. Some seniors do not have email or internet, so we had to reinvent the program.” — Michael Davis, deputy executive director for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership

Eventually, Davis and some volunteers went door-to-door to let people know about the opportunity to apply for property tax relief from the nonprofit—but even that wasn’t easy. Many residents were being hounded by political campaigners and real estate investors offering cash for their homes, which made them wary of talking to strangers about their home valuations, he said. I realized I didn’t understand that these communities have trust issues and authenticity issues as well.”


Is reform coming?

Some local officials say the tax appeal problem is on their radar and they’re working to address it. Fulton is among the counties that pushed for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia to add reforming county property assessments and appeals to its 2024 statewide legislative agenda


In the current legislative session, changes to state law are focused on capping the rate of annual property tax increases and boosting how much can be deducted from a property assessment under the homestead exemption. 


A crucial Georgia Senate committee plans to endorse legislation imposing a cap of 3 percent per year on home assessments. This development follows a bill unveiled by House Speaker Jon Burns (R-Newington) that’s aimed at doubling the state homestead exemption from $2,000 per year to $4,000. That extra $2,000 deduction from the assessed property value is projected to result in a potential annual reduction of $100 million for Georgians’ property taxes.


“We need to be careful,” said Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) during a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing. “Some of these people can’t stay in their houses because of the taxes.”


 

More info on reducing your Fulton County property tax assessment: 

  • Here’s a quick explainer video from Fulton County about how property assessments work. A property’s assessed value is 40 percent of its fair market value. That figure is then multiplied by the millage, or tax rate, for the county, school system, and city.

  • You have 45 days from the date on your property assessment notice to file an appeal, which you can submit through the county website, by mail, or in person. Here are instructions from Fulton County and here’s a video from the BeltLine Partnership on how to appeal your tax assessment. 

  • Here is a guide to homestead exemption deductions available in Fulton County, including for people over the age of 62 with income below certain thresholds as well as disabled veterans.

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