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Burned by the Boom in N.Va. Real Estate

Soaring Property Taxes Overwhelm Habitat for Humanity Homeowners

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page A01

Kesha James still remembers walking through the freshly painted rooms of her Habitat for Humanity house for the first time, making plans for the leather couch she would buy, and the piano and the canopied bed for her three little girls.

Today, the couch is still a dream. The living room is in ruins because of a plumbing leak she can't afford to fix. She took a second job and works seven days a week but is still afraid she might lose her house.

Kesha James, with daughters Khaliah, 7, and Kiara, 1, in her Habitat for Humanity home in Alexandria, works seven days a week to make ends meet. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

Her modest mortgage isn't the problem; it's rising property taxes that keep her up nights. Her little house in Alexandria has more than doubled in value since it was built in 1999 and is now worth a half-million dollars, forcing her monthly house payment, which includes real estate taxes, up from $515 to $954 in the past 18 months -- chiefly because of higher taxes.

"It's not fair. It doesn't make any sense," said James, 29, sitting at her cheerful kitchen table, her youngest daughter curled up in her arms. "Alexandria is my home. . . . I don't want to leave."

Asked when her last day off was, she can't remember.

Rising property values across the region have put the squeeze on taxpayers, but the bite has been especially acute for owners of Habitat for Humanity homes in Northern Virginia. In some areas, their homes have doubled and tripled in value in the past three years.

At least a dozen of the 47 Habitat homeowners in Northern Virginia pay more in property taxes and insurance than they do to pay off their mortgages, according to Karen Cleveland, executive director of the Northern Virginia arm of the housing nonprofit group. It is part of an international group that builds homes with volunteers and sells them to low-income buyers.

"The rising property taxes have truly made it almost impossible for them to stay in their homes," Cleveland said. "We're saying, 'Help us to make it appropriate so our homeowners are paying what is fair for them.' "

Soaring home values are also a growing concern for the owners of 19 Montgomery County Habitat for Humanity homes, most of them in Silver Spring and Rockville, program officials said. Tax caps and a five-year tax abatement program for new Habitat owners in the District have kept costs in the city and the Maryland suburbs from rising as steeply as they have in Virginia.

"We're expecting them to have problems," said Carol Casperson, executive director of D.C. Habitat for Humanity, which has renovated 150 homes and low-income co-ops across the city. She noted that a Habitat house that sold on 54th Street NE for $99,000 in the fall was recently assessed at $186,000.

In recent months, Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia has launched a campaign to persuade localities to provide tax relief for their homeowners. It is arguing that the Habitat homes shouldn't be assessed at market rates because deed restrictions prevent their owners from selling the homes for profit or getting home equity loans until the 20-year mortgages are paid. If Habitat homeowners sell their homes before 20 years are up, they must sell them back to Habitat for the amount they cost -- $80,000 to $120,000 in most cases, Cleveland said, which is the restricted value.

The campaign has had some success in Fairfax County, where assessors granted several appeals last year. They resulted in a reduction of up to a 50 percent in some cases, Cleveland said.

In recent days, Alexandria city employees have begun examining restrictions on the deeds of eight Habitat homes to see whether similar tax relief can be provided, said Cindy Smith-Page, director of the city's real estate assessment office.

But talks with real estate assessors have not yet begun in Arlington County, where owners of eight properties have had values triple in the past three years.

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