A young attorney renovating a once-rundown three-story brick home in Mount Pleasant was notified this month by the city government that the value of his newly acquired property had risen from $17,500 to $57,500 in the past two years - a 229 per cent increase.
Across the street, Annie Berry, a domestic and her husband, Robert, a retired city dog pound employee, live in a modest two-story brick home where they have made no major improvements in the 13 years they have owned it. Their property assessment also jumped - from $17,980 to $31,000, a 72 per cent rise in two years.
What is happening on this Mount Pleasant street dramatically mirrors what is occurring throughout the city soaring real estate values - and the companion effect of soaring property taxes - have been triggered by renewed demand for city living by exurbanites and other affluent home seekers.
The phenomenon is felt especially by longtime homeowners on fixed or limited incomes like the Berrys who have no desire to leave to sell their properties but must bear the burden of increased taxes generated by the bullish housing market around them.
Thousands of such homeowners were jolted this month when they received new property assessment notices increasing their home values and taxes - another 26 to 83 per cent above the level two years ago.
Reaction has ranged from outrage to bitter resignation.
The high assessments "reflect the desire to won a home in this area," Donald R. Beach, chief of the city's property tax assessors, told a belligerent overflow crowd at last week's meetingof the Shepherd Park Brightwood Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The neighborhoods have received some of the highest assessment notices in the city and the meeting was called to discuss property values.
"The assessor doesn't make the market values - the people who buy and sell establish the market values," Beach told the audience.
Property owners in Mount Pleasant, Shepherd Park and Brightwood are among 61,000 property owners in the city who were notified of increase assessments this month by the city government. The city's remaining 70,000 owners were reassessed last year.
Although the average increase across the city for homes this year was 42 per cent, the average jump in Mount Pleasant was 83 per cent. The Shepherd Park average was 55 per cent and Brightwood was 44 per cent.
The lowest average increase was 26 per cent for the Lilly Ponds area, a small community in Far Northeast that is dotted with public housing projects.
Widespread renovation of homes in Mount Pleasant has caused assessments to soar for all properties in that community, Beach explained to the Shepherd Park audience.
"These neighborhoods are changing. There is a demand for housing in that neighborhood whether the house is renovated or unrenovated," Beach said. "The area is becoming more desirable."
A neighbor of Annie Berry, King S. Murray, whose assessment rose 52.9 per cent, blames the increase, not on neighborhood renovations, but on what he called "greedy politicians" interested only in increasing the perquisites of their office at taxpayers' expense.
It will do no good to fight the increased assessments, Murray said, "because regardless of what we say or do as a group or as individuals, they are going ahead with this as they wish."
"I think it's rotten," he said. "I think waste has taken place (in the District government).There are elaborate offices and the use of government cars (by officials) that so many other things have gone lacking."
Jean Nowak of Georgetown had another view. She received a 31 per cent increase in her assessment two years ago and this month the value on her two-bedroom house went up another 61 per cent.
"Nobody is aware of anybody looking at these houses. It just seems arbitrary and randomly picking of a figure," she said. "They have not been in people's houses."
Beach is aware that to most citizens it is an unsolved mystery how his 70 assessors determine the value of homes in the District of Columbia since they usually do not have time to visit each home individually to determine its value.
"You probably think we throw darts or go down the street and analyze the speedometer to determine market values," Beach told the Shepherd Park audience facetiously. They did not laugh.
In fact, he said, assessors evaluate property in three basic ways: on-site observation of building exteriors; examination of building permits for wiring, plumbing and internal construction improvements and price analysis of properties recently sold in each neighborhood and block.
The assessors also consider the size, age, condition, number or rooms, location, number of bathrooms and the lot size in determining property values, Beach said.
Several homeowners at the Sheperd Park meeting complained that city services have deteriorated as property taxes have increased.
"We can't get the trees pruned or the leaves collected," said Margaret R. Mack, who faces a 54 per cent increase.
The drains in the street are clogged, the streets are not swept and the snow not removed, she said. While the city finally came and spread sand on her street during January's snowfall, she said, the sand is still there because the streets have not been cleaned.
Mrs. Nowak of Georgetown said, "Our services have dropped and our (police) protection has dropped, but our taxes go up - it's crazy."
The police protection complaint stems from the recent closing of a small police stationhouse on Volta Place in Georgetown.
Mrs. Nowak, like an undetermined number of other citizens, intends to appeal the large assessment increase.
One resident of an upper Northwest neighborhood recently visited the city's tax office to obtain 1,000 appeal forms for himself and neighbors.
"You buy a house to live in," said the 84-year-old man who refused to give his name. "If they keep raising the rate, we'll have to sell our house and leave the city."
Last year, 1,100 appeals were filed with the 15-member Board of Equalization and Review, a panel of real estate agents, appraisers and homeowners, who determine if contested assessments are fairly calculated. Of that total, only 283 were ordered reduced, Beach said, and the rest remained unchanged.
Citizens have until April 15 to appeal their current assessments to the board.
Several homeowners said privately in interviews they will not file appeals even though their assessments are high because they are still lower than what they think they could receive if they sold their homes on the open market.
City Council members Marion Barry and David A. Clarke have proposed legislation to ease the tax burden.
Clarke has introduced three bills that he said would more evenly distribute the city's property tax load and thus reduce the residential tax rate by up to 13 cents for each $100 of assessed value. The current tax rate is $1.83 per $100.
One bill would end a special exemption now given by Congress to about 30 organizations with substantial holdings in the city. Another would re-establish a differential tax rate, making the commercial rate higher than the residential. The third bill would impose a tax to deter real estate speculation where a home is bought for little money and sold for a large profit.
Barry, chairman of the Council's finance and revenue committee, has proposed a 9-cent reduction in the property tax rate for the fiscal year beginning in October. Barry said the rate reduction is possible because of a $12.2 million windfall the city should receive in unanticipated property tax revenue resulting from the higher assessments imposed this year.