Twelve homeowners from the 1500 block of T Street NW stared across a wooden table at Samuel C. Reynolds, chairman of the Board of Equalization and Review, and forcefully stated their case: Their property assessments were too high, too varied and too burdensome, and they wanted them lowered.
"It's as by-guess and by-God," said homeowner Kay Eckles about the city's assessment method, "as if you would heave a rock out of a window and then see which house you hit."
Rather than hire an attorney or real estate appraiser, members of the 1500 T Street Block Council, mostly fixed income retirees, chose to plead their case themselves last week in their second attempt in four years, Armed with their own homemade survey of area real estate sales and of home improvements done by block members, the redoubtable 12 confronted Reynolds and two other assessors, Cheryl Foster and Rhuedine Davis. #t"Yeah," sighed Reynolds. "I'm going to do this one myself." Reynolds then led the group through their list of complaints:
Gertrude Blackistone of 1535 T St NW said the assessment on her property was 76.2 percent higher than that of the year before, pushing the value of her house to $95,200. "A house that's the same as it was when my father bought it in 1920," noted Blackistone, "except we took out the coal stove. And now we do have central heat," she added almost apologetically. "We put that in in 1957."
Roger Johnson of 1529 T Street NW said the assessment on his property was not only 70.8 percent higher than last year's but also, at $96,317, two percent higher than that of an identical house on the block. Johnson complained that another house near his was assessed at the same value, despite being in what he called a deteriorated condition.
The group insisted that the city's assessment information was inaccurate, a charge they made to the City Council in an informal hearing several weeks ago.
"They say I have hardwood floors. I do not. They say I have a cement basement. Not so; it is earth. They say I have a slate roof. I do not, it is flat," said Kay Eckles of 1524 T St NW, a de facto leader of the group. Eckles has done research into neighborhood improvements dating back to 1879 when the first homes were built, and said that the city's records are incorrect. "Does that represent a valid record?" she asked.
The group also charged that the assessment procedure fails to take sufficient account of the financial needs of elderly homeowners, especially those who may find themselves in areas undergoing intensive renotation.
The 1500 block of T Street is close to Dupont Circle Columbia Heights and the increasingly elegant Logan Circle, as well as to the 14th Street drug traffic. The residents, the majority of whom are retired and have lived on the block since the early 1920s and '30s, fear that they may have weathered the storm of open drug dealing and deterioration only to be removed by the gentle breeze of gentrification.
Reynolds insisted that his board, which hears appeals on property assessments, has no direct control over the assessment procedure or the amount of tax citizens pay. Those are functions of the City Council, he explained.
But the group continued to protest the high tax burden placed on senior citizens. "You're not on one planet and they (the City Council) "These assessments are going to translate into taxes that we're going to write checks on."
The block council members also insisted that their recommendations for easing the tax burden be inserted into the taped record of the hearing. They asked for an increase in the homestead exemption, a tax break for homeowners, a stronger antispeculation tax and other tax reductions for elderly homeowners like themselves.
Reynolds promised to notify each homeowner within 10 days of the board's decision on their collective appeal and to relay their recommendations to appropriate city officials.
Though the homeowners left the meeting fearing that, as in their first attempt in 1977, they had won nothing for their trouble, Reynolds applauded them for coming before the board.
"This is just the type of information that we like to have presented to us," he said.
"We admit that there's a problem for people like this. They've lived in the same house for 15 or 20 years, they have no interest in this renovation movement and they're being penalized by this."