The benefits of a property tax relief package approved by the D.C. government last winter will go mostly to homeowners in the city's two wealthiest wards, while homeowners in three wards that include some of the poorest neighborhoods will see far less savings, according to a new study.
City leaders said in January that with city revenue soaring -- in large part because of rising home values -- some of the money should be returned to residents. After significant debate, the D.C. Council lowered the cap on property tax increases from 25 percent to 12 percent and increased the homestead deduction from $30,000 to $38,000. The plan is expected to reduce city revenue by about $28 million this year.
The study, released this week by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a private research group that studies the impact of District budget and tax measures, showed that a total of 49 percent of the tax relief will go to homeowners in Wards 2 and 3. A total of 16 percent, it said, will go to homeowners in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
Some council members had sought a more progressive package, complaining that the final legislation did not do enough for lower-income residents.
"This [study] absolutely verifies the arguments we were making in January: The tax cap favors the wealthy," council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said.
Fitzroy Lee, the D.C. government's director of revenue estimation, said in an e-mail that the numbers in the Fiscal Policy Institute's study are reasonable, although the city has not done a similar ward breakdown.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said that "the cap is unfair because it really provides relief to those in a better position to pay. . . . It should be distributed more equitably across the city."
Mendelson had pushed for a smaller reduction in the tax cap but a bigger increase in the homestead deduction, which is essentially a tax credit for people who own their own homes. That plan would have given about 40 percent of the savings to Wards 2 and 3 and 22 percent to Wards 5, 7 and 8, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Other council members disagreed with that approach, including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David A. Catania (R-At Large), who had put forth a plan that would have capped property tax increases at 10 percent.
Evans and Catania pointed out that homeowners in Wards 2 and 3 generally pay far more in property taxes because their homes are assessed at higher values than homes in other parts of the city.
According to city records, homes in Wards 2 and 3 are worth a combined $14.9 billion, or 51 percent of the total value of residential properties in the city. The combined value of homes in Wards 5, 7 and 8 is $3.7 billion, or 12.7 percent.
Homes in Wards 1, 4 and 6 are worth a total of $10 billion. The Fiscal Policy Institute found that about 10 percent of the property tax savings will go to homeowners in Ward 1; 13 percent to those in Ward 4; and 12 percent to Ward 6.
"Everybody deserves relief," Evans said. "Those in Georgetown, and you can put me in that category, who bought a house worth $300,000 and it's worth $2 million today but our salaries don't go up -- those are people who need help as well as people in lower ends of the income schemes."
Besides, Evans said, if studies traced where the city spends the most on social services and police, they would show the highest spending in wards where people pay the least amount of taxes.
Idara Nickelson, who conducted the Fiscal Policy Institute's study, said her analysis also found that homes valued at less than $250,000 make up the majority of all D.C. homes, 55 percent, but their owners will receive just 36 percent of the tax relief. Houses worth $500,000 or more make up 20 percent of homes but account for 38 percent of the tax relief, she said.
The council should have taken a more progressive approach that returns more money to homeowners in poorer areas, she added.
"If you want to get the best bang for your buck, it comes from spreading [relief] across the city, especially to people to whom the [property tax] increases are such a burden."