In the classic Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) challenges the hard-hearted Mr. Potter with this question:
"This rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?"
Well, unless the D.C. Council acts, the answer to that question for Washington's low-income homeowners could be:
"Yes. It is too much to ask."
In the crazy boom in housing prices, affordable dwellings in the city's moderate-income neighborhoods are being assessed and taxed at market rates. In some cases that market rate is more than twice the most recent sale price of the house, and a sudden increase in property taxes reflects that inflated value. Homeowners on the lower rungs of the income ladder are at risk of being unable to pay their property taxes.
Among the most vulnerable are those families that purchased their homes through nonprofit organizations that provide affordable housing, such as D.C. Habitat for Humanity, Manna and Mi Casa.
The District's 80 Habitat families, for example, typically headed by a single mother of two who works as a government clerk, a health aide or a security guard and makes about $22,000 a year.
Like the people helped by Bailey Building and Loan in the Capra film, almost all Habitat homeowners formerly lived in substandard rental apartments located in depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods.
They bought their homes from D.C. Habitat for a top price of $99,000 and carry 25-year mortgage loans at zero interest. Mortgage payments, insurance and taxes generally cost them about $400 a month.
What makes the monthly payments so reasonable is the Habitat donors and the volunteers who help build the homes. The first-time buyers contribute 300 hours of "sweat equity" working on their future homes. They also make a $500 down payment and cover closing costs. Habitat owners are prohibited from selling their homes for 15 years.
But these $99,000 homes now are being assessed at $224,000, as though their owners could sell them tomorrow for that price, which, in the case of Habitat homes, they cannot do. The accompanying increase in property taxes means that a monthly housing payment can jump by as much as $200, or 50 percent -- an onerous burden on a single mother who is having a tough enough time making ends meet. And as property values rise, the problem will get worse.
The D.C. Council can fix this unfair situation. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has introduced two bills -- the Affordable Housing Preservation Tax Assessment Act and the Limited-Equity Cooperative Tax Fairness Act -- that would require the District's tax assessors to take into account affordable homes and multi-unit cooperatives whose residents are bound by resale restrictions. At its session on Wednesday , the council will consider these measures as part of the Budget Support Act for fiscal 2006.
The District has made valuable contributions toward affordable housing by providing low-interest loans, properties at reduced costs and capital funds. But those contributions could be nullified by a tax assessment that is blind to the goal of providing affordable homeownership to the District's low-income families.
By passing the fair-property-tax legislation, the council members could give the District's working families a fair shake. In doing so, they would make George Bailey proud.
-- David C. Ruffin
served two terms as president
of D.C. Habitat for Humanity.