Appraising Gentrification

If you’re a Fulton County homeowner, it’s that time of year to have just recently received your latest property tax assessment. And chances are, that assessment has gone up, meaning you’ll be paying more in property taxes. But those increases in property taxes aren’t equal across the county.  

Thanks to the fact that Fulton County has posted the previous 15 years of parcel data online (and the hard work of my excellent undergrad research assistant Laurel Sparks collating all that data), we can analyze the trends in how tax assessments have changed over that time period.

Looking only at the 300,000 or so single-family homes in Fulton County over the last six years, we can see that the median home has increased in value by 73% over that time period, which is pretty significant in and of itself. But the brightest colors on the map below indicate those properties that appreciated in value much more rapidly over that time, and they’re primarily concentrated in Atlanta’s historically Black neighborhoods to the south and west of downtown. Indeed, of the 50,000 or so homes that grew 4x faster than the median home from 2017 through 2022, just over 80% of these are in majority Black census tracts. It isn’t like all of these homes are only growing in value because they’re getting flipped; only about half of those 50,000 or so most rapidly appreciating homes have even changed hands over the course of the last several years.

The thing about these patterns of property value appreciation is that they are fairly new. Looking at the two previous five-year periods from 2007-2011 and 2012-2016, we can see two important differences. First, the median change for each of these periods was quite a bit lower across the country, at 43% from 2007-2011 and just 26% from 2012-2016. But second, during both of these time periods, the places with the most rapidly appreciating properties weren’t in Atlanta’s historically Black neighborhoods (with a couple of much more isolated exceptions), but instead in the predominantly white parts of Atlanta and northern Fulton County, places that are already replete with wealth and much more capable of shouldering rapid property tax increases. To add insult to injury, throughout the last decade, large commercial properties like Ponce City Market have been dramatically under-assessed – thereby paying much reduced tax bills once their property tax breaks expire – meaning that these more recent changes represent a dramatic shifting of the cost burden for Atlanta’s growth onto those who should least be asked to shoulder it.

Together, these maps show that while gentrification undoubtedly has the greatest potential to disrupt the lives of tenants without security of tenure, they aren’t the only group whose homes and neighborhoods are threatened by influxes of capital and rising housing costs. Atlanta’s low- and moderate-income homeowners, even those who have paid off their mortgages and own their homes outright, are also vulnerable to gentrification because of rapid changes in property tax assessments that outpace their incomes.

These increased property tax burdens can make for quite the dilemma. On the one hand, homeowners could try to avoid paying for awhile, but risk losing their home altogether, as our insanely over-compensated Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has a particular predilection for placing liens on tax delinquent homeowners and then selling those liens in bulk to private investors and speculators who can then charge massive interest and fees, and ultimately take control over the property. Or, if one is able to scrounge up the money to pay the growing tax bill year after year, you end up having less money to spend on other necessities, including home repairs (which may then lead to additional punitive measures from code enforcement). Once that dilemma is apparent, selling and getting out is often the only solution available, even if it means ‘willingly’ selling to a speculator who’s massively underpaying for the property. Either way, chances are that financially precarious residents are going to end up losing their largest stores of wealth for pennies on the dollar, and the speculators who take over will likely replace them with someone else willing to pay even more for the same property.

Of course, there are some local programs meant to help stem the tide of this kind of equity stripping and tax-driven gentrification, from the general use of homestead exemptions to clinics for appealing assessment increases (a de rigueur practice for more affluent white homeowners trying to shirk their property tax responsibilities) to the BeltLine’s program for helping homeowners in neighborhoods around the south and west sides of the trail to actually pay their increased property tax bills. But what we really need as a city is a set of policies like the property tax circuit breaker proposed by the Housing Justice League, or even a progressive property tax, which don’t rely on legacy homeowners having to take initiative themselves or rely on charity to be able to stay in place. Because a place is nothing without its people.

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