The Social Justice Committee of the Minister’s Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity and the Winston-Salem Branch of the NAACP held a press conference on Thursday to express support for African-American homeowners who believe their properties have been unjustly devalued by the Forsyth County Tax Administration for years.
The advocates allege that homes in predominantly African-American neighborhoods are systematically and intentionally devalued in contrast to comparable homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.
“The devaluation of those properties has little to do with the market and is driven by systemic, institutional racism instead,” Dennis Leach, treasurer for the minister’s conference, said, speaking from a podium in Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church’s Fellowship Room.
Leach contended that the Forsyth County Tax Administration Office’s methodologies are “…yet another tool to discriminate against mostly hard-working African-American citizens,” he said. “It is a form of economic gerrymandering, robbing African-American of their wealth.”
Real estate appraisals are estimations of market value extrapolated from sales of similar residential properties. John Burgiss, Tax Assessor and Collector for Forsyth County, said in a phone interview that his office does not have access to demographic data and assessors don’t take the racial identity of homeowners into consideration.
“We have to reconcile [our value assessments] with what’s going on in the market to meet [legally mandated] statistical standards,” Burgiss said. “We don’t do anything other than let the market be the guide. We’re not up- or down-valuating anything; the market is defining that.”
The Rev. Alvin Carlisle, president of the Winston-Salem NAACP, said he finds it difficult to believe the pattern is anything but racial discrimination given that the targeted areas — most of which fall east of Highway 52 from Waughtown up to Liberty St. — are geographically inconsistent.
“They’ve carved out neighborhood-by-neighborhood and pinpointed areas to devalue property where just a few miles up the road won’t see the same devaluation,” Carlisle said. “It is carved out in such a way that you can almost say it exclusively targets African-Americans.”
Bishop Todd Fulton, social justice chair of the minister’s conference, said that some well-kept homes in affluent African-American communities like Monticello Park where Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke live are valued at $100,000 or less whereas similar houses built by the same company on the West End are appraised at over $200,000.
Burgiss said residential location indeed accounts for this type of disparity but that his office samples within a tight radius of neighboring homes, not against homes throughout the county.
In May, the city of Winston-Salem requested a formal review of the Tax Administration Office’s procedure from the Forsyth County Board of Equalization and Review, an appointed board that provides oversight of the tax office and retains the right to alter values as it sees fit. The board released a review in early August, finding no wrongdoing.
However, advocates assert that these findings don’t align with the lived experiences of African-American homeowners.
“Certainly, you start to think of gentrification: devaluing people’s properties right from underneath them, eventually driving out investment and ultimately… the residents,” Leach said.
At the press conference, several speakers claimed that the uptick in economic revitalization in downtown Winston-Salem, in particular, is leaving African-American residents behind financially.
“The Winston-Salem area has a deep history of lack of investment in African-American communities,” Carlisle said. “Then when the wealth that builds through real estate — which is a lot of times the greatest asset that a family has — is devalued, you only serve to deepen the cycle of poverty.”
Burgiss said he spoke with Fulton at length in 2013 and briefly this year.
“Historically, the amount of appeals we had [this year] was even smaller than in years before [and] as a percentage, it doesn’t indicate that there’s any gross problem,” Burgiss said.
Fulton said at Thursday’s press conference that he believes these declining numbers signal frustration and demoralization, not an improvement.
“When we speak to Mr. Burgiss in his office, [his justification] is that this is just the metric that we use and that’s the way it is,” Fulton said. “But if something is not working…[officials] need to come up with a way to fix it [because] our tax dollars are paying county officials to represent us. In this case, we feel like we are overtaxed and underrepresented.”
Leach sent a letter to the US Department of Housing and Development, or HUD, on behalf of the minister’s conference and the Winston-Salem NAACP, which spurred a HUD-led investigation. Dr. Leach said the minister’s conference and the NAACP are prepared to go to court if they don’t see a satisfactory resolution.
“As of yet, we have not heard back in terms of any willingness to do anything other than the standard evaluation or use the market as a tool of evaluation,” Leach said. “The only thing they’ve offered to us is that each individual resident has to appeal as they have done in the past.”
The deadline for 2017 appeals passed on June 30 but property owners can appeal every year or within 15 days of their last evaluation. Burgiss said his office includes appeal forms in the same envelope as the appraisals.
“An appraisal is an opinion and there is subjectivity involved,” Burgiss said. “We understand that [and] there is a mechanism to appeal those concerns or questions.”
Fulton said that for many homeowners, re-evaluations through the Equalization Board are unsatisfactory, though. He said people renovate kitchens or add concrete to their basement only to see the value of their home raise a couple hundred dollars.
“The major concern is that…when you buy a house, you buy an investment just like a stock or a bond,” Fulton said. “We’ve always been told as African-Americans that you want to have home ownership because it gives you stake in this country and in your community.”
He added that, under the circumstances, “Home ownership becomes a bad investment only for African-American in the East side of Winston.”