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Study Shows Persistent Racial Disparities In Franklin County Property Tax Assessments

Franklin County Courthouse
Adora Namigadde

Discriminatory housing practices like redlining may feel like a feature of the distant past, but a study commissioned by the Franklin County Auditor suggests its legacy persists.

Last year, auditor Michael Stinziano asked the Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity to review the county’s appraisal process, and they found predominately Black neighborhoods are systematically over-valued for tax purposes, even as their real-world values lag white neighborhoods.

The report is a stark reminder of how racial disparities persist. Kirwin researchers demonstrated that low-income, predominately Black neighborhoods were significantly over-valued for tax purposes as recently as 2013. That has improved significantly since an internal audit in 2017, but Stinziano said the report showed how discriminatory practices like redlining have an impact even after the practice itself stops.

“One of the realities of Ohio’s appraisal process is it builds off each other,” Stinziano said. “It is building off a certain foundation and it was that foundation that had these inequities baked into the process, and so you’re correct — it was fairly recent that this was still impacting property owners across Franklin County.”

Paradoxically, the study showed that homeowners in predominately Black neighborhoods held properties that were seemingly both over- and under-valued at the same time.

This is because tax assessment and market value aren’t necessarily the same thing. While researchers saw Black neighborhoods paying a higher ratio of their underlying home value in taxes, when it comes time to sell on the open market, those properties are fetching less per square foot. And the discrepancy in price per square foot is actually increasing.

Stinziano said one place the disparity jumped out for him is in the home grading process, where appraisers assign a letter grade to each home.

“That’s been one of the challenges, and way back to the original work in the performance audit, that land grade component was one of the key identifiers,” Stinziano said. “That similar properties, similar characteristics, size, square footage, weren’t being graded the same historically. That’s something with our update and the mass appraisal we’ll able to address.”

The disconnect also shows up when it comes to foreclosures. If homes on your block foreclose, that hurts your home’s value, but those foreclosures don’t show up in the appraisal process come tax time. In the past, assessors might look farther out for relevant sales data, and that wider net could wind up inflating the taxable value of your home.

Stinziano said his office is taking steps to rein that in by confining their neighborhood boundaries to smaller, more coherent areas.

Based on Kirwin’s findings, Stinziano is working on more ways to interact with homeowners more on the front-end of the process when their assessment changes. He said part of that outreach will likely include helping educate homeowners about support programs — whether that’s tax assistance or help navigating the Board of Revision process.

The office is also trying to remove the human element from appraisals where possible to keep implicit biases from sneaking into the process.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.