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Apr
02

Seize Opportunities to Appeal Property Tax Bills

Office property owners should contest excessive assessments now, before a potential crisis drives up taxes.

The Great Recession, from December 2007 to June 2009, was the longest recession since World War II. It was also the deepest, with real gross domestic product (GDP) plummeting 4.3 percent from a peak in 2007 to its trough in 2009.

Entering that recession, unemployment was at an unalarming 5.0 percent, which is on par with historical averages, and interest rates hovered around 6 percent. The roots of the recession lurked at the intersection of risky subprime mortgages and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed for the mega-mergers of banks and brokerages to escalate.

And here we are in January 2024, looking down a steep market slope. On the bright side, we are in a more advantageous position than at the beginning of the Great Recession. GDP was a respectable $25.46 trillion in 2022, up 19 percent from $21.38 trillion in 2019. Unemployment is at 3.7 percent, and values in the single-family housing market are increasing again, in part due to a lack of supply.

The investors standing on unstable ground this time around are those heavily leveraged in major metropolitan markets, such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, or other municipalities that rely on office values. (Think suburban office markets.) The sharp increase in interest rates under the Federal Reserve's tightening monetary policy, and the extreme drop in demand for commercial office space that accelerated during the pandemic, will have significant ramifications on all property types.

Dire developments

What ramifications? Assume a hypothetical "Metro City" that, like most major markets, has a tax base with 75 percent of its independent parcels classified as residential, and 25 percent as commercial real estate. However, the assessment values are strongly weighted on the commercial properties, with 30 percent of the entire assessment value born by office properties.

The municipality has a total tax levy of $16.7 billion and overall assessed property value of $83.1 billion. The office portion of the property makeup is 30 percent, or $24.9 billion in assessed value. The office share of the total tax levy is $5.0 billion.

Now assume that the city's overall office market value collapses by 50 percent. This leaves Metro City with a $2.5 billion deficit – not a small number. To recapture that $2.5 billion, the city must increase its tax rate by 15 percent. That means tax liability increases by 15 percent for every taxpayer, even if their property's assessed value is unchanged.

So, how can developers and owners protect themselves from excessive tax liability, given the current market conditions? One solution is to appeal property tax assessments aggressively. Regardless of the jurisdiction, regardless of property type, property owners must evaluate their opportunity for an assessment appeal.

Office-specific issues

Market transactions show vast valuation differences between Class A office properties, which are typically newer buildings with great amenities, versus "the others," or those office properties 10 or more years old and offering fewer amenities. Properties that fall in the latter category have many opportunities for assessment reductions. Here are key points to consider.

Ensure the appraiser or assessor is using the property's current, effective rental rates. In many instances, an owner will show a tenant's gross rent on the rent roll without disclosing specific lease terms contributing to effective rent. For example, the lease may have been negotiated at $27 per square foot, but the rent roll does not account for free rent, amortization, free parking or other amenities the tenant receives.

Additionally, although office leases historically pass through taxes and other costs to tenants, many negotiated leases now cap expenses for the tenant, potentially shifting a portion of expenses to the landlord. That is a key issue the taxpayer should address in the income analysis of an appeal, because it provides evidence for a reduction in effective rental rates, as well as an imputed increase a buyer would demand in the capitalization rate to reflect the additional risk.

Appraisers need to understand this issue for rental comparables as well as for the subject property. Typically, they will confirm public information posted by various data services, but if they lack the finer details of a transaction, the rates they derive could exceed the true market.

Address vacancy and shadow vacancy. Prior to the pandemic, office vacancy in most markets hovered between 5 percent and 14 percent, depending on the location and building class. As of the third quarter of 2023, vacancy is over 18 percent, according to CBRE.

In October 2023, CBRE reported that suburban Chicago's office vacancy rose 50 basis points to 25.9 percent in the third quarter. Manhattan's overall office vacancy rate including sublease offerings is 22.1 percent, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

Shadow vacancy, or space where the tenant is still paying rent but no one physically occupies the space, is the canary in the coalmine for an office building's future. If a building is 12 percent vacant, the assessor probably won't be sympathetic. But if the owner highlights that leases in the space expire in the next year or two, and/or they are large blocks of space, the assessor (or at least the owner's appraiser) should acknowledge that risk and apply a higher cap rate for the subject property.

Adjust for interest rates. Any investment-grade property is now worth less than it was two years ago, simply because of the rise in interest rates.

Because interest rates have increased significantly, the property owner can argue that the assessor should use the "band of investment" method, which calculates capitalization rates for the components of an investment to produce an overall cap rate by weighted average. This methodology takes into account not only the increase in market interest rates, but also equity demands of lenders. Interest rates have increased over 3 percentage points across the last 2 years, which in many cases equates to a 100 percent increase in interest rates.

Additionally, the equity requirements on commercial mortgages have increased from 30 percent to 50 percent. Increasing the base capitalization rate to reflect these changes in an income analysis will offer significant relief in the assessment.

Jurisdictions that rely heavily on office values to support overall assessment value in the tax base will be experiencing increasing tax rates. This increase in rate is factored into the loaded capitalization rate, which obviously means a lower market value for assessment purposes. Analysts and appraisers should review the increased rates annually.

The near term will be challenging for entities that invested in office properties prior to 2023, but the strategies outlined above can offer some protection in this stormy market.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A., the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Aug
30

New Legislation, Programs Incentivize Affordable Housing Developers

Owners who understand the nuances of tax incentives, abatements and exemptions can gain an upper hand in reducing their property taxes.

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) has long been a key device in the affordable housing tool chest. Although it has been the primary source of financing for the construction and preservation of affordable housing, the tax credit has not allowed the vast expansion of affordable housing development
that many communities need to keep up with rapidly growing demand.

With rents and materials costs rising amid rapid U.S. inflation, cities and rural areas alike need more resources to help keep many Americans in quality affordable housing.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, only two states (West Virginia and Arkansas) have housing costs that put a two-bedroom rental within the reach of a fulltime worker earning less than $15 per hour.

The recent spike in residential real estate prices and now increasing interest rates are forcing more potential home buyers to rent. This has left fewer units available, which drives up rents and further reduces the supply of affordable housing throughout the country. As of April 2022, more than half of U.S. consumers were living paycheck to paycheck, reports financial services company LendingClub.  

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the U.S. Census Bureau, the national median rent increased more than 145 percent from 1985 to 2020, while median income increased by only 35 percent.

Clearly, more needs to be done to assist developers in the construction of affordable housing. Fortunately, many cities and states are implementing new legislation and programs that will directly assist developers who expand the affordable housing market.

State, Local Initiatives
Texas — In Austin, Affordability Unlocked is a development bonus program that waives or modifies some development restrictions in exchange for providing affordable housing.

In return for setting aside half of a development's total units as affordable, developers can receive increased height and density limits, parking and compatibility waivers and reductions in minimum lot sizes for the project.

The program is designed to increase the number of affordable housing units developed in Austin and to fully leverage public resources by allowing housing providers to build more units in developments that include significant amounts of affordable housing.

Washington, D.C. — Tax abatements for affordable housing are available that provide a reduction equivalent to 75 percent of the difference between the property tax owed before and after development. To be eligible, at least 5 percent of the units in the development must be reserved for low-income households, and an additional 10 percent of units must be reserved for households earning up to 60 percent of area median income (AMI).

The tax abatement is good for 10 years. The affordability requirements apply for at least 20 years, with a $10,000 penalty per year for each unit that does not meet income set-aside requirements during the final 10 years.

Illinois — In 2021, Illinois enacted legislation to develop and coordinate public and private resources targeted to meet the affordable housing needs of low-income and very low-income residents. The act applies to all counties within the state and allows each county to administer the applications for the property tax incentive.

In Cook County, for example, property owners with seven or more multifamily units may apply for the Affordable Housing Incentive, if they can prove a set of conditions that would qualify the property for one of three tiers of relief.

For example, an applicant with a pre-existing building that has spent more than $8 per square foot on rehabilitation of major building systems and has at least 15 percent of the units available at or below 60 percent of AMI qualifies for the "15 Percent Tier" incentive.

Major building systems include heating and cooling, electricity, windows, elevators and more. This incentive will reduce the property tax assessment by 25 percent for 10 years and can be renewed for two consecutive terms.

New York — Although state lawmakers allowed New York's longstanding 421a abatement to expire in June 2022, some property owners can still qualify for relief under the New 421a Program. The New 421a is available to projects that began construction between Jan. 1, 2016, and June 15, 2022, and will be completed on or before June 15, 2026.

Projects that commenced construction on or before Dec. 31, 2015, also may opt into the new program if they are not currently receiving 421a benefits. Applications must be filed within one year after completion, and construction benefits would be retroactive.

Benefits of the New York program include a construction period tax exemption of up to three years, plus post-construction exemptions of 10 years (two years full, plus an eight-year phase-out period); 15 years (11 years full, plus a four-year phaseout); 20 years (12 years full, plus an eight-year phaseout); or 25 years (21 years full, plus a four-year phaseout).

In post-construction periods, qualifying properties are exempt from the increase in real estate taxes resulting from the work. The length of benefits depends on location, commencement of construction and affordability within the project.

All market-rate rental units become subject to rent stabilization for the duration of the benefits, with initial rents approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Affordable rental units are rent stabilized for 35 years.

Massachusetts — Multifamily property owners can claim a tax exemption for any portion of the property used for affordable housing purposes. The exemption is calculated by multiplying the amount of tax ordinarily due by the percentage of floor area set aside for affordable housing purposes.

The exemption is granted on a year-to-year basis for units serving households earning up to 80 percent of AMI, and the local board of assessors reviews tenants' income information to confirm eligibility. Because the exemption is granted on a year-to-year basis, there is no long-term affordability requirement.

Oregon — The Multiple-Unit Limited Tax Exemption Program requires that at least 20 percent of rental units be affordable to households earning 60 percent of AMI,or 80 percent of median family income in high-cost areas, for the 10-year term of the exemption.

Hundreds of programs throughout the country offer tax credits, abatements or other incentives. In markets that are happy to assist willing partners in providing affordable rental housing for their communities, developers can gain an upper hand by learning to fully understand and navigate the application process.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. L.P.A., the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC) , the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Feb
02

For Office Owners, It's Time to Make Lemonade

Attorney Molly Phelan on how to reduce property tax liability.

Office property owners may feel they are getting squeezed from all sides in 2022, but the right strategy can help them turn lemons into lemonade by reducing property tax liability.

The Bad News: Inflation was up 7.1 percent year over year in December, its highest rate since 1982.

The Culprits: Supply chain issues (raw material shortages, seaport congestion and logistic limitations), labor shortages (general wages up 5 percent, retail wages up 15 percent), and a housing shortage (national apartment vacancy at 2 percent and average rent growth above 15 percent year over year).

The Response: The Federal Reserve signals a shift to tightening monetary policy, indicating future interest rate increases.

The office market is facing headwinds of its own. Numerous corporations have announced permanent shifts to hybrid in-person/work-from-home operations for office staff, significantly decreasing demand for office space. Rental rates have dropped anywhere from 5 percent to 33 percent during the pandemic, depending on market and class. Although Manhattan rents for Class A space have increased 2 percent in the past year, the net operating income for these properties is down 7 percent due to increased costs and lease concessions.

In the Midwest, office landlords previously expected to provide one month of free rent per year to woo tenants. Now brokers are reporting a free rent ratio of 1.6 months per year, with leases over 10 years pushing two months per year. Tenant improvement costs have increased approximately 44 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, and turnaround time for occupancy has increased from 30 days to 60 days.

Farther down the balance sheet, things aren't much better. Energy prices tracked in the S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index ended 2021 59 percent higher than in the beginning of the year. Labor costs, from janitorial staff to property managers, have increased as well.

The Good News: Although the market has handed office landlords a bucket of lemons that are putting downward pressure on average net incomes, landlords can make lemonade from this data to significantly reduce their real property tax liabilities, even if their NOI has not yet taken a hit.

The Strategy: Pivoting from a direct capitalization value analysis to a discounted cash flow approach can capture the effects of investor outlook data on a property's market value. Appraisers and assessors who value office properties typically figure direct capitalization in their income analysis to estimate fee simple market values. This is standard practice in stabilized markets but is a poor fit to current conditions.

With the dramatic changes and uncertainty in the office market, appraisers should be conducting discounted cash flow analyses, which identify the market conditions investors are anticipating as of the valuation date. The DCF analysis examines the market like an investor would, considering trends such as rental rate reductions and increases in operation costs and vacancy. These factors are then built into pricing models.

Savvy investors are aware of a sleeping giant that few assessors or taxpayers are identifying, and that is shadow vacancy. While landlords are still collecting income on current leases, there is no reflection of the market's precarious situation in their income. A DCF, however, identifies upcoming vacancy and reductions in market rents, which may have a significant effect on NOI.

Methods Compared

Let's compare the two approaches, beginning with a look at direct capitalization applied to a 500,000-square-foot office complex. As of Jan. 1, 2022, its tenants are paying $25 per square foot in net rent, or a maximum $12.5 million in annual attainable rent. Stabilized vacancy is 8 percent and operating expenses are 20 percent, or $2.3 million annually. A capitalization rate of 6.5 percent indicates a market value of $141,538,462. In Illinois, outside of Cook County, an assessment level of 33.33 percent and a tax rate of 5 percent equates to a tax liability of $2,358,738.

 By contrast, a DCF model would also reflect that market rent has dropped to $23 per square foot, reducing the asset's revenue capacity to $11.5 million per year. It would show that market-wide vacancy is expected to rise to 12 percent, that expenses have increased to 27 percent, and that the subject property has 100,000 square feet offered for sublet at $20 per square foot. Additionally, 20 percent of its leases mature in the next two years and a total of 50 percent of its leases will end within five years.

Paired with the estimated increases in interest rates as indicated by the Federal Reserve, the cap rate could easily increase to 7.5 percent for the specific property. The DCF analysis using these factors indicates the market value is $102,120,000 and the taxes are reduced to $1,701,830. The difference in tax liability is $656,909, or a reduction to the tenants of $1.31 per square foot in tax pass throughs.

Commercial real estate investors across the board rely on the discounted cash flow model, but few taxpayers or their advisors use the strategy in contesting property assessments. Given the additional information and analysis required to perform the analysis, not all appraisers can properly construct a credible discounted cash flow model.

For success, it is critical that both the taxpayer's advisor and appraiser be able to knowledgeably discuss the differences between the two models, and in an assessment appeal, be able to explain why the discounted cash flow model is a more reliable methodology in this market.

To remain competitive, landlords must reduce occupancy costs for tenants and their own holding costs as they take back more vacant space. Even if an assessment has been lowered or remained stable over the past few years, having a credible team provide an alternative view can offer a competitive advantage moving forward.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Illinois, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Mar
06

Onerous Property Tax Requirements Proposed

True to campaign promises, the new Cook County assessor has proposed sweeping legislation that borrows the most burdensome tax requirements and penalties from jurisdictions across the country. But will this enhance transparency or simply saddle taxpayers with inaccurate assessments and the need for costly appeals?

The 2018 race for Cook County Assessor ended in Fritz Kaegi beating out incumbent and long-time political powerhouse Joseph Berrios. Kaegi's campaign promises targeted the "insider" game of property tax appeals and proposed to bring fairness and transparency to the Illinois property tax appeal system.

The proposed requirements would only be imposed on commercial or income-producing properties worth more than $400,000, or residential properties with seven or more units worth more than $1 million. Residential properties with six units or less, as well as mixed-use commercial/residential buildings with six or fewer apartment units and less than 20,000 square feet of commercial area, are exempt from reporting income data.

In Cook County, these commercial properties will be required to submit income and expense data to the assessor prior to July 1 each year, and attest to the truthfulness of such information. Counties outside of Cook County may adopt the same requirement.

Property owners who fail to file the required information may receive a notice from the assessor demanding its submittal. If the taxpayer fails to report the income pursuant to the notice, the taxpayer will be fined 2 percent of the previous year's total tax bill. If the taxpayer still does not submit evidence within 120 days of the original notice, the proposal adds a second penalty of 2.5 percent of the prior year's tax bill.

As if these financial penalties were not enough, the taxpayer who fails to provide the information within 120 days is precluded from appealing the subject property's tax assessment. Furthermore, the Cook County State's Attorney's office is granted the right to subpoena the income and expense data from the tax payer on an annual basis.

None of the legislation eliminates the right to appeal to the Board of Review, however.

So, will the proposed statute bring fairness and transparency to the appeal process? No.

Round hole, square peg

The requirement to file income and expense data is not revolutionary. In many cases, taxpayers file appeals based directly on the property's income data rather than incur appraisal expenses. On the other hand, income-producing properties that commission an appraisal will provide the income and expense data to the appraiser in order to explain any differences between the actual rents in the subject property and the market rents used to calculate the assessment. Thus, the new rules will not necessarily bring more transparency to the values of multimillion-dollar commercial properties.

For the institutional investor, the greatest concern about the proposal is the validity and application of the collected income and expense data. As the old saying goes "garbage in, garbage out."

The assessor claims that the collection and aggregation of data directly from taxpayers will help identify the true rental market value of specific real estate. The concern is that taxpayers will be reporting a variety of unadjusted rents rather than market rates. Market rates take into account the differences between gross, modified and triple net leases, as well as tenant improvements, concessions, length of lease, sale-leasebacks and a host of other factors. Without adjustment to market rates, the data will be incorrect and the assessments will be inflated. This will produce a higher rate of appeal on an annual basis and impose greater appeal burdens on all involved.

Furthermore, the new requirements will bring the greatest harm to smaller commercial investors who may not be filing property tax appeals at all. Many of these are mom-and-pop organizations that keep handwritten ledgers and have market values between $400,000 and $1 million. The annual reporting requirement and respective penalties would be financially burdensome to taxpayers in this group, many of whom never undertook the expense of filing an appeal. Now those taxpayers may be open to valuation increases on an annual basis and have to spend money on appraisals and attorney representation.

And transparency?

The proposed statue prohibits "non-personal income and expense data" the assessor collects from being accessed through Freedom of Information Act searches. Does this indicate that the data sets the assessor produces cannot be analyzed by the taxpayer for accuracy? Where is the fairness and transparency in that?

If the statute passes, the hurdle for Illinois taxpayers will be to clearly identify the difference between market rents and actual rents for each of their properties, which may result in extremely burdensome requirements and penalties. The mandated steps may require intricate analysis and could result in property owners expending time and money responding to annual notices for documentation, fines for noncompliance, and the inability to challenge illegal assessments as a right.

Much of the income-and-expense statements, rent rolls and other data the assessor seeks are already available in documentation currently being submitted in support of annual appeals. Based upon this readily available data, the assessor should be able to generate guidelines that reflect current rental rates, occupancy levels and capitalization rates.

If Cook County taxes need reform, this is not the reform.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, which has offices in Cleveland, OH, Pittsburgh, PA and Chicago. IL and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys
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Apr
27

How Cook County Takes the Benefit Out of Taxpayer Incentives

The Cook County Board of Commissioners may have dealt manufacturing districts in South and Southwest Cook County, Illinois, their final blow.

The use of property tax incentives has increased over the past several decades and has been a vital economic development tool in this manufacturing belt. The industrial corridor suffered a one-two punch during the Great Recession and is still hanging onto the ropes, trying to recover while the rest of Cook County thrives.

Cook County property tax incentives reduce assessed values used to determine a property's tax bill. Assessors normally set taxable value at 25 percent of a property's market value, while assessing real estate qualifying for the incentive at 10 percent of market value. This yields a taxable value 60 percent lower than the asset would carry under the standard calculation.

The recession gutted Cook County's manufacturing belt. Numerous manufacturing companies either closed their doors for good or relocated to nearby Indiana, recruited with the promise of a feather-weight tax burden. The migration left a glut of vacant facilities in its wake, driving market values and the assessment base into a downward spiral.

As the market and occupancy rates plummeted, local tax rates spiked, exceeding 35 percent in some suburban municipalities. Without reinvestment in their communities, these municipalities could never recover, and the tax rate would not recede. The most valuable economic development tool available to these municipalities was the property tax incentive.

Crossed purposes

Over the past several years, the Cook County Board of Commissioners has suffocated the utility of the incentive program by imposing wage and other labor requirements on owners and operators of incentivized real estate. Most recently in March, the Commissioners imposed a "prevailing wage requirement," which mandates that any property that receives an incentive after September of this year must" pay all laborers ,workers and mechanics engaged in construction work not less than the prevailing wage paid for public works."

The new rule is expected to increase construction costs by 30 percent. Additionally, the new ordinance mandates participation in federally approved apprenticeship programs. Moreover, the change adds burdensome administrative costs to the incentive holder, which must keep detailed records of employee wages, contractor wages and other minutia. They must make quarterly reports to municipal agencies, or else live under the threat of having the incentive taken away.

But why would the Cook County Board of Commissioners impose mandates that effectively eliminate any incentive benefit? The decision is even more remarkable given the strong opposition it drew from the affected communities. Thirty mayors from the south and south western suburban municipalities testified in front of the county commissioners against the most recent ordinance. Local news media, which typically refrains from dive deeps into nuanced economic development issues, came out against the proposed ordinance.

Cook County elections were March 20. Commissioners in thriving districts were not going to risk their re-election prospects on an issue that didn't affect their constituents. So, the ordinance passed.

Act now

For entities looking to take advantage of the incentive program in Cook County, the most important task is to file the incentive application with the municipality and/or Cook County Assessor's Office prior to Sept.1. Any taxpayer who is attempting to sell or lease their property should apply for an incentive now instead of waiting for a prospective tenant or buyer. If the application is filed prior to Sept. 1, the prevailing wage mandate will not apply to any construction.

It is critical to note that the expansion of a facility will also trigger the prevailing-wage mandate for the additional square footage, even if the property already has an incentive. The property owner must apply for an additional incentive for the new space. Thus, any property owner considering such an expansion should make the required filing before Sept.1.

Most property owners in manufacturing districts that rely heavily on incentives for economic development only protest tax assessments when the property is reassessed. They would be wise to appeal their taxes every year, however.

The unpredictability of the incentive program itself is enough to drive up cap rates by two basis points, which will lower market values across the board. That creates the opportunity to achieve a lower assessment on appeal. The ability to quantify these issues is critical in an appeal, and failure to do so further diminishes the value of the real estate.

Most likely, due to the unnecessary restrictions imposed on the current incentive programs, the entire existing incentive program for Cook County may be scrapped. It is unfair that certain municipalities struggling with economic development are now political carnage. Any new incentive program should put the authority in the local municipalities' hands, rather than leave it under the political machinations of the rest of Cook County.

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