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Oct
31

Low Income Housing Valuation

Valuation of Low Income Housing Tax Credit Properties for Real Estate Tax Purposes — an update from the Ohio Supreme Court

By Cecilia Hyun, Esq., as published by CMBA Journal, October 2009

There is a joke that made the rounds by email and on various real estate blogs awhile ago showing a house through the eyes of five different people: yourself, your buyer, your lender, your appraiser, and your tax assessor. (You can see a version of it here). The first image is of a nice, well kept, single family house with flowers, a nicely landscaped front yard and path. This is how you see your house. The next image shows what your potential buyer sees when looking at the same property: a smaller, more modest home resembling a modern log cabin. The next two images show how your lender and appraiser view the property. The lender sees an even smaller structure, with no lot to speak of, that looks like it was constructed piecemeal. Tarp covers part of the roof; the only thing that looks like it may be a window is boarded up, and there is laundry hanging from a clothesline out back. The appraiser sees a property that looks like it has been in the middle of a severe storm at the very least, if not a hurricane, parts of the walls are missing, there is flooding, and trees have been uprooted. The final picture depicts what your tax assessor sees when he looks at your house: a palatial, walled estate, with acres of land, surrounded by professionally landscaped gardens and trees, multiple wings, and at least one carriage or recreation house.

Like all good jokes, it contains a kernel of truth: property can be and is viewed through different prisms and within different frameworks. Different methods of valuing your property can lead to significant differences in value conclusions, and accordingly, your real estate tax bill.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently clarified how to value property constructed pursuant to federal low income housing tax credits ("LIHTC")1. The property in Woda consisted of sixty separate parcels of land improved with sixty detached, single family, homes containing two, three, or four bedrooms. The houses were built in 2002 pursuant to Section 42, Title 26 of the United States Code2 ("IRC 42"). As the court explains, under this program, federal tax credits are given to passive investors in low income housing developments. In return for these credits, rent restrictions are imposed on the property for a minimum of thirty years. These rent restrictions are binding on successive owners and must be recorded in the chain of title. Violations of these restrictions can lead to the recapture of the tax credits with penalties and interest.3 The Supreme Court held the use and rent restrictions are encumbrances that must be considered when valuing these types of properties for real estate tax purposes.

The owner-taxpayer of the low income housing property in Woda filed a complaint contesting the value the Fayette County Auditor placed on the property for tax year 2004. After a hearing at the local county board of revision ("BOR"), the Auditor's value was retained. The taxpayer then filed an appeal of the BOR decision to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals ("BTA") located in Columbus.4 The BTA held that the taxpayer's evidence was unpersuasive and determined that the Auditor's value was correct.5 After reconsideration by the BTA, but no change in its decision, the taxpayer appealed the BTA decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

At the BTA hearing, the taxpayer had offered the report and testimony of a state certified general real estate appraiser. The appraiser did not develop a cost approach or sales comparison approach to value, using only the income approach to determine value. (The Ohio Adm. Code Section 5703-25-07 outlines the three recognized approaches to value: 1) the market data or sales comparison approach, 2) the income approach, and 3) the cost approach). In the income approach, the appraiser developed a net operating income for the property, then directly capitalized that income to arrive at an overall value. He also developed a discounted cash flow analysis as if the units could be subdivided and sold to individual buyers (similar to an apartment conversion to condominium units) to serve as a check on the direct capitalization method.

The BTA rejected the appraiser's evidence based on the two main reasons: 1) the Board thought that the highest and best use of the property was for sale as individual units, rather than for continued use as rentals operated as one economic unit; and, 2) the cost approach was not utilized even though the subject property was relatively new, only having been constructed two years before tax lien date.

The Supreme Court reverses and remands the case to the BTA, holding that the effect of the LIHTC use restrictions must be considered when valuing the subject property. In past cases involving subsidized housing, the court had generally held that the properties were to be valued as if unencumbered by lesser estates, deed restrictions, or restrictive contracts with the government.6 Similar to the Woda property, the Alliance Court noted that without the federal loan guarantees, favorable mortgage terms, rent subsidies, and tax advantages associated with these properties, the properties would not have been built because the market rents would prohibitively low. The Alliance Court also notes that the tax shelter advantages associated with such properties are intangible items that do not add any value to the real estate.The Woda Court makes a similar point with respect to the tax credits, explicitly stating that the value of the low income tax credits should not be valued as part of the real estate. The court reasons that the credits are transferable apart from the underlying real estate and the value of the credit is determined by the tax situation of the purchaser, rather than any anticipated value from the real estate itself (or the "bricks and sticks").

On the other hand, the Supreme Court holds that the federal use restrictions in Woda must be taken into account when valuing a low income housing tax credit property , even if the value of the credits themselves are separate from the value of the real estate. In so holding, the Woda Court distinguishes between private e and involuntary government limitations to the estate such as eminent domain, escheat, police power, and taxation.7 The court finds that the LIHTC use restrictions are imposed by the government for the general welfare, qualifying as "police power" restrictions which express the judgment of Congress concerning public policy.8 Therefore, such use restrictions must be taken into account when valuing the property. The case is remanded by the Supreme Court bank to the BTA to receive additional evidence if necessary.

After the Woda decision was announced, the Ohio Department of Taxation issued a memorandum to all county auditors summarizing the holding and indicating that the Department read Woda as requiring the consideration of the use and rent restrictions that run with the land and prohibiting the inclusion of the value of the intangible tax credits when valuing LIHTC property for real estate tax purposes.

It clearly makes a material difference to value if the sixty parcels are valued as sixty individual homes, rather than as one economic unit consisting of rental units, or if the construction cost is used to determine value in a case like Woda. It will also matter in many cases whether contract rent, which could be higher or lower than market rent, is used to determine the income produced by a property. Intangible items unrelated to the value of the real estate, such as the value of the tax credits also must be separated out from the real property value to be taxed. As the joke demonstrates, appraising a property is not an exact science. A property is going to be valued differently by someone who is currently using the property, compared to someone who is considering buying the property, compared to someone who is going to lend you money for its purchase. Similarly, the value conclusion for your property and your resulting tax liability will be different based on what appraisal approach is used and which data is considered.

References:

  1. Woda Ivy Glen Ltd. Partnership v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Revision (2009), 121 Ohio St.3d 175, 2009-Ohio-762.
  2. 26 USCA §42.
  3. Woda at 179.
  4. Woda Ivy Glen Ltd. Partnership v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Revision (Sept. 21, 2007), BTA Case No. 2005-A-749, unreported.
  5. Woda Ivy Glen Ltd. Partnership v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Revision (Jan. 11, 2008), BTA Case No. 2005-A-749, unreported.
  6. Alliance Towers, Ltd. v. Stark Cty. Bd. of Revision (1988), 37 Ohio St.3d 16, 523 N.E.2d 826.
  7. Woda at 181 (citing Appraisal Institute, The Appraisal of Real Estate (12 th ed. 2001).
  8. Woda at 181.

cecilia_hyun90Cecilia Hyun is an associate attorney with Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings Co, LPA, the Ohio member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Oct
01

Health Care Property Tax Exemption Issues Loom Large

Charitable Giving vs. Tax Breaks

"A notable 1971 decision involving a staff apartment house owned by Hartford Hospital upheld the exemption even though the property had nothing to do with the direct provision of health care..."

By Elliott B. Pollack , Esq., as published by The Commercial Record, October 2009

It is no secret that Connecticut leans more heavily on local property taxes to support the activities of municipal government than almost any other state in the union. The recent economic downturn and lack of leadership in Hartford to achieve meaningful property tax reform has only exacerbated the situation.

Over the years, assessors in several Connecticut communities have tested entitlement to the local ad valorem exemption and have enjoyed a certain degree of success. Most of the cases have dealt with private schools, colleges, low income housing and fund raising organizations. A notable 1971 decision involving a staff apartment house owned by Hartford Hospital upheld the exemption even though the property had nothing to do with the direct provision of health care. A use "necessary" for an exempt use was sufficient to bring the property under the exemption tent. Judicial efforts to develop coherent rules have created confusion about just what the law requires.

Does It Make Sense?

As health care has consumed more and more of our gross domestic product, large health care organizations have become billion dollar businesses with executives who command eye-popping salaries. Assessing authorities across the country have noted that many of these behemoths are run like profit-making businesses, and, while they are exempt under federal income tax law, the rationale for their property tax exemption may no longer exist.

Most states have focused on the intrinsically charitable origin of nonprofit health care when they have awarded health care institutions the exemption. After noticing that some of these entities furnish very little charitable care, a number of assessors went on the attack. Other assessors became aware that institutional health care providers had developed a panoply of new profitable services, some of which seemed to go beyond the mission statement in their organizational documents.

Two cases, one decided by Connecticut's highest appellate tribunal in March 2009 and one now before the Illinois Supreme Court, exemplify this trend.

In the Connecticut case, Saint Joseph's Living Center in Windham lost its local tax exemption. The Windham assessor asserted that because virtually all of the Center's patients' care was being paid from public or private sources, insufficient free or charitable care was being delivered. Charitable contributions were not significant. He also claimed that the short-term rehabilitation services which the Center had instituted were totally compensated, no free care was rendered, rehab was not one of the Center's stated charitable purposes and even wealthy patients would be served. The last arguments were accepted by the Connecticut Supreme Court in what may prove to be one of our more significant property tax exemption decisions in decades.

In a case which has made national headlines, Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana, Illinois is seeking to overturn a lower court decision denying its property tax exemption. Citing evidence that only 0.7 percent of its revenue was devoted to free or discounted care, the Illinois Attorney General urged the state's Supreme Court to uphold the revocation. Serving only 302 of 100,000 patients on a charitable basis is far short of the commitment to charitable care which is necessary to support the exemption, claimed the Illinois Attorney General. He also noted that bills sent to indigent patients failed to mention the availability of free or discounted care.

Provena's response was that the amount of charitable care actually provided is unimportant. The only relevant factor is whether the institution makes such care available to all.

The fiscal stakes could not be higher. One has only to look around Connecticut and to guesstimate about the billions of dollars in exempt real estate and personal property owned by currently exempt hospitals (we have only one for-profit hospital) and nursing homes. Millions of annual potential property tax payments may be on the line.

The federalization of health care which occurred in the mid 1960s with the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, together with the relentless growth of employer-based insurance, directed billions of dollars of new revenue to American hospitals. Those located in central cities generally support substantial charitable care to poor and lower-income citizens. Those hospitals in suburban areas may receive payment for virtually every service rendered. Does this fact justify judicial intervention to overturn local property tax exemptions in the most egregious cases? Or is this issue so basic to the fabric of our society that it should only be addressed, if at all, by legislation?

The Connecticut Supreme Court's decision in Saint Joseph's supported the denial of the health care facility's tax exemption on narrower grounds than those asserted against Provena. That is not to say, however, that other cases will not bubble up through the court system in which a Connecticut nonprofit hospital or nursing home may have to answer the challenges presented in Illinois.

Pollack_Headshot150pxElliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
01

Don't Lose Your Tax Appeal Rights

"..the lesson here shows that whenever there may be a doubt as to the status of a property, always respond to assessors' requests for income and expense data, called Chapter 91 requests. It's the only way to protect your right to a tax appeal..."

By John E. Garippa, Esq., as published by Globest.com - NJ Alert, August 2009

Recent New Jersey case law has made it easier for assessors to thwart tax appeals filed by commercial property owners. One of the most potent weapons in the tax assessor's arsenal is the use of their power to request income and expenses associated with the taxpayer's property.

New Jersey law requires that on receipt of a written request from the assessor, every owner of income producing property in a taxing district must provide:

  • A full and true account of the owner's name.
  • The location of the real property.
  • The income produced by the property.
  • The expenses generated by the property.

In the event the taxpayer fails to timely respond to this request, any tax appeal filed by that owner for that tax year will be dismissed.

The statute imposes three strict obligations upon the assessor. First, the letter must include a copy of the text of the statute. Second, it must be sent by certified mail to the owner of the property. Third, the letter must spell out the consequences of failure to comply with the assessor's demand. The courts have strictly applied these standards to the tax assessor by indicating that the "government must speak in clear and unequivocal language where the consequence of non compliance is the loss of the right to appeal assessments."

In a recent case, the Tax Court of New Jersey faced the unusual issue of a property that historically produced income, but during the year in question, the property was vacated in order to make significant physical improvements. Thus, no income was produced by the property that year.

When the assessor sent the taxpayer a request for income and expense, the owner failed to respond. The taxpayer believed that no response was necessary because the property was owner occupied and non-income producing at the time of the request.

The Tax Court dismissed the taxpayer's appeal based on the New Jersey statute. The court concluded that this property never lost its character as income producing property. Temporary vacancies brought about by renovations are no different than the temporary loss of a tenant, or a tenant that has withheld rent. The flow of rental payments that ceased for the year in question was brought about by the taxpayer's business decision to renovate the income producing property.

Since the tax assessor previously recognized the property as income producing, and had received no response to her information request, she was left to formulate assessments for the property without economic data concerning the operation of the property. The assessor was unaware that the building was vacant and uninhabitable during the year in question, a factor that would have been important in developing the assessment.

For taxpayers, the lesson here shows that whenever there may be a doubt as to the status of a property, always respond to assessors' requests for income and expense data, called Chapter 91 requests. It's the only way to protect your right to a tax appeal. Appropriate responses can include explanations of major vacancies and ongoing renovations, thereby providing the assessor with valuable information for his use in developing assessments.

GarippaJohn E. Garippa is senior partner of the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair and Philadelphia. Mr. Garippa is also president of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
01

New Method to Reduce REIT Property Taxes

Stock price offers a reliable indicator for assessed value.

"Prediction of a property's ability to generate income is precisely what the income approach to value in property assessment attempts to accomplish."

By Stephen Paul, Esq., as published in National Real Estate Investor July/August 2009

Assessing the value of REIT assets for property tax purposes has historically been an ordeal for assessors, as well as for owners challenging their work. Published data indicates that property values have dropped over the past two years, but the lack of sales leaves relatively little to prove the declines.

Without an active market of REITs buying and selling property, the sales comparison approach to value loses its usefulness. Even if taxpayers and assessors agree that properties in most REIT sectors are best valued under the income approach, decisions about estimates of future income streams, capitalization rates, and other factors required under the income approach often breed intense discord.

These difficulties are amplified in today's market due to lower predictability of occupancies, lease terms, and percentage rents. Thus, REIT owners need new ways to substantiate for the tax authorities the decline in their property values.

Stock prices are telling

In many REIT sectors, declining stock values actually have the potential to provide suitable proof of decreasing property values. Since the trend in a REIT's stock price represents the market's prediction of the direction in which the capitalized funds from operations of the REIT likely will move, readily available stock market data could be used to show an assessor that assessed values should be reduced.

This methodology is particularly appropriate for REIT properties. The stock price for any ordinary non-REIT company, in effect, states how the market values the company's assets, but any indication of the value oPrediction of a property's ability to generate income is precisely what the income approach to value in property assessment attempts to accomplish.f the real property itself is unclear.

REITs are different. By definition, REIT assets comprise investments in real property. To qualify as a REIT, at least 75% of income must come from real estate sources, and at least 95% of income must be derived from interest, dividends, and the property itself. The trend in the value of a REIT stock thus reveals how the market values the income-producing capability of the REIT's real property.

Paul_NewMethod_NREI09Prediction of a property's ability to generate income is precisely what the income approach to value in property assessment attempts to accomplish. The income approach estimates future benefits from ownership of the property. But this estimate requires extensive market research to evaluate risk factors in order to accurately predict income streams and expenses.

Examples of these risk factors include whether tenants and locations are favorable, whether acquisitions were prudent, the likelihood that locations will go dark, and the extent to which rent collections might be in jeopardy. Evaluating such risks is problematic during a deep recession like that experienced currently.

In setting the stock price, however, the market already has evaluated the risk factors associated with the properties of a particular REIT. The market has performed the research that is so troublesome in a difficult economic climate.

Because the trend in a REIT's stock price represents a statement by the market in direct relation to the real property itself, the trend in value of the stock price can provide valuable support for reduced assessments and input for analysis under the income approach.

Understanding that REITs generally own many properties, often in multiple states or even worldwide, it should be acknowledged that stock price cannot determine with precision assessed values of individual properties. But the correlation between a REIT's stock price and its property value can be employed to demonstrate the necessity for some assessment reduction on individual properties.

Here's how

A simple linear regression analysis provides an ideal tool to prove the correlation between a REIT's stock price and the value of its properties. To illustrate the point, let's use data from an actual REIT property in the Midwest.

Assume the REIT appeals the 2008 assessment of one of its properties. That property is assessed for 2008 at $5.6 million when the REIT's stock is trading at $11.50 per share. Assume further that the assessed values and stock quotes have been as follows over the last six years

Year Stock Quote Assessed
Value
(in millions)
2002

$9.95

$3.75

2003

$11.99

$4.07

2004 $14.51 $4.42
2005 $15.3 $4.96
2006 $18.00 $5.26
2007

$22.16

$5.40

Plotting the stock quotes on the x-axis and assessed values on the y-axis of a graph produces a scatter diagram as shown in the accompanying chart. Using a simple linear regression formula, a trend line can be drawn through the data.

Because the trend line so closely matches the assessments across the six year period, it clearly illustrates that the stock price correlates very closely to the assessed values. Thus, stock price is a reliable predictor of assessed value.

This demonstrated correlation is not exhibited, however, by the 2008 assessment on which the REIT has filed an appeal. During the period illustrated in the chart, the increase in stock price from $9.95 in 2002 to $22.16 in 2007 had been matched by increases in assessed value from about $3.7 to $5.4 million.

But a further increase in assessed value to $5.6 million for 2008 is inconsistent with the stock losing nearly 50% of its value and falling to $11.50 per share.

Therefore, the REIT owner should urge the assessor to reduce the property's 2008 assessment.

In the current market, demonstrating that assessed values should be reduced demands resourcefulness. Absent comparable sales and easily identified factors under the income approach, analysis of the correlation between stock performance and assessed value can help demonstrate a necessary reduction in assessed value.

PaulPhoto90Stephen Paul is a partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Baker & Daniels, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jun
04

Controlling LIHTC Property Taxes

Tips to help affordable housing owners control their tax burden

"Being a unique property type established largely as a creature of government funding/subsidy programs, affordable housing assessment challenges should not take a cookie-cutter approach."

By Elliott B. Pollack, Esq. as published by Affordable Housing Finance, in a Web Exclusive AHF Newsletter, June 2009

When it comes to property tax considerations for affordable housing, one expert summed it up well. He wrote: "Opinions on the proper assessment of affordable housing real property are varied, and decisions on the best method to use in developing these assessments vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction."

Thus, controlling the tax burden of affordable housing properties is a difficult matter about which to generalize. However, based on available guidance and experience, a number of questions should be researched by owners in all jurisdictions:

  • Is there a state statute of general application that addresses the valuation of affordable housing for ad valorem purposes? If so, is the statute applicable to the type of financing/subsidy arrangement in place at the property? For example, what income or asset tests must be met by residents for the project to qualify?
  • Has the local assessment authority issued any regulations dealing with this issue?
  • Has a state agency with oversight authority over the local assessment practices carried out its duties?
  • What restrictions are imposed on the owner? How long are these restrictions in place?
  • If the nature of the financial benefit derives from mortgage financing, when do these restrictions expire?
  • How have the courts of the applicable jurisdiction ruled on valuing these properties? What are the reported decisions from the highest appellate court or various trial courts?

Finding highest and best use

With those questions in mind, let's look at the approaches to real estate valuation: costs, sales, and income. With each methodology, determination of value requires understanding, first, and concluding what the highest and best use may be.

In this analysis, the highest and best use finding must be able to include the fact that the property is in some fashion or other rent-restricted and/or return on investment (ROI) limited and dependent on the government subsidy, guaranty, or concession for its creation and ongoing existence.

The cost approach is usually not helpful to value an affordable housing property. For older developments, depreciation and obsolescence generally become difficult to measure. For newer properties, construction cost is irrelevant unless the same government subsidy or program can be determined to be in place to support a new property. In these economically stressed days, that assumption may not hold.

The sales approach contains many of the same deficiencies since most market transactions will not be government-subsidized properties, but rather market-rate projects. Affordable housing projects tend not to trade frequently. By the same token, lack of comparable rent structures and locations will usually render the sales approach of little help.

In most circumstances, the income approach is the best methodology. As Richard E. Polton, MAI, points out, a property in the early years of its rent/net operating income (NOI) restriction covenants is probably best valued using a direct capitalization methodology. However, he continues, a project nearing the end of these restrictions, with a reasonable opportunity to revert to a market rental structure, might be better valued using a discounted cash flow approach.

In order to keep property assessment (and therefore taxes) as low as possible, a very careful analysis of the regulatory regime in place must be undertaken by the expert appraiser. Extraction of relevant provisions from the project documents, which support the restricted rent/NOI theme, usually constitutes a wise approach. Inclusion of applicable federal/state statutes and regulations to support the highest and best use conclusion will make the appraiser's report more credible and readable.

What's the cap rate?

Since the NOI of an affordable housing project should be fairly easy to establish, the key analytical challenge becomes developing and supporting a cap rate in order to express the correct market value.

The most convincing data are cap rates extracted from the sales of other affordable housing projects. If sales cannot be located in the immediate or surrounding jurisdictions, regional or national data should be obtained and examined since many larger affordable housing developments trade in the national market. This national activity typically takes place after the original developer extracts development fees and any applicable tax credits for itself and its investors.

Many experts do not think cap rates derived from market sales of non-restricted properties are terribly relevant in developing rates for income/NOI-restricted units. While restricted projects tend to be perceived as carrying lower risk due to assured income streams, appreciation is nonexistent, and major value upgrading potential such as condo conversion is usually impossible. Therefore, non-restricted properties as a group tend to sell at lower cap rates, meaning higher unit values because of the far greater upsides. Affordable housing owners should determine whether the assessing jurisdiction has attempted to place a separate value on the federal housing assistance contract, low interest rate mortgage, or rent subsidy. While these efforts may inflate value, they usually fail to meet state assessment law requirements, which reject adding the value of intangible financial assets to real estate assessments. In most jurisdictions, an attack on the effort by the authorities to assess intangibles will produce a winning assessment appeal.

The devil's in the details

Everyone would agree that a "fair" assessment should be accepted by an affordable housing project. The "devil" of achieving this goal is in the nitty-gritty associated with relating assessments to the ability of a property to carry a particular tax load.

An owner's inability to pass tax increases through in the form of rent subsidy increases or other financial offsets frequently can convince the assessor to reduce his or her expectations. In one circumstance, a tax professional found it very helpful in the prosecution of an affordable housing tax appeal to ask the owner to send leaflets to the property's 300-plus elderly residents about the tax increase concerns. The dozens of letters to the local assessor expressing concern about potential rent increases presumably had some impact in enabling the case to be settled.

Owners should also review for compatibility and consistency the assessments of affordable housing in their jurisdiction or neighboring communities. Occasionally, a tax appeal asserting lack of equalization will be victorious.

Being a unique property type established largely as a creature of government funding/subsidy programs, affordable housing assessment challenges should not take a cookie-cutter approach. An intimate knowledge of the property, applicable financing and restrictions, and market conditions become critical to keeping an assessment under control and thereby bringing taxes down. In the absence of legally binding guidelines or assessment practices and protocols applicable to affordable housing projects, an owner seeking assessment justice has much homework to do.

Pollack_Headshot150pxElliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jun
01

Shouldering a Costly Burden

States cut homeowners a property tax break, leaving commercial owners to fill the gap

The conventional wisdom is that lower valuations result in lower taxes. Many commercial owners and tax practitioners expect property values to decline this year due to a depressed economy.

By Linda Terrill, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, June 2009

Will Rogers once said: "The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets." Commercial property owners could say the same thing of state legislatures when it comes to property taxation.

In the beginning, most states provided a "uniform and equal" rate of assessment and taxation for all classes of property. Today, the vast majority of states still have the basic "uniform and equal" framework, but all have tinkered with it to shift the weight of taxation to commercial property.

Once the local tax base and budget are determined, a mill levy is set. Some states apply the mill levy against the 100% value of the property. The math is: 100% value a— mill levy = tax due.

Other states have an intermediary level, generally referred to as the assessed value, which is a percentage of the 100% value. In those cases, the mill levy is applied to the assessed value and the computation is as follows: 100% value a— assessment rate a— mill levy = tax due.

Terrill_CostlyBurden_GRAPH

Altering the equation?

Several states have adopted "classification legislation" that provides for differential assessment rates for commercial real estate versus residential. In most cases, the commercial taxpayer carries the larger load.

This disparity grows wider if the residential owner also qualifies for other preferential treatment that some states may provide to seniors, veterans or low-income property owners. Here are examples of the tax system in practice:

In Colorado, all property is assessed at 29%, except residential, which is assessed at 7.96%. In terms of tax dollars, this disparity means that for every $1 paid by the residential owner, a commercial property owner will pay $3.64.

To further illustrate, assume a mill levy of .075 and a commercial and residential property each valued at $200,000. In Colorado, the property taxes for the homeowner are calculated as follows: $200,000 a— 7.96% = $15,920 a— .075 = $1,194. The commercial owner, however, pays 3.6 times as much: $200,000 a— 29% = $58,000 a— .075 = $4,350.

Arizona legislates commercial assessment rates at 22% and residential rates at 10% (see chart). Thus, for every $1 paid by the residential property owner, a commercial property owner will pay $2.20.

Tennessee commercial property owners fork over $1.60 for every $1 paid by a residential property owner, and in Kansas commercial owners pony up $2.17 for every $1 paid by residential owners. The ratio in Minnesota can be as high as 3 to 1.

The states and city included in the chart represent only a sampling of the disparity in the way the property tax load is shared between commercial and residential owners.

Premature celebration?

The conventional wisdom is that lower valuations result in lower taxes. Many commercial owners and tax practitioners expect property values to decline this year due to a depressed economy. It's only logical that taxpayers who see a reduction in their valuation notices for 2009 expect their taxes to decrease.

Such a conclusion is premature in the states with different assessment rates for commercial and residential property, or with any other significant agricultural and/or residential tax relief programs. That's because if the tax base declines and the needs of government remain the same, a mill levy increase is inevitable and commercial property taxpayers will face paying the majority share.

A savvy commercial property owner would be well advised to take the following steps:

  • Determine the tax appeal date and the rules for filing. If your property requires an appraisal, remember that the number of appeals may rise significantly, so hire an appraiser as early as possible.
  • Determine whether your market area comprises a diverse mixture of property types, or is dominated by businesses that are dependent on a single industry.
  • Compare the local unemployment rate with the national numbers.
  • Decide whether you can manage the appeal on your own.
  • Be prepared for it to take longer than you'd expect to traverse what will probably be a crowded tax appeal docket. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

TerrillPhoto90Linda Terrill is a partner in the law firm of Neill, Terrill & Embree, the Kansas and Nebraska member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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May
05

Retail Landlords Face Quandary

Even as store sales decline, their property taxes climb

"Doing this math gives owners a powerful tool to help determine if tenants are paying rents above, at, or below sustainable market levels."

By Darlene Sullivan, Esq. as published by National Real Estate Investor, May 2009

Current market conditions have led to tenant bankruptcies, store closings, vacancies, deals placed on hold and declining sales in many retail centers in the U.S. Given these pressures, it should be easy to argue that property values have declined. But how do you prove to the assessor that your property has hit a slump in value when the property's trailing performance does not reflect current fair market value?

A tenant's retail sales are commonly reported to landlords and provide a tool to measure the viability of a tenant and the center in which the store is located. But just showing a drop in tenant sales may not provide enough evidence to convince the tax assessor to lower a center's taxable value.

The taxpayer must be able to demonstrate in actual numbers the relationship between market rents the center can charge and the retail sales performance of the center's tenants. By taking this approach, an owner can empirically show the current rents that should be applied to the assessor's valuation analysis.

Are rents too high?

Occupancy cost is the term used to describe rent plus expenses that retail tenants pay to their landlords for maintenance of the common area, utilities, taxes and other costs. Tenant occupancy cost ratios are calculated by dividing the tenant's total occupancy costs by the tenant's total sales.

Occupancy cost ratios vary for each property type and merchandising category. Large national discounters have occupancy-cost ratios as low as 1.5%. High-margin retailers, such as jewelry stores in regional malls, can have ratios in excess of 20%.

Median occupancy costs at U.S. neighborhood centers are 8% to 9% of sales, while U.S. regional malls typically range between 9% and 16% of sales. A good rule of thumb is the higher the retailer's markup, the higher percentage of occupancy costs they can afford.

Doing this math gives owners a powerful tool to help determine if tenants are paying rents above, at, or below sustainable market levels.

During a downturn, it is imperative that an owner demonstrate the effects of sales on the value of the property. Ultimately, the amount of rent a retailer will pay for a space is related to its ability to generate sales and maintain healthy profit margins.

A drop in sales, an increase in operating costs, or both, may push the cost of occupancy to an unsustainable level. If a retailer has a relatively high occupancy cost ratio compared to market norms, it signifies that the landlord may have to reduce the rent or risk losing the tenant.

To show the assessor the impact of declining sales on property values, retail centers owners should project annual sales per square foot for each tenant and apply the appropriate occupancy- cost ratio to the annual sales figure.

Illustrating through numbers

Assume that a tenant's sales during the height of the market were $500 per sq. ft., and now those annual sales figures have dropped to $350 per sq. ft. An analysis of industry statistics determines that the average market occupancy cost ratio is 8% for this tenant's merchandising category and the type of center.

Applying the 8% occupancy cost ratio to the booming market sales figure of $500 per sq. ft. indicates that this tenant can be profitable at an occupancy cost of $40 per sq. ft. To illustrate to the assessor the correctness of an owner's claim concerning her property value, the same 8% occupancy cost ratio must be used. The 8% is multiplied by today's annual sales of $350 per sq. ft., producing a new sustainable market occupancy cost for this tenant of $28 per sq. ft., as shown in the accompanying chart.

For the retailer to maintain acceptable profitability margins, the total occupancy costs —rent plus expenses— must be reduced by $12 per sq. ft. This decrease in sustainable occupancy cost provides support for the determination of market rent, which should be utilized by the assessor to value the property for tax purposes.

Shopping center owners should always ensure that the rent used by the assessor in calculating the center's tax assessment is an amount that allows tenants to operate profitably in whatever the existing market environment may be.

Sullivan_NREIInvestor

THE SPIRALING EFFECT OF DECLINING RETAIL SALES
As retail sales fall, tenant's occupancy cost as a percentage of sales goes up. If a tenant's sales were to decline from $500 to $350 per sq. ft., the rent would fall from $40 to $28 per sq. ft. to maintain an 8% occupancy cost radio. The property value should also drop.

Source: American Property Tax Counsel

 

 

 

DarleneSullivan140Darlene Sullivan is a partner with the Austin law firm of Popp, Gray & Hutcheson LLP, the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Apr
05

Taxpayers Take More Hits

"Property owners will be severely challenged as they try to manage depressed property values in an environment where one road block after another confronts them."

By John E. Garippa, Esq., as published by Globest.com, April 2009

By all accounts, more tax appeals were filed in New Jersey as of the April 1st filing deadline than at any time in recent memory. Across all classification of properties, owners filed appeals in both the New Jersey Tax Court and at the County Boards of Tax Appeals.

While the flood of appeals would have normally been filed as of April 1, 2009, a recent law allowed property owners who experienced a revaluation to file as late as May 1, 2009. This means the tidal wave of appeals that swept across New Jersey as of April 1st will continue right through May 1st.

These mass filings will take a toll on the judicial system and ultimately the taxpayer. The first impact will be significant backlogs in the Tax Court. In the recent past, a typical commercial tax appeal might take two years in order to get a hearing and resolution. In this current environment, considering the fact that no new judges will be added to the Tax Court, that backlog will easily reach three years or more.

Even more important for hard pressed taxpayers, under New Jersey law, in order to have standing before the court, all property taxes must be paid in full. If the taxes are unpaid by any amount in any year, that year's tax appeal will be subject to dismissal. This is a difficult pill to swallow for a commercial property owner with significant vacancies.

A review of commercial real estate's current status underscores why a torrent of appeals exist. Many commercial landlords are losing retail tenants at an ever-increasing pace. According to the April 8th Wall Street Journal, with research provided by Reis Inc., the amount of occupied space in shopping centers and malls throughout the US declined by 8.7 million square feet in the first quarter of 2009. This loss of more than 8 million square feet of retail space in just one quarter was more than the total amount of space retailers handed back to landlords in all of 2008.

The decline in occupied space increased the vacancy rate for malls and shopping centers in the top 76 US markets to 9.1%. According to Reis, the vacancy rate is now at its highest level since the 1990's. Even as landlords cut lease rates in order to attract tenants, the vacancy rates continue to rise.

Another unforeseen impact will be visited on taxpayers in this current market maelstrom. The burden of proving the value of a property in a tax appeal has always rested on the taxpayer. It will not be enough for a taxpayer to cite a plethora of empty stores and a growing vacancy rate as proof of a low value.

The Tax Court will demand that competent market evidence be brought before the court to prove, by the preponderance of the evidence, the current market value of the property in question. And to make the task even more daunting for the taxpayer, there may not be enough comparable rentals to prove value, since it is near impossible to find anyone to rent retail stores. Also, it may be equally impossible to prove a capitalization rate because banks are not lending on any type of commercial property.

Property owners will be severely challenged as they try to manage depressed property values in an environment where one road block after another confronts them. Understanding the nature of the road blocks and where they can be found, offers the best potential for attacking the problems.

GarippaJohn E. Garippa is senior partner of the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair and Philadelphia. He is also the president of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Feb
05

Reassessing Market Value

Assessors' use of historical sales data in a recession inflates property values.

"As a result, assessors typically value individual parcels not so much by looking at the specific characteristics of a particular parcel, but rather by the application of a mass appraisal system that relies heavily on historical data."

By Stewart L. Mandell Esq. and Andy Raines Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, February 2009

During periods of economic weakness, U.S. commercial and industrial real estate owners become vulnerable to unrealistic and excessive property tax assessments. Assessors' reliance on mass appraisal methodology and their use of data compiled during strong economic periods are the two main reasons for this problem.

Due to the large number of property tax parcels in a jurisdiction and limited resources to assess them, assessors typically employ mass appraisal methodology. In a mass appraisal, assessors gather and study certain economic data for a one- to three-year period preceding the assessment's effective date, including sales transactions, market rents, vacancy levels and/or levels of operating expenses.

Assessors then use that information to develop a valuation methodology, which they apply to individual parcels. For example, an assessor might study sales from the prior two years, which includes a dozen industrial properties located in his jurisdiction. He may determine from his study that the sold properties should have been valued 5% higher than the value at which they were carried on the assessment roll. The assessor would then increase the value of the entire class of industrial property by 5%.

As a result, assessors typically value individual parcels not so much by looking at the specific characteristics of a particular parcel, but rather by the application of a mass appraisal system that relies heavily on historical data. Recognizing and understanding the traditional methodology many assessors utilize is critical to enabling taxpayers to evaluate their risk of receiving excessive assessments.

Methodology under microscope

Odds are that assessors' usual valuation models for the 2009 tax year may be significantly flawed because a huge disconnect exists between economic conditions two to three years ago and today. This disconnect shows up in many ways.

The office vacancy rate in many markets has been low, from 5% to 10%, in the past few years. The current recession, however, is marked by financial sector turmoil and rising unemployment, resulting in increased office vacancies.

Shopping centers, too, are experiencing higher vacancies due to the recession's adverse impact on retail sales, which has been exacerbated by the reduction in new residential subdivision development and high residential foreclosure rates.

Perhaps the biggest data disconnect lies in capitalization rates, which act as a proxy for buyers' recognition of risk. Before the September 2008 economic crisis, buyers expected rental income and property values to continue rising. Now the reality of declining occupancy and rents, plus higher risk, has raised cap rates and lowered property values.

Upside of a downturn

A change in economic climate affects a property's valuation when the assessor uses historical data instead of current data. In 2007, a warehouse in Austin, Texas could command a net rent of $5 per sq. ft. Back then, vacancy held steady at about 9%. An appropriate cap rate would have been about 7.5%.

In late 2008, the recession caused warehouse vacancy rates in Austin to rise to 14%. The market softness pushed up vacancies, and market rent fell to about $4.50 per sq. ft. This trend raised the cap rate by at least 1%.

Based on the use of historical data, a 500,000 sq. ft. warehouse is valued at $26.4 million (see chart). However, the value based on current data comes to $19.8 million, a 25% reduction. Property taxes would amount to about $595,000 annually with an assessment based on historical data. Using current data, the assessment would result in taxes of about $445,000 annually, a $150,000 difference.

Assessors often use historical data to assist in making property tax assessments. That methodology may suffice in periods of economic stability. Unfortunately, in these volatile and challenging times, assessments based on dated information will be inaccurate and overstated.

If assessors keep using the rear view mirror to determine assessments, taxpayers should file appeals to avoid head-on collisions with excessive property taxation. Critical to a successful appeal is the use of current data to indicate an appropriate property tax assessment.

MandellPhoto90Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
RainesPhoto90Andy Raines is a partner in the law firm of Evans & Petree, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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Jan
05

Gain Control of Property Taxes

"Buyers of completed projects have potentially the most difficult assessment problem to overcome. In the eyes of the assessment community, the purchase price proves the market value of the property."

By Kieran Jennings, Esq. as published by Affordable Housing Finance Newsletter, January 2009

Local tax assessment rules and practices have a lasting effect on returns to developers and owners of affordable housing. Investors face many difficulties—uncertainty about property taxes should not be one of them. A developer who builds a property is subject to a different set of risks than a buyer who purchases a property as an ongoing project or for rehabilitation.

When a builder constructs affordable housing, in many cases, taxing authorities have reasonably good records regarding land sales and construction costs. Therefore the assessor's knee-jerk reaction is typically to value the property at the total cost of land and construction. For the assessor, it's fast, easy, and makes some sense; for the developer, it often means paying significantly more property tax than comparable properties. Affordable housing requires additional support to make the project viable, and an unfair tax burden can be the difference between a stable, viable property and one that fails

New projects

Prior to beginning a project, the developer should have a discussion with the assessor regarding the assessment laws and local practices. If aggressive, intervening taxing authorities, such as a local school district, exist in the jurisdiction, then prior to building it may be wise to seek payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT). Ideally the tax would be based on the prevailing taxes paid by like properties and incorporated into the budget for the project. In this way the developer has already agreed with the taxing bodies as to the amount of taxes to be paid, often over a period of five to 10 years.

Rehabilitated projects

Buyers who acquire property for rehabilitation may find that some taxing bodies tend to overreach. This tends to happen when a property is purchased at or below the assessed market value, and then the buyer immediately invests a large percentage of the project costs into refurbishing the property. These costs are public record, and because the tax credits are based on capital costs, the costs are known and well documented. What most assessors would like to do is simply add up all the land and construction costs to derive an assessment value. However, unless a fair PILOT agreement can be arranged, the property owner must not sit idly by and take costs as a measure of assessment.

Owners can make two arguments against this approach. First, assessed market value should be based on the income generated from the project. The concept of income as a measure of value enjoys almost universal acceptance in the assessing community, so the likelihood of success with this strategy is higher.

However, the second argument, "obsolesce," needs to be well-presented in order to persuade an assessor of its merit. Simply put, when buildings are rehabilitated, project costs include demolition and subsequent rebuilding of many building components. This drives the cost up significantly, yet at the end of the project the tenant can still only afford to pay what the market (subsidized or not) can bear. Therefore, for example, walls, plumbing, and wiring purchased initially, and later demolished, disposed of, and subsequently rebuilt are no more valuable to the tenant than they were initially. Finally, when discussing obsolescence with an assessor, don't use that term; merely explain that your costs do not necessarily equate to increased value. Assessors almost universally have an aversion to terms such as obsolescence.

Completed projects

Buyers of completed projects have potentially the most difficult assessment problem to overcome. In the eyes of the assessment community, the purchase price proves the market value of the property. Assessors tend not to take into account arguments such as 1031 tax deferral, purchase of reserves, or any host of non-real estate issues that actually drove the deal. As a result it may be better to set forth the argument in the closing statements by recording the properly allocated purchase price. For example, buying an operating housing project includes not only the purchase of the land and building, but also the in-place leases (no lease-up costs/concessions), the management contract, the HAP contract, and the reserves. All of these assets should be separately quantified, and only the land and building should be recorded as real estate. Note, however, that allocations and proper recording vary from state to state. Furthermore, changes in classifications may also affect federal taxes, so your federal tax adviser should be consulted prior to closing.

Or, an owner may acquire the business entity rather than the actual asset. In some jurisdictions it is permissible and advisable to buy the corporate shell, meaning the LLC or partnership interest. In such a transaction, the deed is not recorded, which may avoid the conveyance tax or transfer tax and also shield the purchase price from the public as well as the assessor. The assessor would be forced then to treat the acquired property in the same manner as any similar property. Of course, a number of states require buyers and sellers to disclose the purchase price regardless of how the property is acquired. On the other hand, some states do not require disclosure of the purchase price, even if it is a typical asset acquisition.

Finally, all owners, regardless of how they acquired or developed their properties, should understand the nuances of their taxing jurisdiction. Within the same state and county, there can be differences in how a taxpayer should plan. For instance, where the jurisdiction is friendly, it may be advisable to meet the tax authorities personally and discuss all aspects of the project. Conversely, you may be faced with aggressive assessors and equally aggressive school boards, where sales or new mortgages are sought out and records subpoenaed. By engaging local tax counsel, an owner can learn what to expect and can better plan for the long term. Assessments that go up tend to stay up and are difficult to reduce and those that are low tend to stay low. Possessing knowledge about the taxing jurisdiction makes all the difference.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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