Property Tax

Fifty-State Study Shows Property Tax Inequities from Assessment Limits Continue to Grow
By Will Jason, June 10, 2020


In Los Angeles, someone who has owned a median-priced home for 14 years—the average length of ownership in the city—paid about $4,400 in property taxes last year, or about $3,600 less than a new owner of an identical home, who paid nearly $8,000. This gap between the tax bills for new and established homeowners grew by $400 last year alone, and has increased by $1,500 in the past four years, according to the annual 50-State Property Tax Comparison Study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence.

Los Angeles is one of 29 large cities included in the report where assessment limits cap annual growth in the assessed value of individual properities, a policy that favors longtime homeowners. When real estate prices rise, these assessment limits shift more of the tax burden to newer homeowners, whose properties are assessed closer to the market value. Overall, in the 29 cities with these assessment limits, new homeowners paid 30 percent more in taxes last year than those who have owned their homes for the average duration within their city, more than double the 14-percent disparity four years earlier.

The 50-State Property Tax Comparison Study explores several key factors influencing property taxes, providing a comprehensive analysis of effective property tax rates—the tax paid as a percentage of market value—in 123 cities in every U.S. state and Washington, DC.

Drawing on data for 73 large U.S. cities, the study explains why property taxes vary so widely from place to place. Reliance on the property tax is chief among the reasons. Cities with high local sales or income taxes do not need to raise as much revenue from the property tax and thus have lower property tax rates on average. For example, Bridgeport, Connecticut, has one of the highest effective tax rates on the median-valued home, while Birmingham, Alabama, has one of the lowest. But the average Birmingham resident pays 32 percent more in total local taxes when accounting for sales, income, and other local taxes.

Property values are the other crucial factor explaining differences in tax rates. Cities with low property values need to impose a higher tax rate to raise the same revenue as cities with high property values. For example, the effective tax rate on the typical home in Detroit, which has the lowest median home value in the study, is three times higher than in San Francisco, which has the highest, after accounting for assessment limits. In Detroit, to raise $3,206 per home—the national average tax bill on a median-valued home—would require an effective tax rate 23 times higher than in San Francisco.

Other drivers of variation in property tax rates include the different treatment of various classes of property, such as residential and commercial, and the level of local government spending.

Among the largest cities in each state, the average effective tax rate on a median-valued home was 1.4 percent in 2019, with wide variation across cities. Four cities have effective tax rates that are at least double the national average—Aurora (IL), Bridgeport, Newark(NJ), and Detroit. Conversely, seven cities have tax rates less than half of the average—Honolulu, Boston, Charleston (SC), Denver, Cheyenne (WY), Birmingham, and Nashville.

Commercial property tax rates on office buildings and similar properties also vary significantly across cities. The effective tax rate on a $1 million commercial property is 1.9 percent, on average, across the largest cities in each state. The highest rates are in Detroit, Providence, Chicago, and Bridgeport, where rates are at least two-thirds higher than average. Rates are less than half of the average in Cheyenne, Seattle, and Charlotte.

The report is available for download on the Lincoln Institute website:…



Will Jason is director of communications at the Lincoln Institute.

Photograph credit: © iStockphoto/benkrut.