HOUSTON – Just as thousands of people in our area were laid off, sent home and ordered to stay there amid the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 property appraisals started showing up in our mailboxes. Now, some homeowners are calling on the Harris County Appraisal District to cut taxpayers some slack.
Taxpayers’ plea for relief
“Here’s your stimulus check for $1,200; and here’s your bill for $4,000 for your property tax,” quipped retired southwest Houston homeowner Ed Hobson.
Hobson is one of several homeowners who emailed KPRC 2 suggesting HCAD reverse the latest property appraisals.
“At a minimum, they should freeze the valuations at last year’s level and give people a break,” Hobson explained.
Texas’ tax code says appraisal districts across the state are allowed to raise market values on residential properties with a homestead exemption by 10% every year. Hobson said HCAD uses that to raise his by the maximum amount every year regardless of the market.
“This is the year that the Governor and HCAD need to step back and say ‘We need to do what’s best for our citizens,’” said Debby Quigley, a property owner with a commercial and residential property in northwest Houston, whose market value is appraised at 30% more than what it was last year.
Both Quigley and Hobson would like HCAD to acknowledge the fact that thousands of people are unemployed.
Harris County Tax Appraisal defends increases
“We are not really allowed to do that,” said HCAD’s Jack Barnett in response to Quigley and Hobson’s requests that his office freezes the market rates of all properties at last year’s values. “We have to follow the state tax code.”
Barnett said the tax code requires that properties in Harris County be appraised on Jan. 1 of every year. The appraisal notices were mailed out at the beginning of March, before anyone realized the coronavirus pandemic would close schools and businesses, forcing furloughs and layoffs.
A total of 74% of properties in Harris County went up in value (by about 5% on average).
About 10% of properties went down in value.
About 16% of the properties’ values remained the same as last year.
“The tax code says that we have to appraise all property at full market value, which is the value that someone would pay for that particular piece of property,” explained Barnett.
It is possible that the economic downtown caused by the shutdown and stay home orders will decrease the market values of homes in Harris County. If that is the case, the new values will be reflected next year on Jan. 1, 2021.
“I understand that doesn’t help right now when people are looking at not being able to go to work, maybe not having a job. Maybe having their hours reduced if they do have a job,” Barnett sympathized.
“There’s a lot of people that are out of work. They’re not gonna be able to pay taxes, you know. They’re not going to be able to even go in and fight,” Quigley countered. “There’s people in the hospital that won’t be able to fight HCAD on this.”
Could lawmakers force the change?
Barnett said it would take lawmakers making a change to the tax code to allow appraisal districts to change the values. That happened after Hurricane Harvey in 2018. Texas State Senator Paul Bettencourt was one of the co-authors of the bill that allowed for reappraisals after so many homes were flooded and destroyed.
When KPRC 2 called the Senator to ask about freezing market values at 2019 levels, he said he didn’t think that was needed.
”I’m getting complaints about people that can’t pay their sales tax, they can’t pay their inventory tax. They can’t pay their franchise tax. And they can’t pay their oil and gas severance taxes,” Bettencourt said.
Until the stay home orders are lifted, Bettencourt said the problem will only get worse. Rather than changing the tax code and laws, he said taxing and other government agencies will have to be flexible.
“I think what you’ll see, where ever possible, you’ll see deadlines being pushed and extended because you have to recognize the obvious… people can’t pay,” Bettencourt said.
What you can do if your property appraisal increased
Like every year, you can protest your appraisal online using iSettle or iFile. HCAD’s office, like everything else, is closed right now until further notice.
The deadline as it stands now to protest your appraisal is May 15. You can do that online using i-File. If you want to have a formal protest before the three-member appraisal review board, those hearings generally start in late May.