by Kayla Sadowy
I like a treat as much as the next person – a little surprise to brighten a day of hard work and mundane tasking. Treats for me include an adventure into Center City, experiencing art or splurging on a double-scoop ice cream cone. Tax abatement, however, is no treat at all. It is the cruelest trick Philadelphia continues to play on its residents.
This tax abatement has been heralded by some as relief, an infusion to the city’s economy or a helping hand to development. What it has proven to be is evidence of the city cozying up to the wealthy while leaving in the dust the folks who need the most support – our children and the staff at the public schools they attend.
Tax abatement is a program designed to give tax breaks to those who make physical improvements to a property in Philadelphia. This means that no taxes are paid on the newly appraised value of the home for 10 years.This includes new construction. Any new building – high-rise, single family and everything in between – is taxed only at the value of the land for 10 years. If this sounds ludicrous enough to provoke moral outrage, that is because it is, in fact, a moral outrage.
In a city and state where public schooling is funded by property taxes, tax abatement eliminates millions of dollars that could otherwise fund the perennially underfunded Philadelphia School District. Tax abatement cost the district nearly $61 million in 2017 alone. Meanwhile, the district is facing a budget shortfall of more than $22 million for the fiscal year of 2019, a number that is projected to balloon to $218 million in 2020.
Moreover, those reaping the benefits of tax abatement are often in some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Center City alone accounts for $47 million in abatements; fold in Point Breeze, the working-class community turned yuppie Fishtown, and add the parking headache that is East Passyunk to the list of densely-populated property owners benefiting from the tax abatement. And, as Economics 101 informs us, everything has a cost. So then, who is paying for this?
The costs fall on all Philadelphians, really. When we cheat the public education system, we only cheat ourselves. By continuing a practice initiated to boost development in 1997, who are we trying to attract and assist? Certainly not families or young adults seeking to start a family. Not our current youth population, which has been pushed out of its local neighborhoods to pursue charter or magnet schools. To whom are we showing our “brotherly love?” To developers? To the wealthy who can afford their taxes? To investors?
What would our neighborly love look like if we invested in our schools, in fair, just and accessible education for all Philadelphians? As a person of faith, I feel our current capitalistic undermining of the education system threatens our attempts to build a beloved community as envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King.
When lifelong and long-term homeowners feel they can no longer afford their neighborhoods because of rising property taxes, we are undermining that community. When the hospitality we show is colored green and courts the wealthy, we are undermining that community. When we jeopardize public education and its access to our youth, we undermine community. We allow the value of a person to be determined by wealth, not civility, realized or potential, or the content of character.
What looks like a backwards tax policy is proving to have much deeper, long-lasting effects. We owe our youth a decent education and a formative experience to better build our community. And that’s just it – it’s OUR community. Let’s treat ourselves to a better world by abolishing or amending tax abatement.
Kayla Sadowy is an East Mount Airy resident who attends United Lutheran Seminary. Her public witness seeks equity over equality, justice over fairness and aesthetics over beauty.