Fairgrounds Triangle takes a lead role in getting answers on spike in home values
The notices from the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office that hit mailboxes in July set off distress alarms in households across the city. Among the neighborhoods severely affected by the steep rise in assessed home values is the Fairgrounds Triangle area in the 7th Ward.
Although it’s not the only neighborhood affected, few have been as proactive in combating some of the hardships caused by the jump in property taxes to begin in 2020. The group recently had a major victory in extending to Aug. 22 the deadline for older homeowners trying to freeze their tax rate at the 2019 level.
Morgan Clevenger, president of the Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association, first got word of the increase early in July, when she was contacted by Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate reporter Jeff Adelson for a comprehensive story on the spike in home values.
Then, as the notices started coming in, Clevenger was hearing from her neighbors and association members. “People are out there panicking,” Clevenger said. “People are crying in my arms because they are so scared. They are afraid they are going to lose their house.”
The largely working-class neighborhood, like most in the city’s historic core, has been seeing signs of gentrification, leading to rising assessments. With its proximity to the track, the area contained scattered lots, often employed for Jazz Fest parking, that once housed stables for race horses. More recently, high-end homes have been built on these lots among the more modest century-old cottages.
In addition, the FTNA has been successful at combating crime and other problems, including a campaign to shut down a nuisance liquor store. With that success, the area has attracted its share of new residents priced out of the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, and more short-term rental properties have been popping up.
“The rest of us have been living in our houses for 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” Clevenger said. “We have a lot of seniors.”
With those seniors in mind, Clevenger and her neighborhood association colleagues sprang into action — circulating a petition, organizing meetings and questioning Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll G. Williams.
They arranged for Williams to attend an association meeting to answer their questions about the new assessments. Foremost on the agenda was the impact on longtime residents who qualify for an age freeze.
Once word got out, the meeting attracted more than Fairgrounds Triangle residents. Clevenger began hearing from homeowners across the city who were struggling to get their questions answered and panicked over the sudden rise in their expenses.
More than 300 people packed the Corpus Christi Church Community Center on July 29 to hear Williams and his staff. “The assessor talked for two hours,” Clevenger said. “At the end of it, people left not knowing what he said.”
Clevenger had two main concerns that stemmed from the complaints she heard from older homeowners. One was that seniors with the age freeze in place did not receive a letter from the Assessor’s Office informing them of the change in their assessed value.
The other was that homeowners applying for an age freeze were told they had to be taxed at the higher 2020 rate, with no clear or consistent cutoff date for receiving the 2019 rate.
The first questions addressed to Williams were over the lack of notice. “While their taxable assessment is ‘frozen,'” the group wrote in a Facebook post, “seniors have a right to know if the appraised value has changed, especially in light of the huge 2020 value increases.”
Although homeowners with an age freeze are not affected by the increase, their heirs will be. The assessor’s records are linked the state’s Department of Vital Records so that the age freeze is lifted when the homeowner dies, Williams said.
Williams confirmed that the seniors with property tax freezes do not receive notices. Asked whether they have a right to appeal if they believe an assessment is in error or excessive, he said they do but the age freeze is suspended during the appeal process.
The group had success with the second concern, for new age-freeze applicants. No publicly provided information gives a date for freezing the 2019 assessment. It’s not in the notice mailed to property owners or on the assessor’s website.
In July, many new age-freeze applicants were told by Assessor’s Office staff members they could only apply at the 2020 rate; the 2019 rate ended once notices went out, they said.
Asked about this in a followup to the July meeting, Williams stated: “Anyone who becomes 65 years of age on or before Dec. 31 can apply for an age freeze before Aug. 1, 2019, or close of our tax year Aug. 15 each year. They will have their 2019 assessment frozen, if they meet the income criteria and their property is assessed at its fair market value.”
The FTNA then put out a call to action for Aug. 12 to get the deadline extended for seniors applying for a freeze at the 2019 level and to encourage more property owners to appeal their assessments.
Fox 8 News reported on the call to action at the Park Island Brew Cafe on Gentilly Boulevard, and during a followup interview with reporter Amanda Roberts, Williams said property owners who are 65 or older now have until Aug. 22 to freeze their property tax rates at the 2019 levels.
Multiple phone and email attempts to confirm the cutoff date with the assessor were unsuccessful.
The Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association is continuing its efforts to help homeowners affected by new assessments with petitions and workshops for property owners filing appeals.
Clevenger said she has been working nonstop on this issue not only because of its effect on homeowners and renters (as landlords pass on the cost-of-living increase), but because it is likely to erode the very culture that attracts tourists and new residents to the city. Musicians, social aid and pleasure club members, Mardi Gras Indians, for example, won’t be able to practice their craft or could be forced out of the city altogether.
“This is a pivotal moment in our city,” Clevenger said. “If we don’t fix this, we are going to lose the core of what makes New Orleans great. And that’s huge.”
The next FTNA appeal workshop is Friday, Aug. 16, at Corpus Christi Community Center, 2022 St. Bernard Ave., from 3 to 8 p.m. See the Facebook event page for more information, including what to bring to the workshop. An RSVP to the Facebook page is requested. Volunteers are needed.
This report was edited after posting to clarify the purpose of the Aug. 12 call to action and to add the Facebook event page.