Racial Equity, Property Taxation, and Rosh Hashanah
As we approach the High Holidays, we often focus on the life we are leading and what we need to change. What mistakes have we made and more importantly what new actions we should take in the New Year? Most of us have lists of both types particularly for our personal lives, but have we considered what we might do to better our community? Here in Western North Carolina one way to address that is joining the fight to eliminate inequity and racism in the Buncombe County and Asheville property tax codes, which place an inordinate burden on people of color.
The Asheville Citizen Times (ACT) July 14th story “Disparity in the Market” shined a light on our property tax system, showing that it embodies practices of systemic racism. Urban renewal programs, which Asheville recently acknowledged exploited and damaged the Black community, have led Asheville to be one of the first cities to vote for reparations. Those programs broke larger self-sustaining Black neighborhoods into smaller dependent neighborhoods. Prior to Urban Renewal, the rate of Black home ownership in Southside, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Asheville, was 58%. Currently citywide home ownership in the Black community is only 44.3%.
The ACT story includes data from an urban planning expert that clearly demonstrates that the tax assessed per square foot is consistently higher in areas populated by people of color and low-income communities. The information in the data jumps off the pages and tells a compelling story that policy on tax assessment here needs to change. A 600+ page manual for County/City employees to calculate property's assessed value exists with the goal of creating fair, objective, unbiased, and consistent tax assessments across Asheville/Buncombe County. But based on the results, that goal is not met. We must insist our county and city officials re-examine property tax assessments to ensure that valuations are consistent, rather than laying the tax burden inordinately upon those least able to pay.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “When a person turns himself around, regrets his past and does good, that is such a powerful act that his sins become merits.” Looking at the wrongs that have been done to the communities of color here in Asheville, we see an opportunity to take “powerful acts” to turn around the damage of these past wrongs. By joining with organizations working to create a fair and equitable system of property taxation in Asheville/Buncombe County, as well as individually contacting our City and County officials to demand changes to the tax assessment process, we can spend this coming year starting to right an egregious past.
Douglas Aronin has said, “The blessing over the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah refers to the mitzvah as ‘hearing the voice of the Shofar,’ but since that voice speaks without words, the message that is heard depends a great deal on who is doing the listening.” This year when you hear the blowing of the Shofar, who will you be? And what actions will you feel compelled to take?