Movement to preserve values east-side neighborhoods springs back to life

Virginia K. Newell and John Burgiss
Carolyn Highsmith, president of the Konnoak Hills Community Association, received a boost from the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity in her quest to build pressure on the county to revise property assessments that drastically reduced values in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods along the eastern rim of the city.

The Ministers Conference rallied residents in a press conference that highlighted homeowners who have experienced substantial markdowns in neighborhoods such as Slater Park and Skyland Park.

The Rev. Willard Bass, president of the Ministers Conference, said he believes the process used by the Forsyth County Tax Department to assess values for neighborhoods that have seen significant reductions in value is flawed, but could not point to a specific cause.

"I think the flaw is there," he said. "We want to know what the matrix is." He added that the tax department should not have used the same approach as it did in the 2009 revaluation, considering that the housing market has demonstrated a significant degree of instability since then.  

Highsmith suggested the decrease in property values found in Forsyth County Commission District A, which covers an urban area of Winston-Salem whose voters are primarily African-American and Hispanic Democrats, might constitute a 21st-century version of redlining. The term refers to a practice by banks in the 1960s to draw a line around certain African-American neighborhoods where they refused to loan capital.

"In 2013, community leaders in county commissioner voting District A are questioning whether their neighborhoods are being devalued so that large real estate developers at a later date can sweep in and buy up these devalued properties at rock-bottom prices," Highsmith said, "or that city and county governments in the upcoming years will not have to pay the actual market price as re-development projects such as major road changes and downtown gentrification projects continue to push east from downtown Winston-Salem."

The press conference took on surreal feel as Virginia K. Newell, a former Winston-Salem councilwoman, railed against the reduction in her property's tax assessment as Tax Assessor John Burgiss sat nearby and listened. Organizers of the press conference did not publicly acknowledge Burgiss or invite him to respond to various complaints, including that staff in his office used grades to arbitrarily reduce values in certain neighborhoods, relied on incorrect square footage figures and passed up the opportunity to inspect the inside of houses that are under appeal.

Community leaders expressed dismay that members of the Forsyth County Board of Equalization and Review said they believe the tax department did a good job on the reappraisal overall, and that they do not see a need for blanket changes to neighborhoods valuations. The board is charged with hearing appeals from property owners who believe that their valuations and incorrect, and has the power to make blanket changes across entire neighborhoods. The community leaders called for the 2013 tax revaluation to be set aside and for an outside firm to come in and review the process used to obtain values.

"We've lost confidence in the system," Bass said. "We'd like to have integrity returned to the system. We hope that the questions we've raised will leave the door open for the some justice and equity."

In the meantime, organizers are urging property owners to file individual appeals, both to address the problem on an individual level and to let members of the board of equalization know that there are systemic issues with how the revaluation was completed. Bass urged audience members to help get the word out that volunteers will be on hand at local libraries this weekend to help property owners file appeals.

Newell said some of her neighbors in Skyland Park are happy with their valuations because their tax bills will be reduced.
"But I don't feel that way," Newell said, "because if my property were to be sold I would have spent a lot of money and invested in it and then it's gone. And I don't think people understand that. Because if the houses on Pickford Court and that area [in Newell's neighborhood] are not raised the way we think we have improved them, then my property — though it might sell — it would still not be worth what we have put into it — the investment. And basically property, for poor people, your home is about the only thing you've got with any amount to leave to your legacy — your family and your children. And if you take that away, what's left?"

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