Property owners and assessment authorities continue to clash over the proper valuation for property tax purposes of rent-restricted, low-income housing. One of the most recent disagreements flared up in the small town of Beattyville, the county seat of Lee County in east central Kentucky. A developer had converted a former Beattyville school into 18 units of low-income housing apartments. In connection with that conversion, authorities placed a restrictive covenant on the land use, to remain in place for 30 years. Under the restrictions, the Beattyville School Apartments could only take in tenants with incomes equal to or less than 50 percent of the local median income.
The Lee County property valuation administrator valued the property for tax purposes at $662,700, or about $37,000 per unit, in 2011. This value appropriately excluded any value attributable to the issued tax credits. Nevertheless, it was still well above the value of $130,000, or about $7,200 per unit, that the taxpayer presented on appeal. What created such a dramatic gap between those opinions?
The Kentucky Constitution mandates that assessors must value all property for tax purposes at fair cash value, meaning the price that the property is likely to bring at a fair voluntary sale. In arriving at fair cash value, the assessor is not obligated to consider every characteristic of a particular property, but the law requires her to consider those factors that most impact the property’s value. In the case of rent-restricted, low-income housing, this requires considering those property characteristics that differentiate the asset from market-rate housing.
Interestingly enough, Lee County’s assessor and the taxpayer agreed on just about all of the steps in estimating the property’s fair cash value. Specifically, they agreed that the income approach to value was the most appropriate valuation methodology for this property type. They further agreed that the property’s actual restricted rents should be used in the development of the income approach. They even agreed that the income approach should use a 10 percent capitalization rate, which is surprising, considering that capitalization rate selection is often a subjective determination and a point of contention between opposing valuation professionals.
The consensus broke down on the issue of expenses. The county’s assessor had obtained the property’s actual audited expenses as reviewed and approved by both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Kentucky Housing Corp. The assessor deemed those expenses to be excessive and decided to cap the expenses used in her valuation model at 35 percent of income. The assessor used the same expense ratio to value other businesses in Lee County. Using lower, capped expenses as opposed to actual expenses produced a value that was five times higher than the taxpayer thought it should be. On appeal, the hearing officer for the Kentucky Board of Tax Appeals sided with the property owner on the expense issue. He concluded that it was inappropriate to cap the expenses used in the income approach since these expenses are to a certain extent a function of applicable state and federal law, which pushes them higher than those at market-rate apartments. To ignore the actual expenses is to overlook an important characteristic of the property that has a significant impact on its value.
If the assessor felt that the actual expenses were excessive for specific reasons, she could have provided evidence to that effect at the appeal hearing. Simply arguing that they were too high, however, was insufficient to convince the hearing officer to reject the use of audited and approved expenses.
The actual expenses, coupled with the rent restrictions, would cause a willing buyer to pay less for this type of a housing project as opposed to a market-rate apartment complex. Thus, the taxpayer carried its burden in proving that its property tax assessment was excessive.
In concluding that the complex should be valued at $150,000, the hearing officer and in turn the Board of Tax Appeals were mildly critical of the taxpayer’s valuation presentation. The hearing officer noted that the taxpayer’s appeal petition valued the property between $110,000 and $150,000. During the hearing, the taxpayer refined its value position to $130,000, but in a way that was not entirely clear from the record.
Citing an earlier Kentucky court ruling, the Board of Tax Appeals refused to put the taxpayer in a more advantageous position on appeal than the position it had staked out in its filing. This serves as yet another confirmation that a taxpayer should place the lowest supportable value on its appeal form, so as not to place a floor on its value position during the appeal process.
Gregory F. Servodidio, CRE, and Elliott B. Pollack represent clients in property tax appeals and eminent domain matters at the Connecticut law firm of Pullman & Comley, LLC, the Connecticut member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Servodidio can be reached at email@example.com and Pollack at firstname.lastname@example.org.