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Now You Can See Who Really Pays NYC Property Taxes

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, March 5 2014

Property tax revenue makes up around a quarter of New York City's budget, but until now broader information about it has not been easily accessible.

Users could only look up individual properties by entering lot and block information into a basic online form on a city website, and would have had to cross-reference that information with a building's address and other sources, explained Chris Whong, co-organizer of New York City's Code for America brigade betaNYC.

"This data is much more powerful in the aggregate," he said.

That's why, as part of last week's Code Across NYC hackathon, he along with several collaborators worked to develop an online platform "born out of curiosity" that maps New York City property data. Using a master list of properties from New York City's open data platform, the team was able to create a program that could access the PDFs of tax bills. The NYC Property Tax Explorer platform integrates that data with data from MapPluto, a shapefile and tax lot dataset the city made freely accessible last year. "Collecting all this data was the bulk of the work," Whong said.

Users can now look up the property tax information on the map by entering an address or zooming in on neighborhoods by community board district. Currently the map only has data available for Manhattan, but the team has already pulled together the data for other boroughs and plans to add it in soon, Whong said. The map displays property data for all the over 40,000 buildings in Manhattan, though at this time it doesn't include data for condominium buildings as condos are assessed individually, Whong explained. At the zoom-level, the buildings are color coded based on their annual tax burden, from purple indicating $0, light yellow indicating under $5,000 and dark green indicating over one million dollars. User can click on the properties to see further information on the properties including owner and the tax before and after exemptions, and can then also access the original PDF for more information.

The team developed a prototype of the platform for Code Across NYC, where it won an award as one of the best overall civic apps, and then worked to complete it for the entire borough of Manhattan over the past week, Whong said. Other members of the civic technology community helped provide background and insight on the data available. Whong and his collaborators plan to make the data underlying the application freely available for download and analysis by local community members, researchers or students.

Though renters may not directly pay the property tax, the platform can still give them a better understanding of their own tax burden, he said, while building owners can make comparison between buildings.

"What's most interesting is the way that taxes are assessed around the city, who gets the exemption and who isn't exempted," Whong said. "This will shine more light on the process ... It's just one more step to [inform] initiatives to make the tax system more equitable and fairly implemented."

Ana Champeny, an analyst at New York City's Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded agency that provides nonpartisan information on New York City budget and tax issues, said it was positive that the information was more easily accessible. "There are features of the state law that end up leading to disparities between properties, this kind of visualization makes those much more apparent to folks than simply having 100 PDFs one by one," she said.

She also pointed out several ways in which the information available could be improved. Simply comparing taxes per unit might not be an "apples to apples" comparison, she said, since there can be significant differences in the number and type of units in residential buildings and commercial buildings that can have offices, hotels or retail stores. From a policy perspective, she said it could make more sense to look at taxes over market value. She added that it would also be helpful to have more information on what building class a property belongs to, especially when a commercial property could be anything from a store to a warehouse or a parking lot, and have more information on the types of exemptions.

She said she could see the platform being especially helpful to homeowners who are familiar with the buildings in their area and would be more easily able to make comparisons.

"It is a very complicated system and they're representing a single snapshot taken at one point in time with a limited set of factors -- you still need to have a certain amount of policy background to interpret that," she said. "There's definitely a lot of opportunity to make the property tax system easier for people to understand and more equitable, and if more information contributes to that, that would be wonderful."

A recently filed class-action lawsuit alleges that New York City's property tax system unfairly disadvantages blacks and Hispanics living in rental buildings which are subject to higher taxes than co-ops, condos and single-family houses, the Wall Street Journal reported