*. Associate, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz,. B.A., Morehouse College;
J.D., Yale Law School. Comments welcome to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author
acknowledges thoughtful advice and encouragement from Alena Allen, Ian Ayres, and, above
all, Bob Ellickson.
‘ASSESSING’ DISCRIMINATION: THE INFLUENCE
OF RACE IN RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY TAX
Table of Contents
II. METHODOLOGY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
A. Method . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
B. Data Source . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
III.FINDINGS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
A. General Evidence of Racial Disparity in
Property Tax Assessments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
B. Residential Type . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
C. Tenure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
D. Sales Price . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
E. Assessments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
F. Regression Analysis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
G. Potential Criticisms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
IV. PROBABLE EXPLANATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
A. Assessments as Inducement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
B. Politics of Assessments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
C. Law . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
V. COURT-ORDERED REFORM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
A. Sioux City v. Dakota County, Nebraska . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
B. Cumberland Coal v. Greene County, Pennsylvania . . . . 42
C. Allegheny v. Webster County, West Virginia . . . . . . . . . . 43
D. Nordlinger v. Hahn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
E. Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
VI. STATUTORY REFORM AND PURCHASE ASSESSMENTS . . . . . . . 47
A. Purchase Assessments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
B. Other Advantages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48
C. Other Alternatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
D. Criticisms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53
VII.CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
A. Selected Sales Data . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
B. Tenure by Census Tract . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
2 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
1. See generally JENS PETER JENSEN, PROPERTY TAXATION IN THE UNITED STATES 288-92
(1931). This point is particularly salient in New Haven, where residents pay some of the
highest property taxes in the state. Residential property in New Haven is taxed at a mill rate
(the rate per $1,000 dollars of property owned) of $34.78. Besides that, citizens of Connecticut
pay out nearly the highest property taxes in the nation. In fact, at just over $1,500 annually,
the state has the second largest (after New Jersey) property tax liability per capita in the
union, almost twice the national average of under $800. For comparative data on mill rates
in Connecticut, see Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, Municipal Fiscal Indicators,
available at http://www.opm.state.ct.us/database.htm (last visited May 3, 2003). For data on
total revenue generated from property taxes in Connecticut and other states, see US CENSUS
BUREAU, STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE UNITED STATES (2002) [hereinafter 2002 STATISTICAL
2. In Connecticut, the numbers are lamentable. Only 31.4 % of African Americans and
25.9 % of Latinos are homeowners, compared to much higher national averages — 43.4 and
42.4 %, respectively. HOUSING STATISTICS OF THE UNITED STATES 240-44 (Patrick A. Simmons
ed., 3d ed. 2000) (providing data on historical homeownership rates by race) [hereinafter 2000
C. Census Tracts and Popular Names . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
Residential property in majority-minority neighborhoods is
assessed at higher effective rates than similar property in majority-
white neighborhoods. That is, residents of minority neighborhoods
— namely, African American and Latino neighborhoods — face
assessments that are, on average, significantly higher than the
market value of their residences, while residents of majority-white
neighborhoods are, on average, assessed at significantly less than
market value. These comparatively high assessments ultimately
lead to high property tax bills for residents of minority
The possibility of racialized property tax assessments is startling
for several reasons. Most conspicuously, it means that residents of
minority neighborhoods might be paying more than their fair share
of public expenses that depend on property tax revenue. Or, put
another way, residents of minority neighborhoods face higher
effective property tax rates.1
Less obvious is the effect high assessments would have on
minorities who do not currently own their home: potential minority
homebuyers. That is, if minorities are paying more in effective
property tax rates, then, at the margin, the increased tax burden
may discourage some minorities from becoming homeowners. High
property taxes are a direct cost to potential homebuyers and, if too
high, they will dissuade some minority non-homeowners from
making home purchases. Already, minority groups nationally are
far less likely to own a home than non-minorities.2
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION3
3. Kenneth K. Baar, Property Tax Assessment Discrimination Against Low-Income
Neighborhoods, 13 URB. LAW. 333, 335 (1981); see JENSEN, supra note 1, at 54.
4. See William S. Hendon, Discrimination Against Negro Homeowners in Property Tax
Assessment, 27 AM. J. ECON. & SOC. 125, 125 (1968).
5. Id. at 128-29.
6. DIANE B. PAUL, THE POLITICS OF THE PROPERTY TAX 35 (1975) (citing David E. Black,
Inequalities in Effective Property Tax Rates: A Statistical Study of the City of Boston 150
(1969) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, M.I.T.) (on file with author)).
7. Oliver Oldman & Henry Aaron, Assessment-Sales Ratios under the Boston Property Tax,
18 NAT’L TAX J. 36, 43 (1965).
Lastly, minority homeowners in some cases may also suffer from
relatively high tax assessments. If homeowners in, say, African
American neighborhoods face unusually high property tax
assessments, the value of their homes may ultimately decrease.
Inordinately high property tax assessments tend to drive down the
value of residential property, since property value is partly a
function of the property tax liability that its owner can expect to
pay. In other words, if the property tax liability is comparatively
high, this expectation will be capitalized into the price of the home
and prospective buyers will offer and, ultimately, pay less to the
present homeowner to purchase such property.3
Over three decades ago, William Hendon set out to analyze
whether African Americans in segregated neighborhoods in Ft.
Worth were assessed at higher effective rates than whites.4 African
American homeowners, he found, paid property taxes on
assessments right at market value, while white owners paid taxes
on assessments that were significantly less than the market value.5
With the insights of Hendon, one would expect other authors to
have thoroughly canvassed the possibility of race-dependent
property tax assessments. For instance, Hendon’s study, which was
based on a rigidly segregated housing market in the late sixties,
warrants comparison to the more fluid housing patterns found in
today’s urban areas. Moreover, in a time before the ubiquity of
computers, Hendon is only able to examine a small sample set of
homes and only for two neighborhoods, which even a modest
researcher might expand on today.
However, other analyses of the influence of race in assessments
have, to date, largely amounted to merely noting the possibility of
race-dependent property tax assessments. David Black, in an
unpublished doctoral dissertation, explored the possibility of
assessment discrimination in Boston, only to conclude that little
assessment disparity, about 10%, is explained by race.6 Also in a
study of Boston, authors Oldman and Aaron, both of Harvard,
concluded that commercial properties were over-assessed, as
compared to residential property.7 Importantly, the authors also
4 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
8. Id. at 40.
9. Provocatively, in the conclusion of the article, the authors ask, but provide no answer:
“Are minority groups, the rich, the poor, or neighborhoods predominately of one race, religion,
or political party systematically favored or discriminated against in property taxation? If so,
do these patterns explain the Roxbury case?” Id. at 48.
10. See generally Rosewell v. LaSalle National Bank, 450 U.S. 503, 527 (1980) (noting that
“[t]he property tax is by far the most important source of tax revenue for cities and counties.”).
See also WILLIAM FISCHEL, THE HOMEVOTER HYPOTHESIS: HOW HOME VALUES INFLUENCE
LOCAL GOVERNMENT TAXATION, SCHOOL FINANCE, AND LAND-USE POLICIES (2001).
found that Roxbury, a majority-minority neighborhood in Boston,
pay taxes on some of the highest tax assessments in the city.8
However, they never fully explore their finding of possible race-
Consequently, in this article, I explore the possibility of
racialized property tax assessments. This is not a modern-day
rehearsal of Hendon’s study, but a more full and cogent analysis of
race as an explanation of property assessment disparity. This article
describes assessment disparity in twenty-eight neighborhoods in
New Haven, Connecticut. I examined sales-ratio data for over 1400
home sales in New Haven, Connecticut in 2000-2001. Sales-ratio
data compares the amount of cash a home sells for to the amount at
which it is assessed (assessment/sales amount). Based on the sales
data, I found that, indeed, residents of majority-minority
neighborhoods are assessed at higher effective rates than residents
of majority-white neighborhoods.
Although I found differential assessments against residents of
minority neighborhoods, I am not so bold as to suggest
abandonment of property taxes, which are regarded by most as the
keystone of local public finance.10 I do suggest, however, that
perhaps it is high time to rethink our allegiance to traditional
market-tied property taxation. I suggest that perhaps residential
property taxation ought not to be based on the purported market
value of property, as it traditionally has been in most places, but
based on the property’s acquisition, or purchase, costs. Such costs
are the only real measure of market value, since in the vast majority
of cases it is the amount an unrelated party would (and did) pay for
a piece of property.
After describing the research project in Part II, in Part III I
describe my findings. Shortly put, residents of majority-African
American and majority-Latino neighborhoods are assessed at higher
effective rates than residents of other neighborhoods. For instance,
on average, residents of majority-African American neighborhoods
and majority-Latino neighborhoods are assessed at an effective rate
sixty percent higher than residents of majority-white
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION5
11. GEORGE E. PETERSON ET AL., PROPERTY TAXES, HOUSING AND THE CITIES 6, 120 (1973)
(proposing that “one of the most urgent tax “reforms” is to implement what is already legally
12. In order to come to some conclusions about the correct market value, assessors have
several arrows in their quiver. Under one approach, assessors look to the sale data of other
nearby comparable properties. Second, under the cost approach, assessors look to the value
of the underlying improvement to land. Third, under the income capitalization approach,
assessors attempt to figure out what the present expected value of a future income stream
from the property will be. Finally, I should note that assessors have increasingly turned to
sophisticated computerized appraisal techniques, which allow assessors to control for wide
range variables in valuations. See CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62(f)(3)(f) (2003) (providing for the
creation of a board to oversee computer-assisted mass appraisal techniques); JEROME R.
HELLERSTEIN & WALTER HELLERSTEIN, STATE AND LOCAL TAXATION 93 (5th ed. 1988); Bonnie
H. Keen, Tax Assessment of Contaminated Property: Tax Breaks for Polluters?, 19 B.C. ENVTL.
AFF. L. REV. 885, 890-91 (1992). For a discussion of the problems with each approach, see
Baar, supra note 3, at 347-52.
In Part IV, I try to put the findings in perspective, pointing to
several factors that might explain the over-assessment of property
tax for residents of minority neighborhoods. First, I suggest that
over-assessments of minority neighborhoods might be a way to
induce whites to stay in central cities, like New Haven. Second, I
argue that assessment discrimination may be the result of politics,
particularly the political nature of an assessor’s duties. Last, I
suggest that the structure of the law may disadvantage residents of
majority-minority neighborhoods. In Part V, I explore the legal
implications of my findings. I suggest that the current property tax
regime, with all of its inequities, may be vulnerable to challenge
under federal jurisprudence.
While there are many critiques on the property tax system, ideas
about reforming the current system are wanting.11 Thus, no critique
of residential property taxes would truly be complete to my mind
without sketching, however skeletal, the contours of a replacement.
In Part VI, I begin that endeavor. I suggest that perhaps the best
way to mitigate assessment discrimination, as evidenced by the case
of New Haven, is to take the human element out of property
taxation altogether. In other words, states and municipalities might
consider replacing the market-tied assessments with “purchase
assessments”; that is, assessments based on the actual cash costs
(i.e., purchase price) of residential parcels of property.
On their face, property taxes can be described as market-tied
taxes. Property tax assessments are intended to capture the market
value of a particular piece of property, or how much the property
would sell for in an arms-length transaction.12 Connecticut is as
good a case in point as any. According to the Connecticut code, for
6 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
13. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62(a)(b) (2003).
14. Id. § 12-63(a) (2003) (“The present true and actual value of all other property shall be
deemed by all assessors and boards of assessments appeals to be the fair market value
therefore and not its value at a forced or auction sale.”). The Connecticut statute is
comparable to that found in other states. See, e.g., W.VA. CODE § 11-3-1 (2003) (providing that
“true and actual value” means “the price for which such property would sell if voluntarily
offered for sale by the owner ….”).
15. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-64(a) (2003) (providing that all non-exempt property “shall be
liable to taxation at a uniform percentage of its present true and actual valuation, not
exceeding one hundred per cent of such valuation, to be determined by the assessors.”).
16. See, e.g., ROBERT A. DAHL, WHO GOVERNS? DEMOCRACY AND POWER IN AN AMERICAN
CITY (1961) (describing the power structure of New Haven); MALCOM M. FEELEY, THE PROCESS
IS THE PUNISHMENT (1992) (analyzing the behavior of lower criminal courts by examining New
Haven); Steven Gunn, Note, Eviction Defense for Poor Tenants: Costly Compassion or Justice
Served?, 13 YALE L. & POL’Y REV. 385 (1995) (reporting the findings of a study of over 200
evictions in New Haven).
17. PAUL, supra note 6, at 10-12 (describing how city governments routinely keep
assessment data secret from the public).
18. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-120(a) (2003) (providing that the Secretary shall present an
19. Interview with Terry Rodie Kennedy, Assessment Systems Manager in New Haven,
Conn. (Apr. 21, 2003).
instance, all property in a municipality should be assessed on
October 1 and at a uniform rate of seventy percent of “present true
and actual value.”13 Another Section informs that the “present true
and actual value” is the fair market value of the property.14
Connecticut even places a hard cap on the amount of tax assessment
that can be found at one hundred percent of a property’s market
value.15 Once assessments are determined, property taxes are meted
The remainder of this Part is divided into two sections. First, I
describe the method used to ascertain whether assessors meet this
mandate. Second, I describe the situs of the data: New Haven,
Connecticut, a city that, as home of Yale University, has frequently
captivated both student and academic authors.16
In contrast to historical data on property sales, today records of
realty sales are publicly available in many states.17 Current records
of all real estate sales in the state of Connecticut are kept by the
Office of Policy and Management and open to public view.18 Thus, as
one Connecticut official put it, cities are required to report to the
state “every step along the way.”19 The initial data set recorded
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION7
Summary of Property Sales in 2000
(New Haven, CT)
Property TypeCommercial Residential Vacant Land
Source: Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (2000 Residential Sales Listing).
96 1736 28 1011961
4.9 88.51.4 5.2100
21. For example, some data did not include census tract information.
22. Sales for less than $10,000 were removed from the data set on the theory that such low-
cash sales were probably sales between related parties, such as sales between relatives, or
sales for non-cash consideration that goes unrecorded. There were twenty-four such sales.
Data set, available upon request, on file with author. See also Connecticut Office of Policy and
Management (2000 Residential Sales Listing), available at http://www.opm.state.ct.us/
database.htm (last visited May 3, 2003) (proving raw data on home sales in 2000).
23. See PAUL, supra note 6, at 4.
almost two thousand home sales (1,961) in New Haven in 2000, the
vast majority of those (approximately 89%) were residential sales.20
After dropping those home sales that did not include complete
information,21 commercial sales, sales of vacant land, and sales
seemingly for less than full consideration,22 the remaining data set
included just over fourteen hundred residential sales (1,410).
As I have done on the following pages, one can measure how
successful the market-tied taxation scheme is by comparing the
assessed amount to how much homes actually sell for. Such a
comparison — assessment over sales price — is usually referred to
as an “assessment-sales ratio” or, more simply, “sales-ratio.” To
simplify things, suppose that assessments are required to equal
market value, as is required in a majority of states.23 (This is a
simplification only because in Connecticut, as mentioned,
assessments are required to be 70% of market value, not 100%). In
that case, sales price ought to equal the amount assessed; and, in
turn, the sales ratio would be 100%, reflecting a one-to-one ratio of
assessment value to sales amount. Thus, homes selling for less than
100% of the sales-assessment ratio have been over-assessed and
property owners selling for more than 100% of the sales-ratio have
Suppose a particular home has a sales-ratio of, say, 50%.
Obviously the owner is paying only half the amount of property
taxes she should be paying. Total assessments in this case are
exactly one half the amount such owner could sell for on the open
market. Conversely, when homes have sales-ratio greater than
8 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
24. At this point, a numerical example is warranted. Consider the property tax treatment
of a single family home with a market value of $90,000, which is the median selling price of
single family homes in New Haven in 2000. Also note that the mill rate, or rate of taxation,
in New Haven is $34.78 per $1,000 of Market Value. See Connecticut Office of Policy and
Management (2000 Residential Sales Listing). Thus, if properly assessed, such a homeowner
would owe property taxes of $3,130.20 ($90,000 x $34.78/$1,000). However, if the same home
were slightly over-assessed by 10% of its market value (sales-ratio equals 110 %) the owner
would owe $3,443.22 in taxes ($99,000 x $34.78/$1,000), a difference of more than three
hundred dollars in property taxes.
25. The vast majority of data used in this study come from two sources: (1) a database of
residential sales maintained by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management; and (2)
Census data maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau. See generally Connecticut Office of Policy
and Management, Residential Sales Listings, available at http://www.opm.state.ct.us/
database.htm (last visited May 3, 2003); U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder,
available at www.census.gov (last visited May 3, 2003).
26. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62(a) (2003).
100%, such homes can be said to be over-assessed — for example,
110%. In this situation, homeowners are paying too much in
property taxes.24 In New Haven, as it will be seen, homes in
majority-white neighborhoods are significantly under-assessed, as
compared to homes in majority-minority neighborhoods. This
pattern of over-assessment of property in minority neighborhoods
persists regardless of the type or residence (single family or
multifamily residence), the tenure of the residents (owners or
renters) or the value of the underlying property (inexpensive homes
or expensive ones).
For instance, consider Table 1, which summarizes the data used
in this study.25 It shows that the highest home sale in New Haven
in 2000 was over $2,000,000 (see Max.=SALEPRICE). Reading that
row across, from right to left, it shows that the average or mean
selling price in New Haven was just over $100,000. Meanwhile, the
table also shows that average assessment was little more than
$81,000 (Mean=ASSESSMENT) or only about three-fourths of the
average sale amount. Thus, it suggests that average assessment
were right at about 70 % of market value, the amount incidentally
prescribed by state statute.26
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION9
Summary of Data
CodeN Mean S.D.Min. Max.
CONDO 22610 1 1
ONEFAMILY 81810 1 1
ASSESSMENT1410 $81,74235751 $3,500 $421,400
PERCENT WHITE1410 38.8%0.252.0% 89.0%
Sources: Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (2000 Residential Sales Listing). US
Census Bureau (2000 Census).
Note: All cash values rounded to nearest dollar. All percent values rounded to nearest tenth
percent. Values for residential type do not sum to 1410, since the vast majority of CONDO
also count as single family home sales.
However, the Table also shows that the average sales ratio was
high; on average, residents were over-assessed. It was much more
than seventy percent ratio, as required by law and even slightly
more than the market value of the home. Specifically, the third
column (SALERATIO=Mean) of the Table shows that the average
sale-ratio exceeded the sales (or market) price by some sixteen
percent. This suggests that at least some homes in New Haven were
over-assessed. Finally, I should point out, since I have eliminated all
low-end sales, the Table also shows that the minimum selling price
(fifth column) for a residential property was $10,000.
10 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
27. See Table 2; see also 2002 COUNTY AND CITY EXTRA: ANNUAL METRO, CITY, AND COUNTY
DATA BOOK 940 (Deirdre A. Gaquin et al. eds., 11th ed. 2002).
28. “Mixed-race neighborhoods” are neighborhoods where no ethnic/racial group is in the
29. See infra Table 2.
30. For a complete list of the census tracts in New Haven and their corresponding
neighborhood names, see Part VIII.C at Table 18.
B. Data Source
New Haven is ethnically and racially mixed. The city’s ethnic
population includes a large mix of Latinos (21.4%), African
Americans (39.3%), and non-Latino whites (35.6%).27 In fact, in
addition to nine mixed-race neighborhoods,28 seven neighborhoods
in New Haven are majority-African American, eight majority-white
(non-Latino), and three neighborhoods are majority-Latino29. The
city is divided into twenty eight census tracts, which correspond,
roughly speaking, to neighborhoods in the city.30 Accordingly, the
data are able to demonstrate differences in residential property tax
assessments across three of the country’s largest ethnic/racial
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION11
31. See PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 3 (noting the uniformity of the housing stock in
Selected Racial Data
(New Haven, CT)
Totals 123,626 21.4%35.6% 39.3% 0%4%
Source: US Census Bureau (2000 Census). Majority African American Neighborhoods are
in bold. Majority-Latino Neighborhoods are underlined. Majority-white neighborhoods are
Additionally, in contrast to many urban areas, New Haven has a
fairly mixed housing stock.31 Housing sales data, in a city littered
12JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
many urban cities).
32. See generally ELIZABETH MILLS BROWN, NEW HAVEN: A GUIDE TO ARCHITECTURE AND
URBAN DESIGN (1976) (describing the architecture of New Haven); see also DON METZ, NEW
ARCHITECTURE IN NEW HAVEN (rev. ed. 1973) (describing the architecture of New Haven).
33. See, e.g., JENSEN, supra note 1, at 293-97; PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 23.
35. See, e.g., DICK NETZER, ECONOMICS OF THE PROPERTY TAX 78 (1966) (finding that larger
multi-family housing and commercial property is “much more heavily taxed than single family
housing.”); PAUL, supra note 6, at 5.
36. See, e.g., PAUL, supra note 6, at 18.
with double- and triple-decker homes, were a mix of single- and
multiple-family dwellings.32 Thus, it is possible to explore the
implications of housing type of residential property tax assessment.
There are three predominant explanations for disparities in
property tax assessments, all of which omit the racial dynamic. The
first non-racial explanation for assessment disparity holds that the
relative value of the underlying property controls.33 That is, high-
value homes tend to get an assessment break, while low-value
homes tend to be over-assessed.34 Others, meanwhile, have pinned
disparity in assessments on the type of residence in question.35 For
instance, commercial properties are customarily over-assessed as
compared to residential properties. Third, some have suggested that
the real discrimination is against renters and/or landlords.36
Assessors are inclined to give owner-occupied residences a
reduction, since homeowners are more likely to be politically active
and keen to challenge high assessments. Renters, on the other hand,
are more susceptible to over-assessment, since they face a high tax
bill (if at all) only indirectly in the form of higher rent.
All that said, in the remainder of this Part I present my main
findings. I compare the three most common explanations for
disparity in assessments to the racial data available in New Haven.
After describing each of these arguments, I demonstrate that,
despite them, residents of majority-minority neighborhoods are
assessed at higher percentages of market value than residents of
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 13
37. See, e.g., Daniel E. Ho, Compliance and International Soft Law: Why Do Countries
Implement the Basle Accord?, 5 J. INT’L ECON. L. 647 (2002). If two variables are “perfectly
correlated” they move in tandem and exhibit a one-to-one correlation. Cars, it might be said,
are perfectly correlated with tires, for instance — the higher the number of cars, the higher
the number of tires.
A. General Evidence of Racial Disparity in Property Tax
1. A Correlation Matrix
For starters, a general sense of the relationship of race to sales
ratio can be had by referring to a correlation matrix, which simply
compares the unadjusted movements among two or more variables
and are routinely used to make an initial determination of the
direction of a relationship.37 Specifically, Table 3 shows the
correlation between sales ratio and various variables used
throughout. As seen, the relationship between sales ratio and
percent minority is a generally positive one: the higher the percent
minority a particular neighborhood, the higher the sales ratio. The
first column, and perhaps the most important column for our
purposes, suggests that every one percent increase in sales ratio
corresponds with a nearly quarter percent (0.24) increase in percent
African American. The same column also shows a positive
relationship between sales ratios and LATINO — as the percent of
Latino residents rises, so, too, does the sales ratio.
14JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
Latino WhiteAsian Native Rent
-0.41 -0.26-0.27 0.340.27-0.02 -0.110.60 1.00
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Residential Sales Listing). US
Census Bureau (2000 Census).
Conversely, the table shows that WHITE exhibits generally a
negative relationship to sales ratio. Put differently, increases in the
“whiteness”, or percent white, of a neighborhood correlates with
decreases (-0.29) in sales-ratio. Thus, without considering the effects
of any other variables, the table shows that percent African
American and percent Latino correspond with higher effective
property tax rates, while percent white and percent Asian
correspond with lower effective property tax rates.
In addition, the table shows that purchase price, PRICE, is
negatively correlated with sales-ratio (first column, -0.41), which
means that high-price homes tend to have low sales-ratios. Also,
RENT, or percent renter, is positively related to sales-ratio (first
column, 0.15): the higher the number of renters, the higher the
sales-ratio tends to be. Last, the penultimate column of the table
shows, as can be expected, a positive relationship between sales
price and assessed value. Put differently, higher assessment
amounts predictably increase with the higher amounts of total cash
Finally, it is interesting to note that the table can also be read
to suggest that neighborhoods in New Haven are segregated. For
instance, the second column of the Table suggest that for every
percent increase of African Americans in a neighborhood, there is a
large corresponding decrease of whites (0.76). Every one percent rise
in LATINO population (column four) is correlated with a 0.53
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 15
38. The majority-white Census Tracts (neighborhoods) in New Haven, CT are: 1410
(Westville); 1411 (Westville); 1417 (Yale); 1419 (East Rock); 1420 (East Rock); 1422 (Wooster
Square); 1427 (East Shore-Annex); and 1428 (East Shore-Morris Cove). Those that are
majority African American are: 1408 (Edgewood-West River); 1409 (Edgewood-West River);
1412 (Westhills); 1413 (Westhills); 1414 (Beaver Hills); 1415 (Newhallville); and 1416
(Dixwell). Those that are majority Latino are: 1405 (4 City Point); 1423 (Fair Haven); and
1424 (Fair Haven). See Table 18 and Table 2.
percent decrease in the white population. With the exception of
Asians, minority presence is negatively correlated with white
presence; the higher the presence of whites, the lower the presence
of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans (column five).
2. Suggestive Evidence of Racial Disparity in Assessment
Even more suggestive of discrimination against minorities in
assessments than the correlation matrix is Table 4. The table
breaks out the data by neighborhood and majority-ethnic/racial
group. As Table 4 shows, eighteen of the twenty-eight Census Tracts
in New Haven are comprised of one majority ethnic or racial group.38
A majority of these (10) are majority-minority neighborhoods.
The table also suggests (but does not prove) that residents in
these majority-minority neighborhoods, on average, pay
significantly more in property taxes than their property is
ultimately selling for. Assessments in majority-minority
neighborhoods in New Haven are, on average, 40% higher than the
market value of the home. Perhaps more troubling, assessments in
majority-minority neighborhoods are a staggering 70% more than
what is called for by law! This finding, of course, would not be as
disturbing if residents of all neighborhoods were assessed equally
high rates; that is, if all neighborhoods were equally over-assessed.
However, the table also shows that residents of minority
neighborhoods pay effective rates greater than residents of mixed
neighborhoods and majority-white neighborhoods. Residents of
mixed neighborhoods (fifth column) also pay too much in property
taxes, although not as much as residents of majority-minority
neighborhoods. At the same time, residents of majority-white
neighborhoods are assessed, on average, 20% less than the market
16JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
39. See NETZER, supra note 35, at 56.
40. The data referred to in this paragraph can be found in the Part VIII.A at Table 16.
Sales Ratio by Majority Ethnic or Racial Group
432 315 2084531410
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Residential Sales). US Census
Bureau (2000 Census).
Interestingly, the table also shows that there were significantly
more home sales in majority white neighborhoods than in, say,
majority African American neighborhoods (432 compared to 315).
Assuming that homes turnover in both neighborhoods with similar
frequency, this suggests that there are more homes, as an absolute
number, in majority white neighborhoods. Perhaps, as a result,
assessors may be better able to judge the market in majority white
neighborhoods, because there is more raw sales data to go on.39
However, the table also shows that residents of mixed race
neighborhoods (i.e., those without a single majority ethnic or racial
group) are over-assessed significantly higher than the market value
of the home, although such neighborhoods had more home sales
than those in majority white neighborhoods (453 compared to 432).
Thus, for some reason other than the sheer volume of home sales,
residents of majority-white neighborhoods are, on average,
significantly under-assessed, while residents of minority and mixed
race neighborhoods are significantly over-assessed in New Haven.
To illustrate quickly, consider the case of two neighborhoods in
the city: Edgewood-West River (census tract 1408) and East Rock
(census tract 1420).40 That is, the most over-assessed neighborhood
in the city is the Edgewood-West River neighborhood. Judging by
the sales-ratio data, residents there were assessed, on average,
nearly two and one half times (248%) more than their homes’
market value. This neighborhood is majority African American
(62%) with a significant Latino presence (17%).
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 17
41. NETZER, supra note 35, at 78-80 (arguing that multi-family homes are over-assessed
compared to single family units); PAUL, supra note 6, at 5 (distinguishing assessments of
residential properties and income-producing properties).
42. PAUL, supra note 6, at 25 (“[T]he effective tax rate on residential property rises with
the number of units. Single-family homes are assessed at an average of approximately 34 %,
two-family at 41 %, three-to-five family at 52 %, six-or-more family at 58 %, and multi-unit
residences of more than one structure at 65 %.”).
43. NETZER, supra note 35, at 78-79.
44. See Interview with Terry Rodie Kennedy, supra note 19.
At the same time, the data suggests that the East Rock
community, one of the richest communities in the state and nation,
is the polar opposite of Edgewood-West River. The data suggests
that residents of East Rock have, on average, some of the lowest
assessments in the city. East Rock is almost three-fourths white,
with Latino and African American presences combined making up
less than twenty percent of the area’s residential population. It
remains to be seen whether the unadjusted evidence of racial
disparity in property tax assessments holds when one takes into
account things such as the type of residence chosen, the relative
wealth of the neighborhood, or the absolute assessment amount.
B. Residential Type
It has been suggested that differential property tax assessments
are a natural consequence of different types of properties.41 Single
family homes, as others have found, are routinely under-assessed
compared to other residential property types.42 Thus, even if the law
requires uniformity, since properties are of different types, there
will be different evidence to base assessments upon.43 For example,
one cannot expect assessors using sales data to come up with
similar results for commercial sales and residential sales, since
there are very few commercial sales from year to year.44 As noted in
New Haven, there were only ninety-six such commercial sales,
compared to almost two thousand residential sales.
18 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
45. See NETZER, supra note 35, at 56 (noting that there is greater ease in assessing more
Sales Ratio by Residential Property Type
105.51 104.00126.43145.08 116.38
226818 365228 1410
Source: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Residential Sales Listing).
Note: Total number of home sales exceeds 1410, since Condo is also counted as single family
As shown in Table 5, most home sales in New Haven were single
family homes. However, the table shows that there were a large
percentage of two family home sales (representing almost one
quarter of total residential home sales), not to mention a good
portion of sales of condominiums or three family residences. The
table also shows the average sales ratio and sales amount for
different types of residential properties.
Regardless of the type of residence, most home sales have high
average assessments relative to market value, although condos and
single family homes have the lowest sales ratio, assessed at only
slightly more than market value. Again, this may be because they
are the largest segment of the residential property population. As
the data shows, for example, they represent the largest number of
residential property sales (N equals 818). Thus, property tax
assessments may be closer to correct market assessments (or a 100
% sales-ratio) for these sales, because there are more properties to
compare.45 It may also be the case that assessors give a break to
owner-occupied homes, because such homeowners represent a large
share of the voting population. Single family homes are more likely
owner-occupied. Multi-family homes, by contrast, are likely
disproportionately renter-occupied. Renters realize high tax bills
only indirectly through higher rents and are, therefore, less likely
to challenge an adverse assessment.
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 19
46. See generally Hendon, supra note 4, at 131.
47. See PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 26.
However, the data also shows that residents of minority
neighborhoods are over-assessed, regardless of the residential type
of residential home minorities chose. For instance, Table 6 shows
that residents in majority-minority neighborhoods and mixed
neighborhoods paid higher property taxes for each of the residential
Sales Ratio by Race and Residential type
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Residential Sales Listing). US
Census Bureau (2000 Census).
Note: The number of residential sales is in parentheses.
For all three neighborhood types — majority-minority, majority-
white, and mixed neighborhoods — the data shows that multiple
family homes are assessed at higher effective rates, on average,
than single family homes. Residents of both majority-African
American neighborhoods and majority-Latino neighborhoods in
three family residences have sales-ratios that are, on average,
significantly higher than the market value of the homes.
Meanwhile, residents of majority-white neighborhoods are assessed,
on average, at rates lower than the market value of their home for
each of the residential types. Perhaps a caveat is in order. One
possible shortcoming of the data is that it does not include the age
of the properties, which may also explain the disparate property tax
assessments.46 However, at least one commentator has found that
age accounts for little of the variation in effective tax rates.47
20 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
48. PAUL, supra note 6, at 15.
49. See JENSEN, supra note 1.
50. Duncan Kennedy, The Effect of the Warranty of Habitability on Low-Income Housing:
“Milking” and Class Violence, 15 FLA. ST. U.L. REV. 485, 489-92 (1987) (describing the
landlord “milking” strategy).
Another story is that renters, but not necessarily minorities, are
more likely to be over-assessed, because renters never physically see
their tax bills and, therefore, are not likely to make a political fuss;
as one commentator puts it, “renters are politically inert.”48
Similarly, landlords are less likely to challenge high assessments
because they, unlike owner-occupied residents, may be able to pass
along the sizeable property tax bills to tenants in the form of higher
In another view, since some landlords may plan to abandon their
realty, in which case the relative size of their tax bill is irrelevant;
such landlords do not intend to pay the property taxes in any event.
More concretely put, the profitable strategy for some landlords, as
Duncan Kennedy observed early on, is to collect as much revenue (in
the form of rental payments) as possible, but make no payments for
maintenance or upkeep, such as taxes that may accrue on the
property.50 Once they have “milked” their building of all its cash
value, they simply abandon it, tax bill and all.51 Shortly, residents
of minority neighborhoods may also be adversely treated in
assessments because they are more often renters, not because they
are minorities per se. Consistent with this theory, the data show
(Table 7) that residents of majority-owner occupied units face
markedly lower sales-ratios. This holds true regardless of the
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 21
52. The three majority-owner occupied neighborhoods in New Haven are census tract 1410
(Westville-Eastern portion), 1411 (Westville -Western portion), and 1428 (East Shore/Morris
Sales Ratio by Tenure and Residential type
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Residential Sales Listing). US
Census Bureau (2000 Census).
Note: In the top panel the number of neighborhoods is in parentheses. In the bottom panel,
the number of residential sales is in parentheses.
Further, Table 8 suggests that in New Haven, residents of
minority groups are significantly more likely to live in renter-
occupied than in owner-occupied units. Less than one-third of
residents in majority-minority neighborhoods are owners, compared
to nearly half of residents in majority-white neighborhoods. All
three of the neighborhoods in New Haven that are majority owner-
occupied are majority white neighborhoods.52
22JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
Ownership v. Rental by Neighborhood Type
RentOwn Rent Own RentOwn RentOwn
31.168.9 24.9 75.147.5 52.525.075.0
Source: US Census Bureau (2000 Census).
However, the fact that minorities are more likely renters and
renters are more likely to be over-assessed than owners does not
completely explain the initial finding of racialized disparity in
assessments. As mentioned, none of the neighborhoods in New
Haven that are majority-owner occupied are also majority-minority.
Thus, it is impossible to compare whether owner-occupied
residences across racial and ethnic groups are assessed at
differential effective rates. However, it is possible to compare sales
ratios for majority-rental neighborhoods, as shown in Table 8.
Indeed, there are a number of “rental neighborhoods” for each
Sales Ratio in Majority-Renter Neighborhoods
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Residential Sales). US Census
Bureau (2000 Census).
Note: Number of residential sales in parenthesis.
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 23
53. See JENSEN, supra note 1, at 293-97 (noting discrimination against low-value
properties); Baar, supra note 3, at 341 (also noting discrimination against low-value
properties); PAUL, supra note 6, at 32-35 (finding under-assessment of rehabilitated
neighborhoods in Boston); PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 23 (finding under-assessment
of “upward transitional” neighborhoods and over-assessment of “blighted neighborhoods”).
54. JENSEN, supra note 1, at 293 (describing several of the earliest studies to claim
discrimination in favor of high value properties and against low value properties).
55. See PAUL, supra note 6, at 34 (noting that neighborhoods with declining values tend to
be African American); see also PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 119 (“[I]n the older cities
of our sample it was not unusual for properties in blighted neighborhoods to bear an effective
tax rate ten times as great as properties in the upward transitional neighborhoods of the same
city. Assuming that any or all of these tax differentials are passed along to tenants, this
assessment bias is distinctly prejudicial to the poor and in most cases to the black population
56. NETZER, supra note 35, at 56.
Again, racialized assessments emerge. Table 9 shows that, in
rental neighborhoods, those that are majority-white are assessed at
the lowest ratios. Yet, homes in both majority-African American and
majority-Latino neighborhoods, which are also majority rental, are
assessed at exactly double (140 %) the rate called for by law. Thus,
even when one looks solely at majority-renter neighborhoods,
residents of both majority-African American and Majority-Hispanic
neighborhoods face higher effective rates than residents of majority-
D. Sales Price
A third plausible theory of disparate assessments is stagnant
prices in low-income neighborhoods.53 Commentators have argued
that assessors simply give breaks to high-value properties.54
Frequently trumpeted, some commentators have argued that any
observed racial disparity is explained by the fact that minorities
tend to live disproportionately in low-value properties.55 Put
differently, assessors tend to inflate the market value of properties
in majority-minority neighborhoods, not because they are majority-
minority, but because homes in such neighborhoods tend to have
lower relative value. An interesting corollary to this high-value
argument, as Dick Netzer has noted, is that high-value homes are
under-assessed simply because there are fewer of them.56 Thus,
because assessors have fewer such homes to compare, they
“minimize litigation by erring on the low side.” Regardless of the
reason, the argument is that property tax assessment disparity is
explained by the relative price of homes.57
Indeed, the data I collected does seem to substantiate the claim
that assessment disparity is explained, at least in part, by sales
price. For example, although there were less than a handful of sales,
24 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
the average selling price in Yale, the neighborhood with the lowest
property tax assessments in the city, is spectacularly high at over
$500,000. In East Rock, a majority-white community with a
significant number of sales, it is more than $200,000. At the same
time, the average selling price of residences in Edgewood-West
River, the neighborhood paying out the highest amount in property
tax assessments, was relatively low at just over $50,000.
Furthermore, Table 10 shows a nearly perfect linear relationship
between sales ratio and sales price, with the highest value
properties getting the lowest assessments. Specifically, the table
shows that the seventeen most expensive home-sales in the cities
(>$500,000) also had the lowest sales-ratio - 34.49 %. Thus,
homeowners in those cases faced an effective property tax rate that
was only around one-third of the actual market value, assuming the
seventeen transactions were at market value. Moreover, those
home-owners paid property taxes at about one-half of the 70 %
required by Connecticut statute.
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 25
Sales Ratio by Sales Price
Sales Price RangeFrequency
Source: Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (2000 Residential Sales Listing).
Note: The raw number of sales is in parenthesis. All cash values are rounded to the nearest
The table indicates that low-value homes faced the highest sales
ratio. It suggests that those with homes worth between ten and fifty
thousand dollars (first row) were assessed at nearly two and one-
half times the actual value of their residence and, more troubling,
face an effective property tax rate significantly more than three
times that required by statute.
Still, even with these statistics, the relative value argument does
not completely explain the over-assessment in majority-minority
neighborhoods. For instance, while the average selling price in
Edgewood-West River is on the low side, the area it is in is not, by
far, the lowest selling priced area in the city. Residents of other
neighborhoods, such as Fair Haven and East Shore, all had average
selling prices below the median selling price of $89,900 ($77,146 and
26JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
$88,066 , respectively), but were both assessed at near perfect
market levels (119.28 and 107.49, respectively). Residents of one
Westhills neighborhood were, on average, even slightly under-
assessed (98.24) even though residences there sold for less than the
Furthermore, even if the data is broken out into sales for
relatively little, such as those selling for less than the median of
$89,900 (or “low-end home sales”) and “high-end home sales.”
Racialized assessments emerge. For example, Tables 11 and 12
below record the major differences between these two camps.
High-End Home Sales
873 10 18
63.57 72.9470.7468.87 67.28
$180,875$138,571 $111,267 $149,494$158,492
335 13469171 710
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Re-Sales Listing); US Census
Bureau (2000 Census). All cash values are rounded to the nearest dollar.
Generally, Table 11 suggests that New Haven assessors are
getting the assessments very close to the 70% of the market value
for relatively high-end residential properties. The average sales
ratio for home sales above $89,900, which represents half of all
home sales, is only less than three percentage points from the
perfect statutory levels of 70 %. In majority-Latino communities
assessors are dead on, levying an average assessment rate right at
70 %. However, the table still shows racialized assessments,
although the differences are much smaller than in some of the other
instances discussed. High-end home sales in majority-Latino
neighborhoods were assessed more than in majority-white
neighborhoods. And high-end homes in majority African American
neighborhoods were assessed, on average, nearly 10% of what was
charged in high-end home sales in majority-white neighborhoods.
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 27
Low-End Home Sales
873 10 18
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Re-Sales Listing); US Census
Bureau (2000 Census). All cash values are rounded to the nearest dollar.
Moreover, once we eyeball the other “half” of the market, homes
that sell for less than $89,900, we find that these homes are
assessed at higher than the market value. Homes in this half of the
market are assessed, on average, greater than 65 % more than the
market value of their home (last column). The two tables read
together appears to claim that assessment discrimination is against
low-income homeowners. As the first table shows, all high-end home
sales were under-assessed, paying, on average, little more than 67
% of the market value in property taxes. At the same time, low-
income neighborhoods are, on average, wildly over-assessed.
Nevertheless, while all low-end residential homes are over-assessed,
including residences in majority-white neighborhoods, such home
sales are even more flagrantly over-assessed in majority-minority
neighborhoods. Homes in majority-African American neighborhoods,
for example, are assessed at nearly twice the market value of their
homes and 50% more than homes in majority-white neighborhoods.
In sum, each of the two tables shows a racial differential impact in
property assessments. Even with the sales price argument, there is
still evidence of racial differences in assessments.
28 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
58. Regardless of “companionship,” the relationship of assessment to sales-ratio is distinct,
and ought not to be confused with the relationship of sales price to sales ratio. That is,
assessors may give low assessments to homes in neighborhoods with high value.
Alternatively, they may pass assessment breaks to homes with relatively high assessments.
One does not preclude the other. Thus, homes that have relatively high unadjusted (or raw)
assessments may have low sales-ratios, regardless of whether they have very high market
value. Conversely, homes with relatively high value may have low sales-ratios, regardless of
their unadjusted assessment. Shortly, the income and assessments arguments are somewhat
different methods of explaining disparate sales ratios.
The natural companion argument of the sales price argument is
that assessors give a break to relatively large assessments.58 The
intuition is that assessors tend to give breaks to those with
comparatively high assessments, since such persons will already
have a high tax bill. Table 13 provides lukewarm evidence to this
argument, since it shows that homes with relative low total
assessments are assessed at the highest ratios.
Sales Ratio by Assessment
Assessment Range Sales-Ratio
Sources: Connecticut Office of Management and Policy (2000 Re-Sales Listing); US Census
Bureau (2000 Census).
Note: The raw number of sales in parenthesis is in the respective assessment range.
Certainly those with total assessments above the median
assessment of $76,352 seem to be assessed at lower rates. Table 13
seems to suggest that the vast majority of homeowners, those
owning homes with total assessments between $50,001 and
$125,000, were assessed at market value. Interestingly, the table
also suggests that the presumed inverse relationship to total
assessment and property tax liability may actually be “forward
bending.” Put differently, at very high levels of assessments (i.e.,
assessments greater than $125,000), the table suggests that
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 29
property assessments increase; consequently those few properties
with extremely high total assessments are charged an exorbitant
amount in property taxes.
However, when the assessment to sales-ratio results are broken
down by majority-ethnic neighborhood, the same racialized effects
emerge. In fact, with the exception of very low assessments, homes
in majority-white neighborhoods are assessed at rates significantly
less than market value. Residents of majority-white neighborhoods
tend to pay out less in property taxes than residents of minority
neighborhoods, for all levels of total assessments. At the lower levels
of total assessments (i.e. <$100,000), residents of majority-Latino
neighborhoods trail residents of African American neighborhoods,
who are assessed at the highest rates. Although there were only
fifteen home sales in Latino neighborhoods with total assessments
above $100,000, the data suggests that at these relatively high
levels residents of Latino neighborhoods face higher assessments
than residents of any other neighborhood type.
Total Assessment to Sales Ratio
Sales RatioSales Ratio Sales Ratio Sales Ratio
Note: Number of residential sales in parentheses. All cash values rounded to the nearest
The table also shows that in both majority-white and mixed-race
neighborhoods, sales ratios drop significantly for property that has
a total assessment of more than $50,000. In mixed neighborhoods
assessments drop, on average, from 153.23 % to 109.83 %. In
majority-white neighborhoods, average assessments drop to a near
30 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
perfect 76.4 % when total assessments exceed $50,000. However,
there is no similar drop in majority-minority neighborhoods. In fact,
in majority-Latino neighborhoods, the sales ratio increases around
Last, consistent with our prior inkling, the table shows that the
number of sales seems to bear no relationship to the sales ratio. For
instance, the first row of the table shows that homes in both
majority-African American and majority-Hispanic neighborhoods
were highly over-assessed (151.4 % and 134.56 %, respectively)
compared to home sales in majority-white neighborhoods, although
in both cases there was an absolute higher number of sales than in
F. Regression Analysis
Finally, using regression analysis, it is possible to control or
equalize differences in tenure, assessment amounts, residential
types and sales prices, and come to arguably more powerful
conclusions. Accordingly, in this section, I have turned to regression
analysis to ascertain whether the percentage of African Americans
or of Latinos bears a statistically significant relationship to sales
ratio. As seen in Table 15, both the percent of African Americans
and the percent of Latinos exhibit a positive relationship to sales
ratio, which is consistent with all my findings so far. In other
words, the higher the percentage of minorities in neighborhoods in
New Haven, the higher the sales ratio. Further, this relationship is
statistically significant for increases in the percent of African
For example, the first column shows that for one percentage
point increase in African Americans, there is a corresponding 0.698
increase in sales ratio, holding tenure, assessment amount,
residential type, and sales price constant. The table implies that for
one percentage point increase in Latino population there is a
corresponding 0.413 increase in sales ratio. However, the putative
relationship with respect to percent Latino is not statistically
different from zero.
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 31
Regression: Sales Ratio
Note: Sales Ratio is the dependant Variable. Robust standard errors in parentheses.
All regressions include dummies for the four main residential types (condo, single
family, two family, and three family).
The table (still first column) also confirms the non-racialized
arguments of most commentators on property tax assessment
disparity. To be more specific, the table shows that sales price,
residential type (not shown), and assessment amount are also
powerfully related to the sales ratio and statistically significant. As
expected, for example, sales price is negatively related to the sales
ratio: high sales price is causally related to lower sales ratio.
Assessments, by contrast, are positively related to sale-ratio.
Although the regression suggests that the percent rent is positively
related to sales ratio as predicted, the data does not show that this
relationship is statistically significant.
In the third column of the table, I simply report standardized
coefficients of each of the variables in order to evaluate the relative
strength of each on sales ratio. As seen in that column, sales price
32JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
59. At this point, a brief caveat is in order. The table only explains a small proportion of
the sales-ratio; the variance explained or “R-squared” only equals 0.273. Thus, it is likely that
there are other variables that explain variation in sales-ratio.
60. For example, Table 1 shows the high and low sales ratio (third and fourth column
respectively). These sales are likely for non-cash consideration or sales between related
61. See Baar, supra note 3, at 364-67 (describing some of the problems with sales-ratio
data); see also JENSEN, supra note 1, at 285-86 (same).
62. See JENSEN, supra note 1, at 285.
63. See supra note 22.
has the biggest effect on sales-ratio. The regression predicts that a
one standard deviation increase in sales price results in a 0.55
standard deviation decrease in sales ratio. Total assessment is also
much stronger than any of our race variables. Interestingly,
however, the table suggests that percent Latino and percent African
American have a stronger effect than tenure on the sales ratio.59
G. Potential Criticisms
Before continuing, it is important to preempt (to the extent
possible) some of potential shortcomings of the conclusions I have
drawn from the data. For one thing, I should note that my research,
which includes virtually all residential sales in New Haven in 2000,
does not completely eliminate error from the inclusion of some non-
market sales. The data likely includes, for instance, some sales of
property under duress, such as foreclosure sales and sales that
follow bankruptcy proceedings.60 Such sales are not likely for full
consideration. The data also treats equally arms-length residential
sales and those between related parties, such as sales between
relatives. Sales between related parties, however, are not a good
measure of market value, 61 since homeowners may sell to a related
party for less than full consideration. Last, the sales data is the data
that is reported on the deed after a sale. Since the amount reported
is controlled by parties close to the sale, it is possible that parties
misreport the sale amount in order to avoid taxation or some other
reason.62 For all these reasons, in some cases the sales ratio may not
be as overstated as it appears to be in the data.
Admittedly, one cannot completely eliminate the possibility of
some non-market sales creeping into the data. However, the data
set excludes sales for obviously low value (i.e. <$10,000).63 Second,
the number of non-market sales is probably very small. The vast
majority of home sales in the data, one suspects, sell for full
consideration. Third, whatever the number of such sales, it is
reasonable to presume that there are just about as many sales in
majority-white neighborhoods as in majority-minority
neighborhoods. For instance, there is no reason to believe, a priori,
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 33
64. JENSEN, supra note 1, at 285-86 (noting that “a survey of a state tax system is hardly
deemed complete unless it contains a comparison of sales values with assessed values”); see
also PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 97 (noting that, for public policy purposes, it is more
important to examine sales-ratio data than other types of property tax data).
65. For example, California provides exemptions from revaluations for transfer to spouses,
or transfer by elderly persons. CAL. CONST. art. XIIIA §2(g) (providing that “the terms
“purchased” and “change in ownership” do not include the purchase or transfer of real
property between spouses”).
66. See NEW HAVEN, CONN., MUN. CODE §§ 28.11-17 (2003).
67. See PAUL, supra note 6, at 27.
68. Id. at 27-28. For one of the most thoughtful discussions of how cities compete with one
another, see PAUL PETERSON, CITY LIMITS (1981). See also PAUL KANTOR, THE DEPENDENT
that there would be substantially more residential sales between
related parties in majority white neighborhoods than in majority-
minority neighborhoods. Thus, any errors likely offset; errors should
inflate sales ratios in white and minority neighborhoods equally.
Finally, despite the incidence of forced sales and sales between
related parties, comparison of sales values to assessment values is
the common approach to research on property tax discrimination.64
IV. PROBABLE EXPLANATIONS
At least three explanations give a good account for race-
dependent assessments. First, assessors might instigate
discriminatory practices in order to keep white residents from
fleeing the city for the suburbs. Second, differential property tax
assessments may be the upshot of local politics. Since assessors
want to maximize public revenue, but, more important, want to stay
in office, they may give favorable treatment to white homeowners
whom they perceive as more likely to vote or otherwise complain if
assessments go up. Third, racialized assessments could be the
consequence of the legal regime, which, for instance, seems to favor
large residential homeowners who are more likely to challenge
erroneous over-assessments. These large residential homeowners
tend to be residents of majority-white neighborhoods.
A. Assessments as Inducement
New Haven, like many cities and states,65 explicitly grants
property tax exemptions to favored groups, like Veterans and their
spouses, businesses providing day care, disabled persons, the elderly
or those willing to try out solar home-heating alternatives.66
Similarly, differential property tax assessments may be a sop to
another favored group: whites.67
As Diane Paul has observed, property assessors in central cities
may be concerned with white flight to the surrounding suburbs.68 At
34 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
69. PAUL, supra note 6, at 42.
70. In fact, in 1980, the city was majority white non-Latino, while Latinos represented only
around eight percent of the population. (Over the same period the city’s total population has
changed very little and the percentage of African Americans living in the city has increased
only slightly). See 1983 COUNTY AND CITY DATA BOOK, at 680 (providing 1980 Census data).
71. See NETZER, supra note 35, at 82 (“Most big city officials publicly express concern at the
rapid rate at which white middle-class families with children have been leaving the big cities
…. Deliberately favorable treatment of the housing which such families might choose within
the city limits may serve the real purpose of enhancing the city’s competitive position vis-à-vis
the suburbs.”); see also PAUL, supra note 6, at 27-28 (noting that “city officials fear that
department stores, theaters, and other central city businesses will follow the middle class to
72. Admittedly, favorable assessments of white neighborhoods may cut exactly the other
way, since such property tax breaks may be capitalized into the costs of homes purchases in
such neighborhoods. See NETZER, supra note 35, at 82-83. In other words, it is conceivable
that favorable tax treatment may actually drive up the demand, and (more importantly) the
price, for homes in majority white neighborhoods. However, it is not clear that homeowners
or potential homeowners realize the connection, if it exists at all, between low taxes and
increased purchases prices, nor that this connection is ultimately convincing taxpayers that
should be apathetic or opposed to preferential tax treatment.
the same time, African Americans are generally less able to make
any real threat of leaving the city.69 Although whites represent less
than a third of the population in New Haven, more than half of all
home sales were made by residents of majority-white
neighborhoods, supporting the inference that whites are selling
their residences more frequently and perhaps even fleeing the
central city. Indeed, the city has seen a substantial decline in its
white population (and simultaneous increase in the Latino
population) over the last twenty-five years.70 Thus, the perception
— and indeed the reality — might be that if residents of white
neighborhoods are charged too much in taxes (by way of relative
high property assessments), they will move to suburbs.71 Shortly,
assessors may see favorable assessments to white homeowners as
a way of retaining white residents and competing with the
B. Politics of Assessments
The differential treatment of residents in minority
neighborhoods could also be the upshot of local property assessor
politics. That is, assessors, as political actors, may have political
incentives to over-assess residents of majority-minority
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 35
73. GLENN W. FISHER, THE WORST TAX? A HISTORY OF THE PROPERTY TAX IN AMERICA 197
(1996) (providing that assessors are elected in twenty two states, appointed by municipal
officers in fourteen states, and some combination in the other states).
74. See Baar, supra note 3, at 346-47 (discussing the propensity of assessors to maintain
the status quo during the Great Depression).
75. PAUL, supra note 6, at 29 (discussing the uproar in Boston at the prospect of property
76. FISCHEL, supra note 10.
77. Id. at 21.
78. See Stafford Higgins Indus., Inc. v City of Norwalk, 245 Conn. 551, 596 (1998) (Berdon,
79. Interview with Terry Rodie Kennedy, supra note 19.
80. See United Illuminating Co. v. City of New Haven, 179 Conn. 627 (1980); see also NEW
HAVEN, CONN., MUN. CODE § 28-7 (2003) (providing for staged increases in property taxation).
Most obvious, assessors, who are often elected, want to stay in
office and may view assessments as related to their ability to
maintain a good relationship with their constituency.73 For instance,
assessors have incentives to forego increases in property taxes, since
increases (more so than decreases) are more likely to alienate voting
constituencies.74 If white homeowners make up a good share of
voters, as they do in New Haven, assessors may rationally be
inclined to under-assess their properties in order to accommodate
white homeowners’ interests. As one commentator notes, at the
prospect of increased assessments “homeowners write complaining
letters to the editor, call their city councilors, sometimes even stage
demonstrations and otherwise generate unfavorable publicity, and
even vote the offending politicians out of office.”75
Another commentator has analogized homeowners to “home-
voters” to suggest that changes in the market value of their most
important asset, their home, will be met with keen resistance.76 In
smaller settings, the analogy of homeowners to home-voters is a
particularly apt one, since such homeowners may be able to exert
large amounts of influence.77
Indeed, in Connecticut property tax assessments seem to be
politically sensational issues. For example, when the city of
Norwalk, Connecticut conducted its decennial revaluation and
realized that property tax liability on residential homeowners would
increase, the Mayor promptly moved to postpone execution of the
revaluation and ordered the city to continue to use the old
numbers.78 Similarly, in the city of New Haven, where the Mayor
appoints the assessor,79 when a revaluation would have resulted in
an increase in the assessments of residential homeowners, the city
took advantage of state statutes that allowed it to phase in the
increases over five years, a signal that the administration was wary
of political backlash for increased assessments.80 Last, among
36 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
81. PAUL, supra note 6, at 56.
82. Id. at 69-70 (“Interviews with black politicians and interest group representatives
indicate that assessing is far down on the list of their priorities, certainly below problems of
unemployment, schooling, crime, and police protection, housing, and city services such as
garbage collection and code enforcement.”).
83. See US DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE, COUNTY AND CITY DATA BOOK: STATISTICAL
ABSTRACT SUPPLEMENT 214, 702 (13th ed., 2000) [hereinafter CITY DATA BOOK].
84. For example, neighborhood groups, where property values have been on the decline,
have attempted to keep assessors from reducing valuations for fear that such valuations
would shatter consumer confidence in the neighborhoods. See PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11,
85. Id. at 67 (“Given small investors’ reliance on assessed valuation as an indication of
property values, if reassessment lags far behind market trends, there will be a resultant lag
in investors’ awareness of the declining value of their property.”).
residential properties, my data suggests that multi-family residents
pay the highest, on average, in sales ratio. At the same time, single-
family homeowners pay the least, on average. This result is fairly
predictable given that, as a group, single-family homeowners
represent such a large share of the residential populace. Assessors
are likely aware of the political repercussions that would follow
charging high property taxes to such a politically influential group.
2. Minority Politics
Additionally, minority politics may play a role in explaining why
minority politicians and minority interest groups do not raise the
issue of differential treatment in assessments. For one thing, since
such discrimination is relatively “mild,” minority groups may not
think it is worth the expense of political capital. There was a similar
reluctance to challenge purported over-assessments in the majority
African-American Roxbury community in Boston some thirty years
ago, even after Oldman and Aaron found evidence that African
American residents were routinely over-assessed.81 Diane Paul
suggests that Roxbury residents were more concerned about bread-
and-butter issues: more police protection, jobs, and city services.82
This argument has some undeniable force, since New Haven has one
of the largest minority communities in the state and yet is one of the
poorest places in terms of employment, poverty, and income.83
At the same time, other minority groups may view over-
assessment as a net benefit, since it suggests that the property in
minority neighborhoods is worth more to potential buyers.84
Potential homeowners look to assessments as trends in home
market values. Assessments, in other words, are largely self-
fulfilling prophecies. That is, high market value equals high
assessments; but, more importantly, high assessments can equal
high market value.85 If property in a neighborhood is over-assessed,
it creates a positive impression of the value of the property in the
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 37
86. See Karl E. Case, Volatility, Speculation, and the Efficiency of Land Markets, in LAND
USE & TAXATION 34-35 (H. James Brown ed., 1997).
87. JENSEN, supra note 1, at 332 (finding that as of 1930, Connecticut had one of the
longest intervals between revaluation in the nation).
88. Interview with Terry Rodie Kennedy, supra note 19.
89. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62 (b)(2) (2003). Historically, the state has had one of the longest
intervals in the nation. See JENSEN, supra note 1, at 332.
90. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62 (a)(1) (2003).
91. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62 (a) (3) (2003).
92. Notably, this was just the argument that led a group of residents in a majority-minority
neighborhood in Pennsylvania to file suit little more than a quarter century ago. See Garrett
v. Bamford, 538 F.2d 63 (3d Cir. 1976) (seeking an order requiring annual assessments).
93. See CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-40a (2003).
94. JENSEN, supra note 1, at 337-38.
minds of the buying public and/or improves public expectations
about neighborhood land values.86 Thus, it is conceivable that even
erroneously high assessments can lead to speculation and an
artificially high demand for property.
Finally, there are several different ways in which the law of
property tax assessment might favor residents of majority-white
neighborhoods, or, more simply put, white homeowners. At a
minimum, the law might insulate racially differential property tax
Until recently, Connecticut had one of the longest intervals for
revaluation in the nation: 10 years.87 As such, the last revaluation
in New Haven was in 1991.88 Revaluations in New Haven (and the
rest of Connecticut) are now required once every four years.89 Even
though this is an improvement, property taxes, right or wrong, are
levied based on the same numbers for four years.90 Even worse,
physical inspections, where assessors actually go out and eyeball the
property, only occur once every dozen years.91 All this means that
there is an “assessment lag,” although relatively small, in
Connecticut that could lead to assessment disparities caused by
movements in the market demand for properties, such as rising
home values in some neighborhoods. In other words, assessment lag
creates a “tax benefit” to those homeowners whose property values
are rising and creates a “tax harm” to residents of neighborhoods
where home values are declining.92
Conceivably, benefits of assessment lag could redound to
majority-white neighborhoods, if property values in those
neighborhoods rise faster than in other neighborhoods, all else being
equal. Further, though the state does require that assessors be
certified to perform assessments,93 it is possible that during a long
gestation time, assessor skills may become rusty.94 Lastly, the long
38 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
95. Tax Assessments of Real Property: A Proposal for Legislative Reform, 68 YALE L.J. 335,
344-47 (1958) “A useful if elusive concept for the judiciary, “value” provides a less-than-
satisfactory framework for legislative policy making.” Id. at 356.
96. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-111 (2003).
97. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-113 (2003).
98. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-117(a) (2003).
99. A somewhat early study of the appeals process in Hartford, a city comparable in size
to New Haven, finds that only two percent of all assessments were challenged. THEODORE
REYNOLDS SMITH, REAL PROPERTY TAXATION AND THE URBAN CENTER: A CASE STUDY OF
HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT 46 (1972).
100. For a review of several studies that have concluded that only owners of high value
property appeal erroneous assessments, see PAUL, supra note 6, at 37-39. See also PETERSON
ET AL., supra note 11, at 106-07.
101. In fact, this was the finding of a study. PAUL, supra note 6, at 6.
lag in physical inspection may allow homeowners to easily not
report improvements to property that ought to affect property tax
Furthermore, as another author has argued, vague statutes may
lead to discrimination in property tax assessment.95 That is, the
requirement that property assessments be marked to fair market
value is relatively unspecific. Tax assessors, with this ambiguous
charge to go by, may usurp too much discretion. This could lead
back to the political incentives for differential assessments in favor
of residents of white homeowners just discussed.
Also, white homeowners may be more likely to challenge high
assessments. In Connecticut, residents have the right to appeal
erroneous assessments to the Board of Assessment Appeals,96 which
can amend the assessment.97 The statutes further provide that the
decisions of the Board of Assessment can also be appealed to a
superior court in Connecticut.98 However, as a general matter, there
are probably few challenges to assessments and even this right
probably benefits residents of non-minority neighborhoods.99 The
challenges that are brought against property tax assessments are
more likely brought by high-value property owners, since the
incentive is greater for them to bring suit than other property
owners.100 As I have noted earlier, assessors may err on the low side
for such proprieties as a way of preempting such challenges. The
average home sale amount in majority-minority neighborhoods
($87,814) is significantly less than in majority-white neighborhoods
($153,760). Thus, minorities may challenge fewer assessments,
since the incentives may be duller. Accordingly, assessors may
overvalue since they do not expect to be challenged in minority
Finally, the differential impact on minority homeowners might
be compounded in light of residential housing patterns that tend to
segregate minority and majority communities. As Peter Schuck has
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 39
102. See generally Peter H. Schuck, Judging Remedies: Judicial Approaches to Housing
Segregation, 37 HARV. C.R.-C.L. L. REV. 289, 293 (2002) (discussing how the residential
diversity in public policy takes a backseat to ideals of nondiscrimination and “classism”).
103. For a good recent review of the literature on the segregation of neighborhoods, see id.
104. PAUL, supra note 6, at 10, 43.
105. Id. at 55-56 (noting that survey of Boston renewal that “those residential
neighborhoods which enjoyed the lowest assessments were those where property taxes were
of greatest concern, while the only neighborhood in which less than half the residents
considered property taxes a very serious problem is the most heavily over-assessed”).
106. Baar, supra note 3, at 341 (noting the pressure from other municipal officials to keep
assessments as high as possible).
observed recently, the law may countenance segregated housing
patterns;102 minimally at least, laws have failed to promote
residential housing diversity.103 Where you live is, mostly, where
your friends and colleagues live. In these circumstances, it is
difficult for homeowners to compare property tax “prices” for similar
homes in other neighborhoods and thus gain evidence to pursue a
challenge. Particularly when neighborhoods are racially stratified,
minority homeowners may not have good information about
comparative prices in majority-white neighborhoods.104 Since the
reverse is also true — residents of majority groups may not have
access to inter-neighborhood information — this might explain
findings by other commentators that residents of majority-white
neighborhoods all-too-frequently challenge their assessments even
though they are paying out obscenely, even illegally, low rates.105
Shortly, residents of minority neighborhoods may challenge
improper assessments less frequently because they do not have
access to good information about property prices in adjoining
In the end, it seems that no one motive decisively explains
racialized assessment practices. Rather, differential assessment by
race is likely borne of several causes. As I have noted, differential
treatment may be an important financial incentive for the city to
encourage desirable groups (i.e. whites) to move in (or stay in) city
limits. Additionally, assessors, like other high-ranking public
officials, want to maximize public revenues, without alienating
voting constituencies.106 Finally, the law, as it presently stands, may
also insulate discriminatory practices. Of course, the fact that there
are several explanations may make it difficult for the Courts to
grapple with assessment disparity, the subject to which I turn now.
40 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
107. See, e.g., Stop & Shop Co., Inc. v. Town of East Haven, 210 Conn. 233, 242 (1989)
(holding that personal property may be assessed annually while real property is assessed
decennially); Stafford Higgins Indus., Inc. v. City of Norwalk, 245 Conn. 551 (1998) (passing
off on a city plan that sought to assess residential property at lower rate than commercial
properties, despite the relative market value of either).
108. See Sioux City Bridge Co. v. Dakota County, Neb., 260 U.S. 441 (1923).
109. See Cumberland Coal Co. v. Bd. of Revision, 284 U.S. 23 (1931).
110. See Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County Comm’n, 488 U.S. 336 (1989).
111. For a discussion of the cases that led up to the historical Sioux City decision, see Baar,
supra note 3, at 356-60.
112. See, e.g., Greene v. Louisville & Interurban R.R. Co., 244 U.S. 499; see also Sioux City,
260 U.S. at 446 (noting that federal authorities have frequently taken the view that the
V. COURT-ORDERED REFORM
Market-tied schemes, like New Haven’s, may be on precarious
legal footing. To remedy the over-assessment of property in minority
neighborhoods, courts are not without power to order a reduction in
assessments in those neighborhoods where the data show that
residents are over-assessed. As a general matter, the Connecticut
Supreme Court has given localities free reign to devise tax schemes
that meet their own unique needs, desires, and demands.107
However, the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested in three important
decisions that a court-ordered reduction in cases of over-assessment
is a real possibility, if not a probable one.
The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, has ordered a reduction
remedy for plaintiffs when they could show that their property was
assessed at market value, which while consistent with statute, was
almost twice as high as the assessments assigned to other property
owners in the same state.108 Additionally, the Court has ordered a
reduction remedy when assessors failed to take into account market
costs that reduced the value of certain parcels of property.109 Last,
the Court has ordered reduction when assessors failed to provide
timely assessments to all classes of property and formulated many
assessments based on stale numbers.110 Based on such precedents,
the current property tax scheme in New Haven and other
municipalities may be susceptible to courtroom challenge and court-
ordered reduction of assessments of property in minority
A. Sioux City v. Dakota County, Nebraska
Sioux City was the first time the Court suggested that plaintiffs
could receive a judicial remedy for property tax over-assessment.111
Before Sioux City, the prevailing idea among many courts was that
there was no cure for plaintiffs seeking to reduce their assessments
below the amount mandated by statute even if the vast majority of
other properties in the area were under-assessed.112 For example, in
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 41
injured taxpayer ought to be denied any remedy since it is impossible to secure an increase
in assessments of the great mass of under-assessed properties); Lincoln Telephone &
Telegraph Co. v. Johnson County, 102 Neb. 254 (Neb. 1918).
113. Sioux City, 260 U.S. at 444.
114. Id. (“[W]hen property is assessed at its true value, and other property in the district
is assessed below its true value, the proper remedy is to have the property assessed below its
true value raised, rather than to have property assessed at its true value reduced.”).
116. Id. at 444-45.
117. Id. at 46.
its Sioux City decision, the Supreme Court of Nebraska ruled that
it could not legally lower one’s property below statutory
provisions.113 Rather, the only remedy available to a plaintiff,
according to the state’s highest court, was to bring a suit to require
the state to raise everyone’s property taxes to the statutory
In this case, the property of the plaintiff, Sioux City Bridge Co.,
was assessed at its “true value,” while other surrounding property
was customarily assessed at fifty-five percent of true value.115
However, state statutes and the constitution of Nebraska required
that all property be assessed at its actual value, making no
classifications among property owners.116 Since plaintiff’s property
was assessed at its actual value, as provided by statute, the lower
courts found there was nothing the judiciary could do to give
plaintiff relief, even though the Court acknowledged that the custom
of not enforcing the statute with regard to other property-owners
created a disparate taxation regime.117
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Nebraska Court,
holding that plaintiffs do have a remedy even when they file suit to
obtain a reduction in valuation, even though it may be “a departure
from the requirement of statute.”118 The Court argued that it would
be impractical for a plaintiff bringing suit to require that
assessments of other property-holders be increased such that the
plaintiff is not differentially assessed. In such a circumstance, the
Court held that a reduction in assessment for the plaintiff is the
appropriate remedy. In commenting on the ruling of the Nebraska
Supreme Court, which denied plaintiff any remedy and mused that
a leveling up of property tax assessments of under-assessment
property might be the appropriate remedy, the U.S. Supreme Court
[S]uch a result as that reached by the Supreme Court
of Nebraska is to deny the injured taxpayer any
remedy at all because it is utterly impossible for him
by any judicial proceeding to secure an increase in
42 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
120. Cumberland Coal Co. v. Bd. of Revision, 284 U.S. 23, 26 (1931).
121. Id. at 24.
122. Id. at 30.
the assessment of the great mass of underassesed
property in the taxing district. This court holds that
the right of the taxpayer whose property alone is
taxed at 100 per cent. of its true value is to have his
assessment reduced to the percentage of that value at
which others are taxed even though this is a
departure from the requirement of statute.119
Under Sioux City, therefore, customary under-valuation of certain
classes of property contrary to state statute may afford a reduction
remedy to plaintiffs. In light of the holding in Sioux City, residents
of majority-minority neighborhoods may have a right to bring suit
to have their assessments reduced. Residents of majority-minority
neighborhoods in New Haven, may be able to bring a suit to have
their assessments reduced to a level equal to the average
assessments of residential property in majority white
B. Cumberland Coal Co. v. Board of Revision
Eight years later, in Cumberland Coal Co., the Court held that
purportedly neutral property tax assessment schemes are
susceptible to courtroom challenges and, ultimately, a court-order
reduction remedy. In Cumberland Coal Co., county commissioners
in Pennsylvania implemented a plan that valued all coal in the
same township at a uniform market rate.120 However, the petitioner,
Cumberland Coal Co., argued that the uniform system overstated
the actual value of their coal properties, since, among other things,
it did not take into account the high transportation costs for
properties that lay far from the market.121
The Court agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the assessors
to reduce the plaintiff’s assessments .122 The holding in Cumberland
Coal Co., simply put, requires state legislators to get it right. States
are not insulated from judicial review just because the law, on its
face, is neutral. According to the court, the value assigned for
assessment purposes must reflect the actual market value of the
underlying property, regardless of the purported neutrality of the
assessment scheme, since otherwise some property would be
undervalued relative to other property. By way of example, the court
in Cumberland Coal Co. instructs:
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION43
123. Id. at 30.
124. Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County Comm’n, 488 U.S. 336 (1989); see also
Charleston Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n. v. Alderson, 324 U.S. 182, 190 (1945) (noting that the
equal protection clause bars “taxation which in fact bears unequally on persons or property
of the same class”); Sunday Lake Iron Co. v. Wakefield, 247 U.S. 350, 352 (1918) (“[I]t must
be regarded as settled that intentional systematic undervaluation by state officials of other
taxable property in the same class contravenes the constitutional right of one taxed upon the
full value of his property.”). For a good discussion in the wake of the case, see John Vitha,
Comment, The Supreme Court Gives “Welcome Stranger” Tax Assessments a Cold Reception,
56 BROOK. L. REV. 1383 (1991).
125. Allegheny, 488 U.S. at 338.
[I]f the petitioners’ property had been valued at
100 per cent. of its actual value, the like property of
the other owners, having a higher actual value, would
in effect have been valued at less than 100 per cent.
The discrimination is essentially the same, and is
equally repugnant to constitutional right, when both
assessments are made on the basis of 50 per cent. of
assigned values and differences in actual values are
deliberately and systematically disregarded.123
Accordingly, Cumberland Coal Co. seems to require local policy-
makers to take into account the actual market, or selling price, of
properties when making assessments or, as the court puts it,
assigning value. In New Haven, Cumberland Coal Co. seems to
require assessors to assign values that take into account actual
sales figures of property in the neighborhoods where the property
sits. Thus, under the holding of Cumberland Coal Co., residential
property in minority neighborhoods may be susceptible to court-
ordered reduction, since the assigned or assessed value of property
in majority-minority neighborhoods, on average, exceeds the sales
price in such neighborhoods. Like in Cumberland Coal Co.,
residential property in majority-white neighborhoods in New Haven
(and perhaps other jurisdictions) seems to be systematically
undervalued relative to market value, while residential property in
majority-minority neighborhoods seems to be overvalued relative to
its market value.
C. Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County Comm’n
Finally, in a more recent Court opinion, Allegheny Pittsburgh
Coal Co., the Court held that assessor-driven schemes that produce
differential impact also provide injured plaintiffs a reduction
remedy.124 In this case, county assessors valued recently-sold
property on the basis of its purchase price, while making only small
increases in valuation to land that was not sold as recently.125 This
44 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
126. Id. at 341.
127. Id. at 345.
129. Id. at 342.
130. Nordlinger v Hahn, 505 U.S. 1 (1992).
131. Id. at 6 (“For that reason, Proposition 13 has been labeled by some as a ‘welcome
system led to wide disparities in property tax liability for virtually
identical properties, since those that were recently sold were
assessed at, in essence, the going market price, while other property
was assessed based on old numbers. The court found, for instance,
that a local assessor was assessing the property of Allegheny, and
other coal companies, which had recently purchased several
properties in the state, at thirty-five times the rate of similar
properties not recently sold.126 According to the Court, the county
scheme was not sanctioned by the West Virginia legislature or “any
other authoritative source.”127 Rather, Webster county’s assessor
had acted “on her own initiative” to create a scheme that produced
disparate assessments and directly contravened state law.128 As a
result, the Court held that the system violated the Equal Protection
Clause.129 Importantly, since the assessor was not acting based on
state law, but rather administrative necessity, Allegheny Pittsburgh
Coal Co. stands for the proposition that, even when based on a non-
discriminatory criteria (in Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co.,
administrative ease), differential assessments may create a cause
of action for property-owners adversely affected by comparatively
high over-assessments. The opinion in Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal
Co. may be support for a cause of action based on comparative over-
assessments of property in majority-minority neighborhoods, even
when there is no significant evidence of discriminatory purpose.
D. Nordlinger v. Hahn
The one case that seemingly cuts against a court-ordered
reduction remedy for over-assessment is Nordlinger v. Hahn.130 In
this case, the Court appears to give its stamp of approval to
differential property tax assessments. In Hahn, perhaps the most
famous property assessment case reviewed by the current Court,
plaintiff Nordlinger brought suit to overturn California’s method of
allocating property taxes, which after passage of Proposition 13
based property assessments on a parcel’s most recent purchase
price. Shortly, like the informal system the court rejected in
Allegheny, California codified a property taxation system that would
assess recently-sold property based on the purchase price of their
property, while other homeowners who had not recently sold faced
assessments tied to the historic value of the underlying property.131
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 45
stranger’ system — the newcomer to an established community is ‘welcome’ in anticipation
that he will contribute a larger percentage of support for local government than his settled
neighbor who owns a comparable home.”).
132. Id. at 10-11.
133. Id. at 9-10.
134. Id. at 14-15.
135. Allegheny, 488 U.S. at 345 (citations omitted).
Nordlinger brought suit on the theory that the California scheme
discriminated against late-comers contra the Equal Protection
Clause, since those who recently-purchased property in California
would face higher effective property tax rates that reflected more
recent, market values. Nordlinger also argued that the system
infringed on the right to travel.132 The Court rejected both of the
plaintiff’s arguments and ruled in favor of the state, finding several
reasons to justify the system, such as “interest in local neighborhood
preservation, continuity, and stability.”133
The holding in Hahn, however, does not overturn the Court’s
rejection of informal schemes, as described in Allegheny or Sioux
City. In fact, the Court was very careful to distinguish Allegheny,
emphasizing that Allegheny was a case where county assessors had
departed from state statute.134 In fact, the Court goes out of its way
to point out what is problematic about the differential system in
Allegheny is that it went against West Virginia law:
We are not advised of any West Virginia statute or
practice which authorizes individual counties of the
State to fashion their own substantive assessment
policies independently of state statute. The Webster
County assessor has, apparently on her own
initiative, applied the tax laws of West Virginia in the
manner heretofore described, with the resulting
disparity in assessed value of similar property.
Indeed, her practice seems contrary to that of the
guide published by the West Virginia Tax
Commission as an aid to local assessors in the
assessment of real property.135
However, the evidence suggests that the New Haven case is not
similar to a formal scheme of the sort held permissible by the court
in Hahn, because in Hahn the differential assessment was pursuant
to a constitutional amendment and, as such, safe from court-ordered
46 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
136. CONN. GEN. STAT. § 12-62(a)-(b) (2003).
New Haven’s pattern of differential impact is more similar,
indeed perhaps identical, to the decision to differentially
assessments found in the prior Supreme Court cases in which the
remedy was court-ordered reduction: namely, Allegheny,
Cumberland Coal, and Sioux City. Under the holdings in those
cases, the purported market-tied property taxation in New Haven
and elsewhere may, despite Hahn, still be susceptible to a legal
challenge on the grounds that substantial evidence suggests such
schemes result in over-assessments of property in majority-minority
In New Haven, like in Allegheny, assessors, at most, are
required by the respective state constitutions to assess based, at
most, on market value. Moreover, the disparate treatment is not the
result of “mere error,” since disparities hold regardless of the level
of assessment, the value of the underlying properties, or the tenure
of the residents. Rather, in both New Haven and Allegheny, the
differential assessment is against a specific class of properties. The
evidence suggests that in New Haven it is directed against
residential property in majority-minority neighborhoods and in
Allegheny the Court found over-assessment directed at out-of-state
Furthermore, the scheme in Connecticut is noticeably similar to
the scheme in Cumberland Coal, in which the Court also orders a
reduction remedy. In both cases, the states (Pennsylvania and
Connecticut) act pursuant to a putatively neutral taxation scheme.
Again, the scheme Connecticut calls for makes “true and actual
value” the test.136 Similarly, the scheme discussed by the Court in
Cumberland Coal uses language indicative of true market value. In
both cases, the purported neutral test ended in consistent
discrimination against certain classes of properties: in Cumberland
Coal the discrimination was against classes of property situated
geographically distant from the market; and in New Haven, the
evidence suggests it is residents of minority communities.
Finally, like the residents of Nebraska discussed in Sioux City,
residents of Connecticut are to be assessed at a uniform rate,
without distinction. However, the data show that residents of
minority neighborhoods at least in New Haven are over-assessed as
compared to residents of majority-white neighborhoods.
Importantly, in Sioux City the Court held that a reduction may be
appropriate even when it proves incompatible with state statutes.
Thus, like in Sioux City, this may mean that some minority
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 47
137. See CONN. GEN. STAT. REV. § 12-64 (2003).
138. Hahn, 505 U.S. at 4-6 (describing the events leading up to the adoption of proposition
139. FREDERICK D. STOCKER, PROPOSITION 13: A TEN-YEAR RETROSPECTIVE 3 (1991).
140. CAL. CONST. XIII(a). The main reason to limit this proposal to residential properties is
because I found no evidence from the sales data that assessments of commercial properties
are race-dependent. Thus, while commercial properties might face discrimination, it is not
similar to the invidious discrimination of minority homeowners. One other reason to limit this
to residential properties is that nonresidential properties do not change hands as frequently
as residential property. See Marion S. Beaumont, Proposition 13 Winners and Losers: Were
First-time Home Buyers Affected Adversely, in STOCKER, supra note 139, at 151. Thus,
residents are entitled to a reduction remedy, even though the state
statutes in Connecticut are facially neutral.
VI. STATUTORY REFORM AND PURCHASE ASSESSMENTS
As mentioned, currently Connecticut statutes require that
property taxes be based on “true and actual valuation.”137 Before
closing, it is worthwhile to discuss briefly a replacement to the
purported market-tied property assessment scheme, which is relied
on by New Haven and most other jurisdictions. The object here is
not to fully develop a new assessment regime for localities, but is far
less ambitious. Instead, the goal is to merely delineate the contours
of a local taxation regime that seems to reduce the racialized impact
of market-tied assessments heretofore described.
A. Purchase Assessments
One seemingly non-discriminatory statutory replacement to the
market-tied assessment scheme in place in the vast majority of
localities is to assess parcels of property based on the amount the
last buyer paid to purchase it. Put another way, assessments should
be a function of the purchase price or acquisition cost, not the
purported market value of the property formulated by local
assessment offices. Under this policy, residents of minority and non-
minority neighborhoods alike are assessed based on how much they
actually paid to purchase a piece of property. To arrive at municipal
revenue, a locality’s property tax rate is applied to the “purchase
This is similar to the scheme passed in California when voters
adopted Proposition 13 in 1978, the subject of Nordlinger’s lawsuit
in Hahn.138 In that case, voters in California passed a referendum
to lock-in property tax values at one percent of the purchase price.139
The only major difference in the scheme that I advocate and the
California one is that my scheme limits purchase assessments to
residential properties, while California’s scheme applies to all real
property subject to the property tax.140
48 JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
commercial properties would get a bigger tax break than others, all else being equal.
Furthermore, commercial property discrimination, if any, is not as widespread as the
discrimination against minority homeowners, since commercial properties represent only a
small minority of total assessed properties. For example, in New Haven, commercial sales
comprised less than 5 percent of all sales. See Summary of Property Sales in 2000, supra note
20. In any event, commercial enterprises that do experience discrimination are able to pass
along at least some of the extra taxes to their consumers in the form of higher prices. See
NETZER, supra note 35, at 36, 81 (discussing the distinction between high property taxes for
businesses and homeowners).
141. Killen v. Logan County Comm’n, 170 W. Va. 602, 608 (1982) (noting that the “term
‘assessor’ implies that such officials possess special knowledge and capacity to appraise
property and to assign a market value to it. Without such expertise, accurate valuation of
property cannot occur”).
Making assessments a function of purchase price may eliminate
the possibility of racialized assessments. That is, except for cases of
improvements to property or non-market sales (discussed infra), the
human element of property tax assessments, which likely creates
differential assessment, would be removed. The process of assessing
residential property would be reduced to a largely mechanical
process of simply confirming the last sales price. Individuals could
rely on the fact that what they paid for a piece of property is the sole
factor for determining assessments and, ultimately, effective
property tax rates.
For instance, the data shows that the effective property tax
breaks that single-family homeowners receive should disappear.
Additionally, owners of high- and low-value residential property
under such a regime would be treated exactly alike and assessments
would be the same function of purchase price, regardless of the
amount paid. Additionally, because assessors will not have much
discretion under this scheme, homeowners will not be able to exert
undue political influence and thereby ensure themselves favorable
assessments. Accordingly, any discrimination based on residential
type, tenure, value, or race should end, since all property owners
would be assessed based on the cash consideration paid.
B. Other Advantages
Further, purchase assessments might produce other benefits
1. Public Resources
First, assessments based on the purchase price save fiscal
resources of the state. Purchase assessments seem to do away with
the need for a specialized corps to conduct assessments and
specialized technologies. Assessors usually have to have specialized
training to ascertain the market value of a piece of property.141 In
Fall, 2004] ASSESSING DISCRIMINATION 49
142. Interview with Terry Rodie Kennedy, supra note 19.
144. Ronald B. Welch, Property Tax Administrative Changes Resulting from Proposition 13,
in STOCKER, supra note 139, at 113.
145. But see Welch, supra note 144, at 131 (arguing that, immediately after the passage of
Proposition 13 in California, there were significant administrative needs in order to provide
a statewide revaluation at 1975-76 levels).
146. Id. By contrast, some economists would argue that using the market-tied property
taxation may even impede good investments. See NETZER, supra note 35, at 36; RICHARD A.
MUSGRAVE & PEGGY B. MUSGRAVE, PUBLIC FINANCE IN THEORY AND PRACTICE 419 (5th ed.
1989). But see PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 52-54.
147. Hahn, 505 U.S. at 37 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
148. See PETERSON ET AL., supra note 11, at 2.
149. See MUSGRAVE & MUSGRAVE, supra note 146, at 52-54 (“[I]t would seem that the
economic literature may have exaggerated the actual disincentive effect of property taxation
on the maintenance and upgrading of the housing stock.”).
the New Haven assessor’s office, out of a staff of seven, five are
certified assessment specialists.142 Further, urban areas, like New
Haven, have recently turned to computer assisted market valuation
techniques and began to outsource revaluations to private
companies.143 However, as one author finds in California, a purchase
assessment scheme make appraisal technologies obsolete and
unnecessary.144 Additionally, since purchase assessments merely
focus on the sale price (which, in virtually all cases, should equal the
market price), there is little need for an expansive cadre of
assessors.145 Thus, the process of assessment becomes more of a
mechanical process that takes fewer skilled employees and little
software. It also alleviates the need for challenges, which,
incidentally, I have noted might also work to the disadvantage of
minority neighborhoods. If assessments are based solely on
purchase or acquisition costs, the need for such challenges and a
board of tax review to adjudicate them is diminished.
2. Economic Efficiency
Second, purchase assessments of residential properties has
minimal distortionary effect.146 For instance, in Hahn, the dissent
notes that Proposition 13 “inhibits the transfer of unimproved land,
abandoned buildings, and substandard uses.”147 In other words,
property taxes may even impede good investments.148 Businesses
may forego new investment because of high property taxes;
homeowners without access to liquid resources may forego making
improvements to property expecting that such improvements would
generate a higher property tax bill.149
However, since my proposed regime would be limited to
residential properties, non-residential property would still change
hands according to its best uses. The lock-in effect that residential
50JOURNAL OF LAND USE [Vol. 20:1
150. Hahn, 505 U.S. at 1 (1992). For a good analysis of the case, see Miller, infra note 153,
151. For instance, commentators bemoan that property taxes are regressive, because
wealthy homeowners spend smaller proportions of their income on home buying. See Edward
A. Zelinsky, The Once and Future Property Tax: A Dialogue with My Younger Self, 23
CARDOZO L. REV. 2199, 2202 (2002); see also NETZER, supra note 35, at 57 (reporting a
negative correlation between income and housing expenditures).
152. Hahn, 505 U.S. at 12.
153. See also John A. Miller, Rationalizing Injustice: The Supreme Court and the Property
Tax, 22 HOFSTRA L. REV. 79, 86. Zelinsky, supra note 151, at 2201-02 (“The classic example
is the retiree living on a fixed income whose home appreciates significantly in value and
whose local property tax obligation rises commensurately. Since the retiree’s income is static,
rising property taxes absorb increasingly large percentages of that income, creating liquidity
problems for the fixed-income retiree.”).
properties face, furthermore, would be counter-balanced by the
positive effects of long-term residency. Lastly, purchase assessments
seem to be an accurate way of assessing residences. Periodic
assessments to determine the market price were only a proxy (an
ineffective one at that) for market value — how much a willing
buyer would pay for a piece of property. However, the best
determinant of the current market value, is not how much a willing
buyer would pay for a piece of property, but how much a willing
buyer does pay for it.
Third, market-tied property assessment, as noted, may be
susceptible to legal challenge, since the evidence suggests that it
results in an adverse impact on residents of minority neighborhoods.
By contrast, purchase assessments have already received the
imprimatur of the Supreme Court. That is, the Court passed off on
the legality of a scheme similar to the one I propose in Hahn, in
which the Court opined on California’s Proposition 13.150
4. Progressive Taxation
Fourth, market-tied assessments, as others have noted, may also
be regressive.151 Assessments based on acquisition costs, however,
are somewhat progressive. For starters, such a regime may stall
gentrification. In other words, purchase assessments create a lock-in
effect; it dissuades some people from moving because of the
concomitant increase in property taxes. This lock-in effect, according
to the Court in Hahn, impedes, among others, the displacement of
lower income families.152
Furthermore, purchase assessments remedy liquidity problems
associated with the current property tax regimes.153 Put differently,
purchase assessments elide the problem of not having enough