I’m often shocked by the crass political calculations that lead elected officials to abandon the best interests of their constituents, good policy and sometimes even rationality in order to avoid making difficult and unpopular decisions.
Politicians typically favor policies with short-term impact over those in our long-term interest because they wanna stay popular and keep their jobs. Politicians often pretend there are easy answers to some of the most intractable urban issues facing our city. It’s not realistic and it’s damaging to our public discourse.
This predicament is painfully obvious in our conversations around property tax reform. In the southwest Brooklyn neighborhoods I represent, working families are struggling under a badly broken property tax system, which is chock full of inconsistency and unfairness and regressive features.
For decades, politicians have avoided pushing real solutions because tackling property taxes will be complicated and anger a lot of powerful, wealthy people. But my district, and New York City as a whole, simply can’t wait any longer.
It’s time to stop worrying about the politics — regardless of how it impacts the next election cycle — and start worrying about the seniors who are about to be evicted from their houses and forced out of the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for their entire lives. And the hundreds of millions of dollars the city and state leaves on the table by not taxing luxury condos at an appropriate rate. And the young families who are leaving the city, despite the contributions they could be making to our communities and economy, because there are simply no affordable home ownership options.
Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, recently said it wasn’t realistic to expect Mayor de Blasio could fix property taxes in the remainder of his term. Instead, she suggested we take it up with the candidates running for mayor in 2021. The next day, she walked it back. Perhaps it’s because she realized only an elected official with nothing left to lose — like a second-term mayor — could be brave enough to reform a system so absurd that even the best, smartest fix will be unpopular.
New York City is lucky enough to have such a mayor. De Blasio could use a big structural reform to improve his legacy with the hardworking middle-class homeowners in our city.
Last spring, he and Council Speaker Corey Johnson created a Property Tax Reform Commission. It has been mulling solutions and will, I hope, soon release recommendations.
Converting those recommendations into policy will take political courage. It will mean turning a new formula for taxation into legislation in Albany and going up against some of the richest of the rich while advocating for a policy that isn’t going to be popular with everyone — especially not the guy who owns a $2 million brownstone in Park Slope and pays less in property taxes than the guy with the attached two-family in Marine Park.
There are plenty of examples of just how broken New York’s property tax system is. Just this year, the most expensive home sold in U.S. history was a condo in Midtown that went for $238 million. Meanwhile, the owner of a two-family home in the Bronx that sold for $439,000 pays more in taxes.
The archaic system causes certain properties to pay more or less in taxes without any relation to their actual property values. It doesn’t only affect homeowners; it affects renters, too, who are forced to carry effective tax rates about five times higher than condos and homes. Unchecked, our property tax system has already created winners and losers.
If the mayor is serious about defeating inequality, and ending the tale of two cities, he will use every bit of political capital he has left to push ahead. Fix a broken system. Bring fairness where there is currently anything but. Finally deliver some to so many hardworking New Yorkers.
Brannan represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst in the City Council.