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The unjustified escalation in affordable assessments

June 23, 2010, 12:00 am

Abnormally high home values aren’t limited to Kachina Ridge, Aldea and ElderGrace. All over Santa Fe, from Zocalo to Rancho Viejo’s Windmill Ridge; from Centex Homes’ Colores del Sol to the San Isidro Village Condominiums and the Plazas at Pecos Trail, homeowners who are claiming their affordable housing tax breaks are watching their home values surge.

And though their taxes may only be rising by the legal 3 percent, their property values are out of step with the reality of the Santa Fe real estate market.

“The assessments are too high across the board,” Sproul tells SFR. “Things are not moving today—nothing is. Houses are coming down, and the appraisals are based on when Santa Fe was at its peak.”

To observers like Kathy McCormick, who directs the City of Santa Fe’s Office of Affordable Housing, these abnormalities are evidence of the same problem affordable housing advocates saw two years ago.

“What we’re having is a problem in implementation,” McCormick tells SFR. “The county still isn’t getting their act together, frankly.” Over the past few weeks, McCormick says she’s received several calls from affordable homeowners concerned about their property

Current County Assessor Domingo P Martinez
Credits: Photo: Alexa Schirtzinger

SFR had one interview with Santa Fe County Assessor Domingo Martinez about these findings, but he said he was unwilling to speculate about the cause without seeing the documentation. Subsequent attempts to reach him for follow-up questions were unsuccessful prior to press time.

“I don’t know that [the valuation] increased; I’d have to take a look at the actual home and agree with you,” Martinez told SFR.

Inaccurate assessments were a focal point of the recent three-way Democratic primary election for the assessor’s position. None of the three candidates disputed that the roles are not up to date. Assessor Martinez committed, while campaigning, to reassessing all properties next year in person—but for now assessments are done by computer unless it’s a new home or the property changes hands.

The specific issue of the rise in values for affordable housing owners, however, wasn’t raised in the election debate.

In a recent conversation, Martinez told SFR the recourse for such home-owners is to file a protest.

 “Then we will take a look at it and, if indeed it was a computer problem or a manual problem, that protest will allow us to decrease the value to where it should be,” he said.

In one sense, a protest is the only option for homeowners. Under New Mexico’s disclosure laws, the criteria a county assessor uses to calculate property values aren’t public record until a particular case is protested. And even then—as with the Internal Revenue Service—the burden of proof is on the citizen protesting, not on the County Assessor’s office.

Last year, the office received approximately 1,400 protests—approximately 420 of which the office contested. Domingo Martinez says this is a normal figure given the size and number of units (approximately 87,000) in Santa Fe County.

Once they learned a protest was their only course of action, Matheny, Carroll and several other ElderGrace residents went to the county’s downtown offices to protest the new assessment. Like DeMack, they’re waiting to hear back from Martinez.

But to Loftin, the responsibility to ensure that home valuations are correct shouldn’t be solely theirs.

“If the assessments are not passing the smell test, then [Martinez] should want to know,” Loftin says. “The only check on that should not be someone protesting; there should be some kind of quality control.”

DeMack, meanwhile, is plowing through public-records requests in an attempt to get to the bottom of her home’s high value. But the more research she does, the more questions arise.

“Why is my valuation—or anyone’s—jumping by leaps and bounds?” DeMack still wonders. “Why this disparity in this tiny little subdivision? The homes could hardly be more comparable. If those who claimed the affordable housing [tax break] are the only ones going up, why is that? Is it just sheer coincidence?”

For DeMack, that’s a $314,090 question.  SFR

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