How One Block Illustrates the City's Broken Land Assessment Approach

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(Vacant land in Graduate Hospital | Image: Google Streetview)

The Office of Property Assessments botched the land assessments again, and the 2000 block of Pemberton in Graduate Hospital provides a great illustration of exactly what the City is doing wrong.

The 2000 block of Pemberton is a rowhouse block where all the lots are almost exactly the same size—between 750 or 800 sqft, and usually exactly one of those two values. There aren't amenities present on the block that should give any of the homes a much higher value than the others just by proximity to it either.

As such, common sense would dictate that all of the parcels on the block should have basically the same land value per square foot.

According to OPA's assessments though, the land values range from $86 a square foot on the low end to $336 a square foot on the high end. For one extreme example, look at the case of 2015 Pemberton, which has a land assessment more than double its next-door neighbors at 2013 and 2017 Pemberton, in spite of the three properties having nearly identical lot sizes. 

Since there's no real difference in proximity to amenities for any of the homes on this block, what explains the wide variation in land value per square foot?

It becomes obvious when you look at land as a percentage of total assessment. For nearly every property on the block, the land assessment is between 28.5%-30%. So OPA is just putting in a fake number for land value based entirely on the improvement numbers, as opposed to any of the locational factors that actually drive land value.

It doesn't make sense, it's unfair, and it creates an economic incentive for vacant land owners that runs counter to the public interest.

Is OPA leaving the City open to a wave of appeals with these non-uniform land assessments, given the recent success of Ruokai Chen's land-value-only appeal that was covered in the Inquirer recently.* Or more interestingly, is the City risking a lawsuit grounded in the Pennsylvania Constitution's Uniformity Clause that could force them to throw out this methodology?

*Ruokai Chen contributed analysis for this post


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  • commented 2018-04-14 10:08:22 -0400
    Clearly you have broken the code on land valuation. Only two outliers (one of which is vacant property) in the 61 properties, with 59 coming in at 29-30% for land as percent of total market. However, it is only important to get land value right when there is tax abatement or it is vacant given the real objective is taxing fairly overall. Also, it helps in the analysis to separate the data even-odd reflecting different sides of the street. I did this for 2000-2030 set of properties, and data actually suggests overall assessment may not be so bad with a number of apparently comparable properties being identically assessed.
    Some interesting observations from my inspection: Of the 16 properties only 6 have taken homestead exemption (several properties may have tax abatements foreclosing option, though). The 2018 to 2019 market value increases 37% in total! That’s the real story in the data. This outcome of well-intended OPA effort to get better assessments in place is going to cause voter turmoil. OPA should understand even if the market data supports this outcome it is simply intolerable to try to fix the situation in a single year. If OPA had put Council in the picture I am sure a reset (panic?) button would have been pushed.