Author’s Note: Philly’s controversial 10-year property tax abatement is back in the spotlight this week after Councilwoman Cindy Bass proposed a bill that would eliminate it. The abatement, which was implemented in 2000, waives additional taxes on any physical improvement to a property for 10 years. Critics of the abatement feel that it diverts necessary funds from the city and the school district, while disproportionately benefitting wealthier neighborhoods. Supporters claim that the policy is a necessary tool to incentivize growth and development. Earlier this year the Office of the City Controller released a policy analysis of the abatement that dug into the geographical concentration and distribution of abated properties in the city, which clarified who and what neighborhoods have received the biggest tax breaks. Quantifying the impact of the abatement in numbers, rather than theoretical boosterism, can have a serious impact in the future of the policy going forward, which is why it is awesome that software engineer Nat Lownes created a Twitter bot, Philly Tax Abatements. His account is tweeting every tax-abated property in Philly—along with the amount of lost annual tax revenue they represent—at regular intervals until the polls close at 8 pm on Election Day 2019. I caught up with the brains behind the bot to get some of the details.
Starr Herr-Cardillo: What do you do for a living and in your pastime?
Nat Lownes: I work as a software engineer. I’ve worked in construction. I have an interest in housing policy, architecture, and a love of row houses. All that contributed to my interest in answering questions like ‘What’s up with all these garage-fronted row houses? What’s up with all this particle board?’ I was also a candidate for Democratic State Committee back in May.
SHC: How did you come up with the idea to create the bot, and when was it “born”?
NL: The bot is a byproduct of independent research I’ve been doing on the new construction tax abatement. As part of that research I wanted to visually spot check my work, so I grabbed Google Street View images for all the properties I thought were tax-abated. With those pieces it was quick to put together something like an @everylotphilly for the tax abatement. It started tweeting this past weekend, and it will distribute tweets evenly right up to when the polls close at 8pm on Election Day, November 5, 2019. Ideally, by then we’ll have elected a mayor and a city council willing to end the tax abatement.
SHC: Can you share any of the logistics of how it is calculating these numbers? Also, how did you figure out how to do it?
NL: As you know, the new construction tax abatement exempts the assessment of the improved portion of the property. Querying the OPA data for properties that match these parameters seems to yield new construction tax-abated properties. The “lost” amount is the improvement assessment of these properties at the current property tax rate of 1.4 percent. It’s a simplistic calculation, but I feel it accurately reflects the real amount that would’ve been collected.
It should be said that civic tech and research projects like this are made easier because of the Nutter administration’s early commitment to “open data,” the work that Tim Wisniewski and his crew did to make it happen, and Open Data Philly hosting it.
SHC: Is the abatement something you’ve taken issue with for a while?
NL: Yes. I’ve always assumed that it was benefiting mostly well-off homeowners in a few neighborhoods, but only after Mayor Kenney’s budget address in March 2018 did I get more serious about researching those assumptions. I heard he was going to propose raising the property tax rate and I was sure if he was doing that he’d mention reforming the abatement at the very least. I was excited. I tuned into City Council Live at work, and I don’t think he said the word “abatement” once. I couldn’t believe it.
My main issues with the abatement are the uncertainty about its effects, the clustering and type of development, and that the City and School District isn’t as well funded as they should be because of it.
Supporters of the abatement may point to a developed lot, claiming that a developed, tax-producing parcel might not exist if not for the abatement. This uncertainty is my problem with the abatement and similar programs. When policymakers implement “stimulus” programs they rarely explain or legislate in specific terms of how and when the results of these policies will benefit all of us. It’s usually in abstract terms of “growth” or “jobs,” over some undetermined amount of time, with these same abstract benefits threatened when citizens begin to question the effectiveness or true beneficiaries of the policy. Then, when we do try to quantify the effects the reports cited are compiled by building industry associations or commercial real estate investment firms, which should be evaluated carefully within that context, not blindly quoted as truth. The City Controller’s office released what I thought was a very cautious, impartial assessment of hypothetical changes to the abatement earlier this year.
Tax-abated properties are clustered in Graduate Hospital, Rittenhouse Square, Northern Liberties, Point Breeze, and Fishtown. Are these areas that need incentives for development? Why are garage-fronted row houses littering Point Breeze three blocks from a subway stop? Why is the median cost of new construction, tax-abated properties $400k?
The City and the School District need funds and the abatement forfeits money for both. School funding shouldn’t be tied to property values, but that’s what we’re working with right now. The School District is in need of funding in a way that is nothing short of shameful.
SHC: What impact are you hoping the bot will have?
NL: I hope it will drive people to take action. Or at least to clown on political candidates on Twitter through the 2019 election.
SHC: It’s powerful to see the numbers associated with properties in this format. It’s also pretty amazing to see how many properties are benefiting from the abatement in one way or another–even fairly nondescript ones. I’m used to associating the big, new luxury towers with it, but the policy impacts so many more properties! Do you have an end goal in mind that you’re gunning for? Modification to the abatement or would you like to see it gone all together?
NL: No doubt the luxury towers are the biggest, most offensive beneficiaries, but in the aggregate it adds up. And so much parking, so close to Center City and public transit. And it’s wild to see all the new row house architecture and a few outliers will show up.
I want the abatement ended. If Mayor Kenney and City Council believe incentives like the tax abatement legitimately work for the public good, they should end all four abatements and come up with an informed plan with clear expectations in its place. Most importantly, they should explain how and when it will benefit all of us.
SHC: One last thing: how long have you been in Philly?
NL: I’ve been in Philly over a decade, but have lived my entire life within earshot of Vernon Odom.