Atlantic City home

A home on Arizona Avenue in Atlantic City was part of a citywide auction in July. Property owners throughout the city were dealt a surprise tax increase, which could exacerbate high rates of foreclosure and low home-ownership. 

ATLANTIC CITY — A city already battling a high rate of foreclosures and low home ownership could see both problems worsen due to the recent tax increase.

Throughout the city, residents who were caught off guard by a surprise third- and fourth-quarter tax increase this year are considering leaving their homes because of the rising costs. Coupled with a citywide property revaluation that will cause property taxes to increase even more for some, several residents said leaving the city, and their homes, may be the only option.

“The increase in property taxes is causing me to consider living elsewhere, even though I am so happy with where I live now,” said Penny Gelfand, a 74-year-old resident of the Ocean Club condominiums on the Boardwalk who has lived in Atlantic City for 15 years. “I’m a senior, on a fixed income, and that income only stretches so far and is reaching its limit.”

Last month, property owners were shocked to see their taxes had increased significantly — $676.50 on a home assessed at $150,000 — even after county, school and city officials adopted budgets with flat or reduced tax rates.

In response, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who heads the state Department of Community Affairs, which has oversight of the city, created a tax task force to examine the issue.

A DCA spokeswoman said “the group is considering potential options for generating revenue and reducing costs, all with an eye toward property tax relief.”

“We are keenly aware that home-ownership is key to the city’s continued revitalization because it helps sustain neighborhoods and keep the ratable base stable,” a statement from the DCA read. “Additionally, a healthy home-ownership rate is attractive to developers and businesses, both of which are critical to the city’s renewal.”

Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr., a member of Oliver’s task force, encouraged qualifying property owners to take advantage of the state’s Senior Freeze program and other comparable resources in the short term while long-term solutions to increase the city’s revenue streams and drive down taxes are identified.

Gilliam said discussions about the sustainability of the casinos’ payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program for noncasino taxpayers need to happen.

“From a standpoint of understanding the impact the taxes have had on residents of Atlantic City — you can see it. You can see people have walked away from their homes,” Gilliam said. “Thirty percent (an estimated figure of noncasino property owners in the city) of taxpayers cannot sustain the city’s woes.”

Still struggling to rebound from the 2007-09 recession, the greater Atlantic City region had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation in 2018, with an average of 2.37% of housing units tagged with a foreclosure filing. The national average last year was 0.47% of all housing units, according to ATTOM Data Solutions.

Atlantic City can ill afford to lose homeowners as a shrinking tax base was one of the catalysts for this year’s tax increase (a loss of nearly $6.3 million in refund credits from the county was cited as another). Atlantic City has a home-ownership rate of 26.3%, according to federal data, which is less than half of the 63.9% national average.

New Jersey has had the highest foreclosure rate in the country since 2015, according to ATTOM.

It’s not just property owners with oceanfront views who are feeling the squeeze from the tax increase. Across town, in the tree-lined Bungalow Park neighborhood, residents said the tax increase was causing them to think twice about staying in Atlantic City.

“It’s not sustainable,” said Sheryl Donofrio, 42, who owns a custom-built home on Massachusetts Avenue along with five other lots she and her late husband bought years ago as investments. “I think people are going to start a fire sale.”

The rub for many homeowners is that with the increased property taxes, they may not be able to find a willing buyer.

“It’s pretty sad when you can’t sell your home for the bricks and sticks you invested,” Dorsie Pettit, treasurer of the Bungalow Park Civic Association, said during a recent community meeting.

For residents on a fixed income or those working multiple jobs to make ends meet, the findings of the state’s tax task force may be too little, too late.

“When you have to pay this much more, almost overnight, it hurts. It hurts a lot,” said 71-year-old Anthony Vraim, who has been in Atlantic City since 1972 but has only lived in the resort full time since 2011. “And we can’t sell our properties because no one wants to buy them.”

Mary Ann Hardiman, a 70-year-old retiree who has lived in the city for 15 years, said living with high taxes is bad enough, but the real slap in the face was how little she received in return for nearly $5,600 a year. Hardiman, whose tax bill would have cost her almost $10,000 annually had she not appealed (twice) and had it reduced, said the city does a poor job of its basic responsibilities, such as road paving, bulkhead repair and code enforcement, and does not feel she gets a good return for the amount she pays in taxes.

“I love so much about living in Atlantic City,” she said, “but is it worth it for me to live in a place where I (am) constantly wondering what’s next? I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s scary.”

Contact: 609-272-7222

ddanzis@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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