Finally, people know: Urban renewal adds to property tax pain

Wayne Hoffman Articles, Property taxes Leave a Comment

Maybe, just maybe, people are starting to recognize that urban renewal plays a significant part in making it unaffordable for Idahoans to keep their homes.

 At least that’s my take from having watched Canyon County elected officials in open revolt regarding a plan to start another urban renewal project. They verbalized concern it would compound problems for property taxpayers. My, how far we’ve come. 

At a recent Canyon County meeting, everyone from the sheriff to the prosecutor to the clerk urged the three-member county commission to oppose the city of Caldwell’s latest urban renewal creation. 

Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto, helped put the pain of taxpayers into sharp focus.   “People have had enough,” Yamamoto told commissioners, pointing to double-digit percentage increase in his own property taxes. 

I’m sure some of the county officials were merely trying to protect the flow of taxpayer money to the county. Yamamoto, not so much. He’s been beating the drum for years that urban renewal presents a real hardship for people, particularly people on fixed incomes whose mortages are paid in full. 

Urban renewal is one of government’s most devious financial arrangements. It causes a big swath of property taxes to be quietly redirected to pet projects and favored developers. Urban renewal’s funding dishonesty is a design feature intended to blind the average taxpayer to one of the significant causes behind their ever-higher property taxes. 

Urban renewal derives its evil from what’s called “tax increment financing.” In short, as far as taxing districts are concerned, property values in the project zone are frozen at today’s levels. Any increase in property values—and the resulting property tax increases—get directed back to the urban renewal district for whatever special project or development the urban renewal agency is working on. That means all other property taxpayers are made to suffer as they make up for a valuation lockup that can extend 20 years. So for example, when vacant land is turned into a business complex, it might require larger roads, more police, or bigger schools. But as far as the local taxing districts are concerned, it’s still land with nothing on it. 

Worse, modern urban renewal has almost nothing to do with “renewing” those things urban, certainly not for curing urban blight, as was the stated purpose of a state law written decades ago. The biggest bang for urban renewal’s buck—that is, the best way to achieve wealth redistribution—comes when bare ground or farms are replaced with opulent structures. That’s because the difference between the valuation of vacant ground and the valuation of large, high-class office buildings forces the kickback of more money to developers than simply the sprucing up of a dilapidated urban space. Witness how  urban renewal was recently used on a stretch of farmland between Nampa and Boise. Almost no one would say that a patch of farm fields next to a freeway qualifies as “blight.” But urban renewal was used to eliminate the farmland, replacing the same with office buildings. All of it was done under the guise of urban renewal, for the benefit of a developer. 

As a result of government gamesmanship, if your own property taxes have increased over the years, bet your bottom dollar that for much of Idaho, developer deals are rolled into your tax bill. 

If we are honest about what’s happening, urban renewal projects are bankrolled with taxpayer tears, to the satisfaction of local elected officials who pretend or believe the suffering is “helpful” to the economy. Urban renewal should have been repealed long ago, as minor reforms to urban renewal have not stopped the abuse. With property owners at their breaking point, urban renewal’s rotten side is finally getting the exposure and reconsideration it deserves, as may be the case in Canyon County.