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Amid Gentrification, Little-Known Tax Relief Program Could Help More Richmond Seniors Age In Place

Jessie Roots in the living room of her Church HIll home.
85 year-old Jessie Roots has lived in her Church Hill home since 1958. She is a participant in the City's Tax Relief Program for seniors and people with disabilities.

Along Fairmount Avenue in the Church Hill, new homes are going up and older homes are being renovated. It’s a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where the average home value has risen  by more than $150,000 in the last six years.

Jessie Roots lives in a Victorian-style home with ornate spires, and faded vinyl siding. She moved into the house in 1958. Walking around her home, she can point out all the improvements that have been done since then.

“When I moved here the heating system was a big stove that sat right here,” she says, motioning to a now closed-off fireplace.

When the 85-year-old moved into the neighborhood it wasn’t a hot real estate market. Roots says the City forced her family out of their home on Venable Street during the construction of the public housing community Mosby Court.

“Black people were homeowners in that area,” she said. “I didn’t see a reason to move us off of Venable Street.”

J.L Roots has lived in the Church Hill neighborhood for over for 75 years. Here she shares how gentrification has changed the neighborhood.

Roots said what’s changed the most in the neighborhood since then are the people and the prices. Almost all of her neighbors in the historically black neighborhood are gone now, replaced with younger, white residents. A renovated house on the block sold recently for more than $300,000.

Fifteen years ago, Roots’ house was assessed $42,000. It’s more than triple that now -- and that means a higher tax bill.

“My taxes this year is $500 more than last year, and they keep going up,” Roots said. “That means I might have to sell my home and go live in a senior place.”

Roots says she doesn’t want to leave. She gets help from the city to stay in her home. Every year, hundreds of dollars are knocked off her tax bill through  Richmond’s Property Tax Relief For the Elderly and Disabled Program.

The program is currently open to residents with a yearly household income under $50,000 and less than $200,000 in net worth.

But Roots is one of only 2,300 residents in program. That’s less than some other Virginia cities that offer a similar program. Chesapeake has about 2,700 participants, Virginia Beach has more than 5,000.

Property Tax Relief For Seniors

Valerie Weatherless, who heads Richmond’s program, said getting the word out to seniors remains the biggest challenge. She said that the number of participants hasn’t kept pace with ballooning property values in some parts of the city.

“We reach out to churches, we reach out to banks, we attend the council district meetings,” Weatherless said. “You name it, we’ve done it.”

Despite these efforts, local officials and community advocates say they’d like to see the city more aggressively market tax relief for seniors. Catherine MacDonald, Director of  Greater Richmond Age Wave, says the program is relatively unknown among seniors in the community.

“People don’t know about this program,” she said. “When it comes up, it’s usually the first time they’ve heard of it.”

MacDonald’s organization works on planning for the needs of seniors and connecting them to resources in the public and private sector. Much of Greater Richmond Age Wave’s work focuses on how the community can help seniors age in place.

“The majority of people want to live at home, they don't go and move somewhere into a facility, segregated from the rest of the community,” she said.

Aging in place can become more difficult in areas of Richmond experiencing gentrification. That’s a topic MacDonald says comes up all the time when she or the case managers she works with talk to seniors living in neighborhoods like Church Hill.

As property values and cost of living rise, she said seniors face financial pressures and may eventually leave their communities, even if they don’t want to.

“It needs to be said that what we’re talking about is older black people, people who’ve stayed where they are through things like red lining, through subprime mortgage lending, through these racist institutions, and they’re still here,” she said. “They’ve done everything right, but now it’s like they’re not going to reach the end of the road in the way they really wanted to.”

MacDonald says the Tax Relief for the Elderly and Disabled program could be a valuable resource for those seniors with better marketing and access.

Richmond City Council recently took steps to do just that. They  voted unanimously in February to loosen income and net worth restrictions, taking a cue from larger programs in the surrounding counties.

Henrico County gives out the  third largest amount tax relief to seniors in the state. County officials say that’s due in part to its liberal eligibility requirements. All seniors making under $75,000 per year with a net worth under $400,000 are eligible.

Starting next year, Richmond’s tax relief program will increase its income cap from $50,000 to $60,000 and its networth cap will increase from $200,000 to $350,000. Participants will also see a significant increase in the size of their exemption. Anyone making under $30,000 per year will receive a full exemption. And seniors with a yearly income between $30,000 and $40,000 will get a 75 percent exemption, compared to 35 percent previously.

Even though the decades-old program may not have been originally intended to alleviate gentrification, it can fit that purpose now, says City Council President Cynthia Newbille.

“While we are having this great revitalization and we are now also concerned to make sure our seniors can remain in place, right in the middle is this legislation,” Newbille said.

Not everyone is on board with the expansion. Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration initially opposed it, saying that the city would lose an indeterminate amount of tax revenue. Lenora Reid, the deputy chief administrative officer for finance, said the ordinance would also create an “administrative burden” as the city deals with new applicants.

The Stoney administration has budgeted an additional $1.9 million for the program in 2020, nearly double the $2.8 million it cost last year.

Richmond's Property Tax Relief For Seniors

Fifth District Council Member Parker Agelasto, who championed the expansion, said he is skeptical the program will see that kind of expansion if it isn’t accompanied by an increased effort to sign up more seniors.

And doing so, he said, would require the city to make a different kind of calculation.

“As we have seen real estate and potential real estate taxes go up, people are finding it less affordable to stay in their home,” Agelasto said. “The reality is it probably benefits the city more to give out $4 million in tax relief than deal with changing demographics and finding benefits for people who have been displaced.”

Newbille, who represents East End neighborhoods such as Church Hill and Greater Fulton, said making the program more accessible also acknowledges the valuable role seniors have in our community, especially those black elders that have seen the issues of displacement and exclusion before.

This story is part of WCVE News' ongoing series on housing called  Where We Live. The series looks at a range of issues, from affordability and housing policy, to homelessness and segregation.