Senator Linda Gray Seeks to End the Tax Break Benefiting Historical Homeowners, but Will She Change Her Mind When She Sees the Dilapidated, Unloved Homes?

Two months ago, this cutie was a dump. What if SB1166 had already passed?
Robrt L. Pela

Ugly Trellis House is finally gone.

This large, ramshackle 1920s bungalow, kitty-corner to my own, has been glowering at me ever since I moved into the neighborhood seven years ago. I could see its beauty, but I had to look hard, past the cheap, ugly trellising that someone had long ago nailed all around its façade; the tumble-down landscaping; the flaking paint.

But for once, I can report that a nasty old building is gone not because it's been torn down and replaced with something shiny and modern, as is usually the case in Phoenix. Ugly Trellis House is gone because someone recently bought it and has renovated it, inside and out, from the ground up. Ugly Trellis House is no longer ugly or trellis-y; it's a beauty.

But I can't help wondering whether this home's new owners would have been so willing to overhaul this dreary old building if they knew that their property taxes were about to be doubled.

At a state Senate Finance Committee hearing late last month, Republican Senator Linda Gray proposed a bill that would eliminate the preservation-friendly tax break currently benefiting 5,200 Phoenix historic homeowners. That break is part of a 34-year-old program that, among other things, offers 50 percent lower property taxes as a buyer's incentive. The thinking behind such programs, which have worked wonders here and in other cities, is that it's expensive to rehabilitate or maintain old buildings, and people are more likely to buy, maintain, and restore them if property taxes are lower. The result is the preservation of what's left of our architectural history and a stronger residential presence in the downtown core.

Neither of these things seems to matter to Gray, whose constituents reside in northwestern Phoenix and don't benefit from the old-home tax incentive; her primary interest appears to be joining her colleagues in the scrounging of nickels and dimes to heal the budget deficit. According to preservationists who oppose the bill, Gray is working hard to obscure a plain old tax increase.

"She's trying to convince people that she's leveling the field by making everyone's property tax the same," Wayne Murray told me. "I think she wants people to think we're getting special compensation, but this program is not like Social Security or Medicare — your house doesn't automatically qualify just because it's old. You go through a qualifying process, and the result is stability in a community of houses that would otherwise be neglected."

Murray is a Coronado resident and preservation activist who owns dozens of properties in historic neighborhoods; he attended the Finance Committee meeting last month and is amused that Gray is asking historic homeowners to provide some kind of proof that they're actually putting the money they save on taxes into rehabbing their houses.

"Actually, that's something that's always been in place," according to Brad Bauer, president of the Willo Neighborhood Association, one of the historic 'hoods that would be affected if SB 1166 were to pass. "But I don't know that anyone has monitored it. How would they?"

I guess the county assessor could pay someone to police historic homes. But if someone from the Assessor's Office called me to ask if I'd recently spent money rehabbing my old house, and I hadn't, I'd lie.

Gray, who didn't return my phone calls, has been seen on Fox News, talking about how the whole setup is "unfair," because owners of newer homes here aren't given breaks in return for maintaining their properties. She told the Arizona Republic that these lower taxes are "taking 50 percent away from the schools," a cheap shot probably designed to get her bill backed by the teachers union and concerned parents everywhere.

It's this sort of obscuring of facts that will likely get this bill — probably in some tidied-up, amended version — passed. If it does, those of us who plan to put a new roof on next month or landscape our property this summer may not, in anticipation of a doubled property tax to budget for.

And then, all the other Ugly Trellis Houses will live on.

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