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Minority homeowners who challenged Kansas City property assessments lose in appeals court

assessments.jfif
Sam Zeff
/
KCUR
People line up in June 2019 at the Jackson County Courthouse to file reassessment appeals with the Board of Equalization.

Nearly 24,000 properties were assessed at least double their previously assessed values, according to the ACLU. Some saw increases of more than 600%.

Minority homeowners whose assessments soared in 2019 have lost their bid to hold Jackson County and its assessor liable for violating the federal Fair Housing Act.

The Missouri Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by four Kansas City neighborhood associations, finding that they should have gone before administrative bodies established to hear tax appeals rather than circuit court.

Gillian Wilcox, deputy director of litigation for the Missouri chapter of the ACLU, which represented the neighborhood associations, said she was disappointed in the result “because it weakens the application of the Fair Housing Act in circumstances like this.”

She said the next legal step would be to ask the appeals court to rehear the matter or request that it be transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The lawsuit, by the Westside Neighborhood Association, Vineyard Neighborhood Association, Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council and Washington Wheatley Neighborhood Improvement Association, concerned Jackson County’s 2019 reassessment of 296,000 homes.

Nearly 24,000 properties were assessed at least double their previously assessed values, according to the ACLU. Some saw increases of more than 600%.

The lawsuit alleged that the increases disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In particular, it claimed that the 15% property tax cap was not applied evenly across majority-white and majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Missouri law prohibits assessors from increasing the value of residential properties by more than 15% unless they first conduct an inspection of the property.

The lawsuit said that while the assessor capped increases at 14.9% in more than half the majority white neighborhoods that were slated for an increase of more than 15%, just over 1% of similar properties in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods received the same benefit.

A Jackson County judge dismissed the lawsuit in November 2020, finding that the neighborhood associations should have brought their complaint before the county Board of Equalization and the State Tax Commission.

The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed with that finding and upheld the dismissal — even though the neighborhood associations were asking for future relief only.

“Our theory of the case is that we are seeking prospective relief only and that the outcome of our case and the process by which it will be reached will not cause any (past) assessment to be changed,” Wilcox said.

The Missouri Court of Appeals also upheld the dismissal of a companion case brought by three individual homeowners, as well as the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council and the Westside Neighborhood Association. As it did in the ACLU case, it found that the challengers had not “exhausted their administrative remedies.”

The court reached that conclusion even though the challengers presented evidence before the Board of Equalization in November 2019 about the allegedly discriminatory nature of the 2019 assessment. But the board of equalization never issued a decision, and because its inaction was not appealable, the challengers sued in circuit court.

“They never really took any action,” said Legal Aid lawyer Brandon Mason, who represented the challengers, referring to the board of equalization. “They never denied our request, and I think it’s still technically pending.”

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