Last Stand: Property tax reformers recruit Lander to lawsuit

TENNY Policy Director Martha Star and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander (NYU Wagner, New York City Comptroller)
TENNY Policy Director Martha Star and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander (NYU Wagner, New York City Comptroller)

It’s been a rough five years for Tax Equity Now New York.

Since 2017, the group has pursued a legal challenge to upend the city’s property tax system.

So far, no luck.

First, the city and state, both defendants in the suit, got a court to reject the claim that the system violates the state constitution. TENNY appealed, only to have the state’s highest court decline to hear the suit, ruling that it did not pose a “substantial constitutional question.”

But TENNY had kept some powder dry. It went back to the lower courts with a new argument: that the system violates state and federal fair housing laws.

That, too, was shot down, but last month the group appealed, hoping the state’s highest court will agree that the issue is crucial and the court must act, rather than leave it to politicians to fix the problem.

This is TENNY’s last stand. If the court says no, the group has no obvious place to go.

To boost its shot at success, the group is taking a new approach: imploring city officials who support reform to endorse the suit. Its first target is a longtime progressive and former affordable housing builder, Brad Lander.

This month, TENNY’s policy director Martha Stark, a former city finance commissioner, wrote to the newly elected city comptroller, who had just released a statement supporting reforms proposed by the city’s Property Tax Commission. She opened by applauding Lander for declaring the city’s property tax system “regressive and opaque and in need of reform during your first week as comptroller.”

“We know that having the largest source of revenue for the city unfairly burden working-class neighborhoods and communities of color is something you will not allow to continue,” Stark wrote. “By joining us, you can help to address the glaring structural issues and racial injustices pervading New York City’s property tax system.”

Read more

Among the commission’s recommendations were to create a tax class for small home owners and give breaks to those making less than $90,550 a year whose property taxes are more than 10 percent their income.

TENNY, which had panned a preliminary report by the commission, didn’t have much love for the final version, either. The group’s spokesperson told Bloomberg that the recommendations “are basically the same as what the Dinkins administration released 30 years ago.”

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

By signing up, you agree to TheRealDeal Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

The group expressed hope that Mayor Eric Adams might “pursue meaningful legislation” or “abide by any court determination.”

The latter is what TENNY is gunning for and where the comptroller’s support would come in. TENNY’s lawsuit seeks to fast-track reform rather than keep waiting for lawmakers to do something they have avoided for three decades. Stark said the court should also “provide some guidance about priorities.”

Having a city official sign on could endear the courts to TENNY’s suit, prompting it to send the case back to the lower courts for arguments.

“The comptroller has a limited role when it comes to property tax policy, but by joining the lawsuit he will signal to the court the importance of the issue to the city’s fiscal health and viability,” Stark said.

But two weeks after sending the letter, TENNY said the comptroller had yet to respond.

Chloe Chik, a press secretary for Lander, said the comptroller is eager to work with the group to achieve reforms and would be “scheduling a follow-up conversation with TENNY about how we can best support that goal.”

TENNY’s spokesperson said Thursday that Lander’s office had offered to meet with the coalition.

Whether Lander is legally able to join the suit is another matter.

When five City Council members tried in 2017 to file amicus briefs in support of TENNY’s suit to “ensure a non-discriminatory tax system for their constituents,” a judge ruled that the City Charter did not allow city officials or agencies in their official capacity to hire an outside lawyer to represent them. As the Law Department was already representing the city, they were blocked from joining.

A spokesperson for TENNY acknowledged that Lander would probably not be able to join the suit. But the group just wants him to publicly support its goal of court intervention. Bill de Blasio, who once held the same Brooklyn City Council seat that Lander did until this month, took the position as mayor that the court should leave reforms to lawmakers.

Mayor Eric Adams has vowed to craft a “fairer system” and resolve inequities within the property tax system “within the first year,” Bloomberg reported. He has also voiced support for TENNY. But comprehensive reform of the system can only be made by state legislation; Adams’ primary role would be to advocate for that in Albany.

A spokesperson for Adams told Bloomberg last month that “if the final product out of this court process is not sufficient, [the mayor] will take steps to further reform” the property tax system.