At 11:58 a.m. on Tuesday, April 10, a man with a badge affixed to his belt pulled up to my house in a gray Mitsubishi, walked up my front steps and rang my doorbell.
“Does Solomon Jones live here?” he said.
My wife eyed him suspiciously through the front window. She was leery that a stranger knew my name and where I lived. She closed the window without answering his question. Then she called to tell me what had happened.
I rushed home to find a copy of a property tax bill in our mailbox. The bill was for a property I own in a rapidly gentrifying area in the 19121 ZIP code in North Philadelphia. The bill, which was for $1,200, included a balance from 2017, the year before I acquired the property.
I was confused. I’d received the previous two property tax bills in the mail, paying one in full and sending in a partial payment on the other. Why, I wondered, would someone show up at my home? Convinced it was a scam to try to scare me into selling my property, I investigated, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of warning others, in case it was a scam.
What I didn’t know at the time was this: Our mysterious visitor was from the Philadelphia Department of Revenue. More on that below — but first, some additional details.
The property for which he hand-delivered the tax bill is in a ZIP code in which newly built homes are selling for $390,000, and older homes like the property I own are going to sheriff’s sale in droves.
I believe the city’s pattern of tax-related sheriff’s sales in impoverished areas is helping to speed up gentrification, and poor people are paying the price.
On Wednesday, 336 properties in Philadelphia will be sold at sheriff’s sale as tax delinquent. Forty-two percent of them are in a single ZIP code —19121. As recently as 2013, data collected by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that the area was among the poorest in the city. Today, it is gentrifying at a rapid pace.
As someone whose family has owned property in the area for more than 60 years, I’m both exhilarated and unnerved by the new development. That’s because when property values in poor areas begin to increase, black people are often pushed out, and the government usually plays a role in their exit. It happened that way with Urban Renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, and that pattern seems to be repeating today.
One tool the city uses to encourage development is the 10-year tax abatement, which goes to the owners of newly constructed or physically improved real estate in the city. In areas such as mine, gentrifying home buyers get the tax abatement, while the poor have their homes auctioned for back taxes.
In other words, the city offers tax breaks to those who can afford to pay for new construction, and takes the homes of those who can least afford to pay their property taxes. Yes, there are attempts to make agreements with those who can’t pay, but after that, a process kicks in.
“When it’s apparent that you can’t pay, the city declares you delinquent, and, at that point, it goes to the courts,” Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Barbara Grant told me. “First Judicial District then decides whether this is a subject for sheriff’s sale … the sheriff is the executor of that order.”
“In the 19121 area, you have some of the deepest poverty,” she said. “Those are the folks who are going to have the hardest time holding on to their properties.”
On the day the Department of Revenue hand-delivered a tax bill to my home, I was left to wonder whether the visit was a scam by someone who’d secured my address from public records, or a first step toward putting my North Philadelphia property on the sheriff’s sale list.
I called the mayor’s office and was put in touch with Deputy Revenue Commissioner Marisa Waxman.
I asked her whether the man who’d come to my home to drop off a tax bill was from the Revenue Department.
“We don’t hand-deliver tax bills to people’s homes,” she said. “In some narrowly targeted instances, we have someone come to the property, but only if going for sheriff’s sale.”
When the conversation ended, I was convinced that the visit was part of a scam. But Waxman called back later and said that the man on my doorstep was indeed from the Revenue Department, and that he’d hand-delivered the bill, because bills were bouncing back from my North Philadelphia property.
Again, I was confused, because I receive the property tax bills in the mail, and had just made a payment on March 16.
When I called Waxman back to get an explanation, she referred me to the mayor’s office. Mike Dunn, a mayoral spokesperson, told me that the Revenue employee came to my home because a 2017 tax bill had been returned to the city. My uncle, who previously owned the property, died in late 2016.
There’s still more to untangle, but as of now, I’m sure my property isn’t going to sheriff’s sale, since more than half the old bill has been paid. But on Wednesday, as African Americans are continuously pushed out of the community, 143 others won’t be so lucky.