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Age Appreciation 

As the value of houses increases, rising property taxes threaten the homes of elderly residents

It took 98,200 bricks to build the house, and Joyce Hunter's father paid just three cents for each one.

The flowers and bushes she and her mother planted together before many of the current residents of Hempstead Place were born still dot the yard's landscape. From time to time she still catches a whiff, perhaps imagined, of the coal she once helped her mom shovel into the furnace in the basement to keep warm in the winter. She says she can practically still hear the footsteps on the old patio, and though the parents she loved so much are long gone, bits of their memory still color every nook and cranny of the house as if they'd never left.

Hunter, 64, has lived in the house her father built on Hempstead her whole life, minus a few years she spent in college. When she struggles to put what it means to her in words, her eyes tear up. But after an hour on Hunter's porch, perfectly constructed, like the rest of the house, to capture and trap cross-breezes the way many homes built during the period were, there's no need to explain. Though the big old house is empty now except for Hunter and her two dogs, there's a serenity of family comfort that still lives there.

Hunter, an only child, never married and has no family.

"All I have is this house, two dogs that are the love of my life and an old car," said Hunter. The problem is that the house, the fifth built on Hempstead in 1931, now happens to be smack in the middle of what is arguably Charlotte's hottest neighborhood.

Hunter, a retired teacher, says the property taxes on the house, which has almost doubled in tax value in the last eight years, consumes nearly 40 percent of her income. Things got worse when she climbed a ladder to make repairs she can't afford to pay for, fell and broke her back. Now another 10 percent of her income goes to medical bills, some associated with ongoing problems with her back.

Hunter hasn't given up her fight to keep her house yet. She takes every odd job she can find that her health will allow, from baby-sitting to pet and house sitting, and has managed to earn an extra $6,900 a year to put toward her $10,000 tax bill. Assuming the county commission doesn't hit taxpayers with another double digit tax increase next year, as it has been known to do in nonelection years, Hunter says she has enough left in her savings to pay the taxes on the house for approximately another two years if she can keep working odd jobs. After that, she doesn't know what she'll do.

"I gave 31 years, the best years of my life, to 5,279 children," said Hunter. "Now I am being forced out of my home because of the tax situation here."

Friends tell her jokingly she should sell her house, which has a likely market value of over $900,000, and move into something more affordable -- say in Ballantyne. But this isn't about a house. This is about her home, she says.

Eastover was your standard middle class neighborhood when she grew up there.

"I can't help that the McColls and the Belks have moved here," she says. "I have a comfort zone here, a comfort level. I've walked these streets for years and years. I don't think I could put a for sale sign in this yard without getting up every morning and throwing up looking at it."

Vera Harrison, deputy division director of Mecklenburg County Property Tax Office, says she doesn't like the situation either. The state does have tax exemption programs for the elderly and the disabled, but the income limit to qualify for the program is a mere $19,700. Those who qualify can have the first $20,000 or the first 50 percent of the appraised value of their property excluded if they meet the income limit.

Harrison says her office has expressed concern over the law to county leaders. But unless state legislators decide to make a change, there isn't much the county can do.

J.D. DuPuy, an attorney with Ruff, Bond, Cobb, Wade & Bethune, a law firm that represents the county, says state law would have to be changed to ease the property tax burden on elderly homeowners like Hunter. By law, the county can't change its own rules on exempting the elderly, he said.

"It's really not very forgiving," DuPuy said. "There are situations where we can enter into payment plans, but as far as forgiving interest and taxes, that's just not allowed. It is a tough spot."

Like Colorado, at least a dozen states have programs that allow elderly long-time homeowners to defer their taxes with interest until their property is sold or they pass away.

Republican County Commissioner Dan Bishop says he's hesitant about creating new tax exceptions.

"I think we ought to set reasonable tax levels and part of the problem is that our taxes are higher than any other urban county," said Bishop. "I am really reticent to begin chopping up society into different groups of folks that receive preferences. I'm open to the idea that your home is your castle, but all of us have a burden in providing shelter and her choice is remaining in a house that is difficult for her to afford."

Bishop says that if government begins to make exceptions, politicians will be tempted to extend those exemptions to their particular constituents.

"When you eliminate some taxpayers on a hardship basis, you undercut the pressure that is there to keep taxes reasonable across the board," he said.

County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, says she heard about this problem frequently during the 2004 campaign, and a tax change to help folks like Hunter is something she's willing to consider. She'd have to get the support of four other commissioners to ask county staff for a report on it and get the ball rolling, she says, and at the moment she's focused on other priorities she's pushing.

But if she is re-elected this fall, she'd be willing to take on the issue in the future, she says.

If county commissioners united behind the issue, they'd have to lobby the state legislature to change the law. That's something the county does frequently, but making a statewide change that is bound to cut government revenue is a tough sell that could take years.

With taxes and property values escalating, Hunter doesn't have time to wait.

"One day they'll get old, too," Hunter says of elected officials. "I want to write them a letter and say I hope no one puts you out of your home."

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