SPLC Lawsuit: NOLA Tax Assessor Illegally Favored Commercial Properties
The SPLC has filed suit in state district court on behalf of two city property owners
A lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) alleges that Orleans Parish Assessor Errol Williams illegally favored commercial properties in reassessments conducted in 2020. According to the lawsuit, Williams illegally reassessed a select subset of commercial properties - mainly large national hotel chains - cutting their assessments by $317 million while similarly situated small businesses and residential property owners either saw their values remain the same or even go up.
“This lawsuit is about basic fairness,” said Clara Potter, staff attorney for the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not equitable nor is it legal that large corporations are receiving tax breaks while residents and small businesses are being forced to pay more. We should be protecting all New Orleanians and their homes and small businesses, not leaning on them to subsidize deep-pocketed companies.”
Williams cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason behind his assessment reductions.
“The Assessor's Office conducted extensive research on the impact of COVID-19 on both residential and commercial property values, as required by (the law governing tax assessments),” spokesperson Devin Johnson said in a prepared statement. “The research pointed to residential property values continuing to increase, while commercial values went down. These are both well-documented and reported facts. The assessor doesn't give special treatment or play politics with the way properties are valued. Data drives the assessment process.”
However, small businesses that were similarly situated did not receive the same consideration. According to the lawsuit, Williams violated the Louisiana state and U.S. constitution, as well as the Louisiana statute stating that tax assessments must be applied uniformly. The plaintiffs represented by the SPLC - former state representative Rosalind Peychaud and Neal Morris - are seeking to have the court invalidate the reassessment.
“The Assessor’s decision to give million-dollar tax cuts to hotel chains and shift millions in additional taxes to struggling homeowners in the middle of a pandemic is disturbing and cruel,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “We need relief for renters, homeowners, and small landlords, not more tax breaks for giant corporations.”
The SPLC’s plaintiffs are joined in the lawsuit by the Louisiana Tax Commission and the Orleans Parish Bureau of Treasury. The lawsuit is also heavily supported by local housing advocates, who worry that unfair tax assessments are only adding to the city’s ongoing affordable housing crisis.
“We can no longer contend, nor pretend, that our city’s housing affordability crisis is the result of unintended consequences of development,” said Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Chief Equity Officer at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. “We have enough data, studies, and over-analysis to clearly demonstrate that our civil rights are being viciously and repeatedly violated by those who are charged with protecting those rights.”
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