Property owners in Alamo Heights’ zip code last year were more likely to protest their appraisals than those in any other zip code in the city.

That one of San Antonio’s wealthier neighborhoods holds that distinction points to a fundamental trend across the city: The poorer a zip code, the less likely it is to use one of the most powerful tools available to fight rising property taxes.

The finding is the result of a San Antonio Report analysis of appraisal records from last year.

Every year the Bexar Appraisal District assigns an estimated market value to the hundreds of thousands of residential and commercial properties in the county. That appraisal process is the first step in determining the tax bill property owners will get in October.

Property owners who appeal, or protest, their appraisals and win reduce the value by 5.33% on average, according to the appraisal district.

A frenzied housing market has caused the average appraisal for a homestead in Bexar County to jump 23% in value over last year, according to the district, landing at a little more than $309,000. Just five years ago, the average appraised homestead was around $170,600.

A spike in appraisal value doesn’t necessarily translate to an equal increase in property taxes, which are adjusted by exemptions and changing tax rates. Bexar County passed a nominal homestead exemption this year, following San Antonio’s move in 2020. In addition, most taxing entities now are required to seek voter approval to collect more than 3.5% in property tax revenue over the previous year.

The San Antonio Report analyzed records from the appraisal district for the more than 90,000 protests filed last year. It compared the number of protests to the total number of properties in each zip code and its average household income recorded by the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

Zip codes with few properties were excluded from the analysis. The records obtained also did not specify whether a protest was successful, though the appraisal district has said it settles about 94% of cases with the property owner.

For the top ten zip codes with the highest percentage of properties protested, all but one had an average household income above that of Bexar County as a whole, roughly $58,000. A statistical analysis of zip code income and percentage of properties protested showed a moderate correlation. Every additional $10,000 in a zip code’s average income correlated with a 1% increase in a property owner’s likelihood to protest. In a city with vast inequities in income and dramatic outliers, those differences add up quickly.

The top protesting zip code, 78209, which covers Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills and the Oak Park-Northwood neighborhoods, had an average household income of just under $140,000. Slightly more than 36% of property owners in the zip code protested their appraisals last year.

For comparison, only 11% of property owners protested their appraisals in zip code 78237, which encompasses much of the West Side’s Edgewood Independent School District. The area has an average household income just shy of $41,500.

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez attributed the gap to a systemic lack of access to institutional know-how on the city’s West, East and South sides. He called for more outreach.

“That’s going to take brainstorming, and it’s going to take resources,” he said. “It means going to people’s doors and meeting people at churches and wherever they’re at.”

He said this outreach was particularly important for homeowners who live in older homes in gentrifying neighborhoods, where new constructions drive up default appraisals across the block.

His office held a workshop last month walking residents through the process of protesting their appraisals and filing for homestead designations. The District 4 City Council office recently held a similar workshop.

Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita also encourages all homeowners to protest their appraisals. He said he and his appraisal district promote protesting on social media, in public meetings and in media interviews. “I do it all day long.”

Many wealthier property owners hire commercial services to file appraisal protests on their behalf, in exchange for a portion of the tax savings, Amezquita said. He said doing so often is unnecessary for what is required.

Protests have skyrocketed since his office made the process more convenient and flexible in response to the pandemic, he said. In years past, protesting meant showing up to two in-person meetings scheduled by the appraisal district’s office. Now protesters can schedule their own times for remote meetings online or over the phone.

He said the changes have made the process more equitable, helping homeowners who must juggle long work hours and day care, for example.

Protesting an appraisal helps his office be more accurate, he said. Doing so also helps address what he considers a deeper and more fundamental inequality in tax collection.

Rules for property appraisals baked into state law make it easier for commercial and industrial property owners to win massive reductions in their values through a process called equity appeals. Critics say those appeals, compounded by Texas’ lack of disclosure of sale prices, have increasingly shifted the tax burden to homeowners over time. Amezquita said his office lost more than $20 billion in assessed value to equity appeals last year from commercial owners.

“The system is so rigged for commercial and high end properties to get the best treatment from appraisals,” he said. “I can’t give away enough residential value to [equal] what I’ll lose in commercial value.”

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.