The city is making its “green” homes less luxurious in hopes of creating housing that is actually affordable for the poor.
Although the city sells its large, solar-paneled, bamboo-floored deluxe houses for less than half of their worth, the assessments on those houses reflect their full value.
The taxes are so staggering that one low-income family has been unable to pay.
Others say the monthly cost of their homes more than doubled — to amounts so high that they want to sell.
But they all signed documents promising to live in the houses for years. Leaving early may require them to pay the city for the privilege.
They paid as little as $65,000 for houses that have now been assessed at $140,000, meaning their monthly tax bill is a third higher than their monthly mortgage.
The city has not found any solutions for them. However, officials are trying to redesign the next set of new houses so that no one else ends up with a tax bill they can’t afford.
The newest house under construction, at 1606 Sixth Ave., will be 1,300 square feet. The first homes were 1,650 square feet.
With that change comes the loss of one bedroom — the Sixth Avenue house will have three bedrooms. Also, there will be no bedrooms on the first floor.
That means the house can’t be easily used by a disabled resident. Each green home has been designed so that residents can remain there despite injury, illness and other disabling factors. They all have a graded walkway to the back door, so that residents don’t have to climb stairs, and the kitchen appliances can be used by a person in a wheelchair.
Among the amenities are lower cabinets and an oven door with hinges on the side, rather than the bottom.
But only one of the city’s first green homes was bought by a disabled resident. For the others, a first-floor bedroom proved less than popular.
“Most people would prefer a larger dining area instead,” said Homeownership Coordinator Ann Petersen.
But if disaster strikes for the residents at 1606 Sixth Ave., Petersen argued they could create a first-floor bedroom easily enough.
“They could still put in a wall to make a bedroom,” she said. “It’s not a weight-bearing wall.”
The smaller design is also reducing construction costs — but not much.
“It’s helped some,” Petersen said.
The real question is whether it will significantly reduce the house’s assessment, which would in turn reduce the residents’ tax bill.
Assessor Patrick Mastro said he can’t make any decision until the house is done.
But he said the house would likely have a lower assessment than the other, larger green homes.
“A smaller house that is similar, only smaller — on the open market, it will sell for less,” he said.
But he does not yet know how much less it could be.
And in any case, he said, the luxurious elements of all the green homes push up their value. He noted that many well-off city residents say they want to live in those homes. There are dozens of one-of-a-kind design elements created specially for the green homes.
“An often-spoken phrase is ‘affordable housing.’ Did we lose sight of that?” Mastro said.
The solar panels for electricity and hot water are particularly valuable.
“It’s well documented that home energy efficiency has a direct impact on resale value of a property,” he said. “Two identical homes on the same street, one having solar panels, which one sells for more? The energy savings are most certainly a benefit to the homeowner.”
City Director of Operations Sharon Jordan is hoping to make those benefits exempt from taxes.
She has enlisted Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, to eliminate the assessment penalty paid by every homeowner who goes green.
“He is going to introduce federal legislation to try to have solar cells not be part of the assessment,” she said.
The proposal may be added to an upcoming energy bill, she said.
New York State already has a assessment exemption for solar panels and other energy-efficiency items, but it has not been adopted by the Schenectady City Council. The exemption, as written by the state, would be difficult to implement, Jordan said.
Federal legislation would create a usable solution for every state, she added.
“That’s what you need to do. You have to make systemic changes,” she said.