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You Audit(or) Know: How Local Auditors’ Offices Can Shape Housing Decisions

Housing affordability is at a historic low, with home prices surging and average rents climbing. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, about 50 percent of Americans believe affordable housing in their area is a major problem, increasing from 39 percent in 2018.

Local governments directly shape the availability and affordability of the housing built in their communities. City and county agencies determine where housing can be located, who qualifies to live there, and what property tax incentives exist. They also play a key role in monitoring available housing by ensuring landlords and property owners adhere to building codes.

County auditors’ offices can be particularly important for encouraging safe, affordable housing. Though specific tasks vary by county, the auditor’s office oversees financial records of all county officers and is responsible for administering the budget.

But what does that mean, and how does this relate to housing? I spoke with Bethany Sanders from the Franklin County Auditor’s Office in Ohio, who provides examples of how local auditors’ offices can make innovative changes to promote affordable housing, particularly for cities struggling with high property tax burdens and affordable homeownership.

What are the office’s core responsibilities?

The Franklin County Auditor’s Office handles a wide variety of important responsibilities that affect all of Franklin County’s residents and businesses. The office licenses our dogs, as required by state law; assesses property values that determine property taxes; and helps senior, veteran, and disabled populations get tax relief.

The office maintains property information and appraised property values. The auditor’s office also oversees all the county’s weights and measures, ensuring consumers get what they pay for at gas pumps and retail store scanners. The auditor serves as the county’s chief fiscal officer, safeguarding county money with innovative ideas and initiatives that protect the residents of Franklin County.

What programs or policies do you work on that involve housing?

Housing within our community is interwoven with almost every aspect of the Franklin County Auditor’s work. Auditors’ offices process and reviews sales, management, value, improvements, and the tax status of individual parcels and the county as a whole. This work provides county auditors a unique perspective that allows us to pursue policies that consider both the needs of communities and individual residents. For example, in advocating for changes to the state’s homestead exemption, the auditor’s office shares the individual experience of low-income property owners who contact us and the countywide numbers on eligibility and benefit amount.

Auditors’ offices can be a resource and partner for other housing focused entities. In order to appraise property, certify levies, and manage the property tax roll, the Franklin County Auditor’s Office maintains comprehensive and regularly updated property records including ownership and sales, improvements, and value. The auditor’s office tracks what homes are owner-occupied or used as rentals or receiving any type of abatement or exemption. Every piece of this information is readily available to the public, researchers, and policymakers.

What innovative practices or programs have changed access to stable, affordable housing in your county?

The Franklin County Auditor’s Office has partnered with local advocacy and research groups and is working internally to support data-driven changes to improve the supply and stability of housing in the county.

Upon taking office in 2019, the auditor’s office commissioned an independent performance audit of the 2017 reappraisal. The findings motivated changes to the 2020 property value update cycle and spurred additional research and adjustments.

Starting in fall 2019, the auditor’s office became the intake point for the Property Tax Assistance Program (PTAP), a nonprofit fund overseen by government and community partners to provide emergency one-time property tax assistance to low-income seniors in our county. We saw that local need outpaced available resources and sought to grow the program. County commissioners allocated $80,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds over two years to the PTAP. This has already allowed a more than tenfold increase in the number of older adults assisted in each property tax billing cycle this year.

In 2021, the office issued a report in partnership with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University (PDF) on bias in mass appraisal. This report highlighted how existing bias in appraisals and the history of redlining still affect our communities. As a result, changes have been made to the ongoing reappraisal to be completed in 2023, and access to property value appeals has been improved through online filing and maintaining a strong mediation program.

The Homeowner Assistance Program was launched in 2021 to increase access to property value appeals. In partnership with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, this initiative connects low-to-moderate-income homeowners with professional advice and representation.

In 2022, the Franklin County Auditor’s Office worked with the Age-Friendly Innovation Center to highlight how older adults are particularly burdened by property taxes (PDF). Property tax burden, which increases in a strong housing market, is often a major impediment to aging in place.

The auditor’s office has also added significant transparency to the often confusing and controversial landscape of tax incentives. Real-time mapping and tracking of foregone taxes for abatements and exemptions allow local governments, property owners, and representatives to understand the impact of commonly used economic development tools.

What do you wish people working on housing issues knew about the county auditor?

As prescribed by state law, the work of the Franklin County Auditor’s Office is bureaucratic and administrative, but how those tools are leveraged can have real impacts on property owners, residents, and those working to improve housing conditions.

The auditor’s office defines the basis for local levies and revenue within Ohio’s taxing districts. Appraising property in a fair and equitable way is critical and the auditor’s office partners with those working in housing to share information and design policy that limits negative externalities.

As much as possible, the Franklin County Auditor’s Office has eased access to programs and resources through fillable forms, online filing, and access to services meeting people where they are. Decreasing the knowledge and access barriers will help all property owners access resources they need.

How do you partner with other organizations or county departments in new ways to shift housing availability or access?

The Franklin County Auditor’s website and public information officers (PDF) are a popular starting place for those experiencing housing burdens or have questions about the functions of the office. In Franklin County, the office has leveraged its role to regularly host affordable housing resource fairs, which are one-stop shops for affordable housing information and resources. The most recent fair included more than 30 community housing and social support organizations.

The Franklin County Auditor’s Office provides educational programs for attorneys, realtors, first-time home buyers, and others, such as the bar association or Urban League. The auditor’s office also aims to get involved in community outreach and community events.