Cincinnati looks to cap property taxes for low-income senior citizens

CINCINNATI -- Robert Atkinson has been living in the West End for nearly his entire life.

He grew up there and moved back after he finished eight years in the U.S. military. Atkinson is 77 years old now. The neighborhood has changed a lot over those years.

"When we started working on this house, I used to go to work and come home and work in the yard or whatever. Then I'd wake up the next morning and beer bottles were thrown all over the place or bricks or whatever," he said. "So that was disheartening."

Progress has been slow in coming to the West End. The promise of an FC Cincinnati stadium, if the club wins a Major League Soccer franchise, means change could soon move at a breakneck pace.

If property values rise like they have in Over-the-Rhine, Atkinson worries he'll be priced out. He owns his home, but the property taxes could force him to sell.

Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld doesn't want that to happen. He's asked city administrators to look at a program to cap property taxes for low-income senior citizens so they can stay in their homes and neighborhoods.

Robert Atkinson brings mulch to the front garden of his home in the city's West End neighborhood.

The city of Philadelphia could be an example, Sittenfeld says: The amount eligible seniors pay in property taxes do not increase even as their property values go up or tax rate changes. There are age and income requirements.

"I certainly hear from my senior citizen friends in the community, various constituents that they want to stay in their home. They want to continue to enjoy our city, but sometimes those property taxes can be a particular burden," Sittenfeld said.

One in seven people in Hamilton County is 65 years or older, Census data show. Sittenfeld said the city will do a survey and look at the program's financial impact. Council would then need to decide whether it's willing to set aside funds or give up future revenue to pass it.

John Donaldson, who lives in Over-the-Rhine, thinks it's misguided to single out one group of people to exempt from tax levies -- especially, he said, when that same group would be able to vote for taxes they themselves may not pay.

Donaldson worries the plan could drive away people who are most able to pay.

"You're just going to keep voting in levies, which is going to make us too tax-heavy, and then people start fleeing the city just like what happened in Detroit," he said.

Outside his West End home, Atkinson used to have a lawn. He gave that up when someone stole his brand-new lawnmower. Thieves also took his smoker and a cooler.

They got about $3,000 worth of stuff from his shed in the back. That happened just after he retired.

Instead of a lawn, Atkinson now has flowers. They're in the gardens, and in window boxes and hanging baskets and planters.

He teared up thinking about the reasons he wouldn't give up on the place he calls home.

"I guess, like I said, I've always seen potential in the neighborhood and I wanted to bring it out the best way I knew," he said.

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