Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A local art exhibit exposes the overtaxing and undervaluation of Black-owned homes in Pittsburgh

In 2017, Chester Stoney bought a house in Fineview, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. It was on a quiet street a few minutes' drive from Propel Northside charter school, where he works. And it was $19,500 — a good deal, even if the kitchen ceiling started leaking the minute he got the water turned on.

So Stoney was hardly expecting to hear from someone he’d never met, telling him that his two-bedroom 19th-century house – which stands next door to a dilapidated, long-vacant structure the city has marked for demolition – was being overtaxed.

Artist Harrison Kinnane Smith grew up in Squirrel Hill and now is based in Connecticut.
Jared Piper
Mattress Factory
Artist Harrison Kinnane Smith grew up in Squirrel Hill and now is based in Connecticut.

“Not knowing, just going about paying what I think everyone else is paying for their homes, it was very surprising to me to find out I was in that category,” said Stoney, 34.

More curious still, the person relaying this information was an artist, named Harrison Kinnane Smith. And Smith had a proposition: As part of his new art project, the nearby Mattress Factory museum would take out a $10,000 mortgage on one of its buildings. Then, for the next 15 years, the museum would hand Stoney the difference between what he should be paying for taxes and what he is paying and — an extra $475 a year.

Stoney was wary at first. But his first annual payment is due in April — the same month Smith’s show, “Sed Valorem,” closes at the Mattress Factory. The project, titled “1414 Mortgage Escrow,” is perhaps the most inventive aspect of an art exhibition with the ambitious goal of highlighting housing inequity along racial lines — including not just overtaxation, but also underappraisal of Black-owned homes for sale.

And it’s an art exhibit with concrete benefits for Stoney, who said the payments will “definitely help out” financially. “I’m trying to do a lot of renovations trying to up the value of the property, so more of my money can go towards that,” he said.

However, he added, as an educator, “Being part of art is kinda big for me. … I like the arts. That kinda excited me more than anything to be part of the exhibit.”

Smith is a Pittsburgh native who grew up in Squirrel Hill, graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School, and, in 2020, from Yale University. Though now based in Connecticut, he returned home to explore racial inequities in Allegheny County as part of the Mattress Factory’s four-artist show “making home here.”

“Sed Valorem” means “without value” in Latin, a play on the legal term “ad valorem” (“according to value”). And it’s surely among the more data-driven art projects around. Smith worked with his friend Jordan B. Abbott, a data analyst, to create an Allegheny County-specific take on the copious research showing that, on average, homes by Black and brown people are overassessed for taxes and underappraised when they’re for sale.

They pored over real-estate records (including proprietary data compiled by ATTOM Data Solutions) and the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data base and found that between 2012 and 2020, “Pittsburgh’s Black home buyers faced tax values 7.5% higher, on average, than whites.” They also found that the most expensive homes were taxed at about two-thirds of their sales value, while the least expensive were taxed at 193% of their sales value.

Start your morning with today's Pittsburgh news, delivered weekdays at 7 a.m.

Check box to subscribe:

Smith said those results should concern more than the affected homeowners.

“Property taxes are the primary source of government revenue,” he said. “So whether or not you’re being individually overtaxed, we as Pittsburghers are benefiting, complicit in — these systems touch all of us in many kind of pernicious ways.”

According to Troup Howard, an economist at the University of Utah, one big reason has to do with how much amenities like parks and schools in any given neighborhood figure into the assessment of individual homes there. Howard said his research indicates that assessors across the country are likely to discount how much substandard amenities might reduce the value of homes in one neighborhood, as well as how much better amenities might increase that value in another.

“Just under-responsiveness of property assessments means that you're going to tend to be undervaluing homes in areas where neighborhood-level amenities are very high, and overvaluing homes in neighborhoods where neighborhood amenities are relatively lower,” said Howard, whose work Smith and his collaborator drew on for “Sed Valorem.”

That effect is true of neighborhoods regardless of their racial composition, he said. But because American housing patterns are highly segregated, Black and brown households are exposed to a different set of neighborhood amenities on average. As a result, misvaluations tend to place a disproportionately high tax burden on communities of color.

Furthermore, based on a study of assessment appeals in Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, Howard and a colleague found that Black and Latino homeowners are less likely to appeal their assessments; less likely to win if they do appeal; and, if they do win, likely to receive smaller assessment reductions.

Smith said the disparity might be worsened by Allegheny County’s freeze on property assessments at 2012 values. (Such a freeze is possible because, unlike most states, Pennsylvania does not require municipalities to conduct regular reassessments.)

Reached for comment, Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs declined via email to discuss Smith’s exhibit, which she said county officials had not reviewed.

But Downs did cite the benefits of the county’s Homestead Exemption, which for taxing purposes reduces the market value of the homes of homeowners who apply by $18,000. This proportionately benefits the owners of lower-value homes more.

Downs added that the assessment freeze (which she called “a base year system”) is beneficial in that it “provides a predictability and sustainability to property tax rates which benefits homeowners.”

Are there solutions to assessment inequities?

A number of states permit municipalities to impose assessment caps, which limit the rate at which a property assessment can grow annually. Howard said his research suggests that caps can reduce racial and ethnic inequality in assessments. However, he added, assessment caps might also have undesirable consequences.

Troup said a different method that shows promise is something called “small-geography home-price indices.” It involves taking the actual sale prices of homes in a small area, say, a ZIP Code, calculating how quickly they are growing, and basing new assessments on that figure. (Howard said this is feasible currently using such commercial tools as Zillow.)

“This is sort of a very transparent, very rules-based valuation approach that we show can also reduce racial and ethnic inequality,” he said.

To demonstrate how Black-owned homes are underappraised, “Sed Valorem” also includes a separate experiment involving a different local Black homeowner.

Smith commissioned two appraisals of her house, located in East Liberty. The first was conducted with the homeowner and her furnishings present, including her family photos and Senegalese masks. The second was done with a white person posing as the homeowner, and all décor that might read as “Black” removed. The result? The “white” version was appraised at $436,000 — 9% higher than the Black-identified original, for a difference of $36,000. In the museum gallery, Smith stacked the owner’s possessions, most in cardboard boxes, in the middle of the floor under a clear plastic tarp.

“He showed the insanity of the economic system when it comes to creating value,” said Megan Confer-Hammond, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Fair Housing Partnership.

While housing discrimination is a violation of federal law, such appraisal inequities are widespread enough to be the subject of President Biden’s Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity.

“We’re removing Black wealth through our systems, and not due to any action by an individual, but due to the systemic racism that is giving a black individual a different and lower rate than a white individual for the same house,” said Confer-Hammond.

Smith added that for the “Black” appraisal, all three “comparable homes” chosen by the appraiser were located in East Liberty, which is historically Black, while two of the five homes the appraiser for the “white” version chose were located in Highland Park, which is historically whiter.

The exhibit also includes “50 Cent's Cribs Appraisal,” a video installation featuring a 10-minute loop of doctored footage from the 2007 MTV Cribs episode on rapper Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent. The show celebrates the homes of wealthy celebrities. Jackson bought the 50,000-square-foot Connecticut property in 2003, for $4.1 million; he sold it in 2019, at a $1.2 million loss. Echoing the “white” version of the East Liberty house, Smith digitally erased from the video “all instances of Blackness,” including Jackson himself.

“Sed Valorem” runs through April 10. It is part of “making home here,” which also includes separate installations by Gavin Benjamin, Naomi Chambers, Njaimeh Njie, and Justin Emmanuel Dumas.

More information on the exhibit is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: