Among all the issues that affect taxpayers, none has a greater impact than a property tax revaluation. When Newark, New Jersey was about to have its first revaluation in more than 42 years, both local residents and New Community Corporation (NCC), one of the largest and most comprehensive community development corporations in the country, were concerned about its effects.
The timing of the property revaluation coincided with what some are calling Newark’s renaissance. After decades of disinvestment, reinvestment throughout the city has driven up property values and decreased the supply of vacant land. These changes have put new pressures on CDCs. NCC owns a considerable amount of property in Newark, including 3,000 units of housing, a health center, two charter schools, a community center, vacant land and several job training centers. The total value of NCC’s property is estimated at $500 million. Given its large property holdings, a revaluation had the potential to seriously affect the organization. An increase in tax payments could affect project funding and the organization’s overall financial health.
In addition to its own property concerns, concerned citizens were calling NCC for guidance on the revaluation process and its effect on them as individual property owners. One elderly man on a fixed income had been given an estimate that his annual taxes were increasing from $3,000 to over $11,000. This increase would mean that he could no longer afford to own his home. Affordable housing was already a huge problem in Newark for families, and it was about to become a bigger issue for homeowners, especially the elderly.
Earlier in its history, NCC had a staff member who kept track of its properties and abatements. But as the organization grew and faced more pressing challenges, it was not able to continue that work. NCC asked the urban planning program at Rutgers University for help in exploring how the tax revaluation would affect it and the residents of Newark.
And so it was that 11 graduate students took a crash course on New Jersey municipal property tax policy during the spring 2003 semester. The students were enrolled in a community development studio, which included traditional elements of classroom teaching – lecture, discussion and readings – but with a focus on completing a real world project for a real client.
Over the years, NCC and Rutgers have built a mutually beneficial and trusting relationship, and NCC felt the school had the right expertise to help them with this issue. Rutgers faculty had served on NCC’s foundation board for years, and NCC staff had lectured at the school. This was the third time Rutgers had partnered with NCC on a studio since 1998, when the Rutgers Community Outreach Partnership Center was formed. The center receives funding from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program for community/university partnerships. Its principal objective is to support community-based revitalization in the section of Newark served by NCC and other community groups.
For each studio, NCC staff and Rutgers faculty began collaborative planning months before the project start date. The partners identified the top issues and crafted a project that met NCC’s needs as well as those of the university. The project had to be completed within an academic semester.
At the start of the spring 2003 project, NCC staff members led students on a tour of their facilities and the city so the students could see the properties about which they would soon be gathering data. Staff members also wanted to teach students about Newark’s history, power structure and politics, to provide a context for community development in the city.
The students’ tasks included creating a database of NCC-owned properties; adding old and new assessments for each property to the database along with information about tax status (such as whether the properties had tax abatements or exemptions) and land use; and producing educational materials to foster public awareness and understanding of the revaluation process.
To complete the tasks, students divided into three work teams. First, the data management team created a master property list, linked that data to the city’s digital parcel map and identified the land use characteristics of NCC-owned properties, making it easier to visualize the data. Second, the tax team gathered abatement and exemption certificates from NCC’s files, tracked down certificates of occupancy for buildings, added old assessments to the database and entered new assessments as they came in. This team also developed a brochure for residents that explains the process of property tax revaluation and includes a description of the appeal process. Third, the geographic mapping team used the materials gathered by the other two teams to map NCC properties along with their tax status and land use.
In May 2003, students presented their findings to NCC and invited guests from other local CDCs, the Newark Community Development Network and the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority. The final report to NCC included a database of all NCC properties showing land use, 2001 and 2002 tax assessments, abatement and exemption status, a complete description of the database and codes used, a written report analyzing the potential impact of revaluation on NCC and Newark residents and a portfolio of maps showing NCC land use and tax status.
The students’ presentation to NCC enabled the staff to finally understand the incredible effect the revaluation could have on the organization. Staff members now had a better sense of the importance of cooperating with NCC’s legal and finance staff as they asked for any information needed for revaluation work.
NCC used the database to estimate the effect of the revaluation on its programs and operations and to ensure that it filed for abatements and exemptions. NCC also used the database to facilitate housing development and as the basis for neighborhood planning initiatives. NCC’s newest housing development – the Victorian Heights Project – consists of 19 three-family homes on property NCC already owned. NCC used the maps and information from the Rutgers studio as part of a presentation to funders to garner financial support for the development, which is set for groundbreaking in early 2005. NCC also used the studio’s information at the multiple Newark master planning sessions for neighborhood residents in 2003 and 2004. These sessions were designed to inform residents of how the revaluation and other issues would affect the city going forward, and teach them ways to work with the city on these issues.
The database, according to Monsignor William J. Linder, NCC’s founder and CEO, “helped New Community anticipate the impact of the tax revaluation and is valuable to us in planning for the future.”
Learning From Our Experiences
Partnerships like the one that Rutgers and NCC have developed offer a wealth of benefits for universities and communities. For communities, universities offer human capital, technical sophistication, hardware and institutional facilities. For universities, partnerships offer opportunities to work directly with community experts, provide locations for student learning, collaborate on innovative research projects and fulfill commitments to supporting urban change. Despite the potential benefits, partnerships are difficult to create and maintain. Universities are often perceived as powerful resource-rich institutions that dominate partnership agendas and outcomes. Communities may lack the resources to use partnership materials. And for both, project planning, timing and expectations are often difficult to manage.
Rutgers and NCC have avoided many of the typical partnership pitfalls. The longer that we have worked together as partners, the more we know what to expect from each other. NCC expects Rutgers faculty to understand the demands on the nonprofit’s staff time and to prepare students adequately prior to the beginning of a project. The university expects NCC staff to help create projects that can be completed during an academic semester, and that will be used after the project is completed.
NCC partners with the university for two main reasons. The first is to access resources. Partnering provides services and intellectual capital that NCC cannot afford to pay for, such as survey work, cost-benefit analysis and data mapping.
Moreover, partnering helps build NCC’s human capital by motivating staff. For senior staff who work very closely on their issue areas, university partners help to frame and analyze issues in new ways. For other staff members, many of whom do not have college degrees, the partnership’s students and faculty can serve as a motivational tool to gain further education. Faculty and students bring the latest knowledge, literature, technology and ideas to NCC staff who often do not have time to attend multiple professional development seminars.
NCC’s second reason for partnering is that it considers it part of its mission to teach students about cities and community development. In addition to Rutgers, NCC staff work with other universities in New York and New Jersey. NCC often calculates the return on investment for community development projects; its partnership with Rutgers requires a significant amount of institutional commitment, but the reward is tremendous. Whether students return later as interns or work in the public or private sectors, all have an understanding and appreciation of NCC, life in Newark and the challenges that disadvantaged communities face.
There is tremendous appeal in the idea of community university partnerships and the experiences of Rutgers and NCC have been excellent. But this is an unusual relationship. With its more than 30 year history, a mission to teach others about community development and more than 1,600 staff, NCC has a rare capacity to commit to partnerships and use the materials they produce.
Despite these unique aspects, there are transferable lessons. NCC and Rutgers have been building this partnership for nearly four years. Each year, they expand and polish their collaborative model, building more trust and strengthening their relationships. In this way, they open more opportunities to partner in the future.