More than 1,000 Portland residents have so far appealed new property tax assessments ahead of a July 21 deadline, a reaction to sharp increases that have  some residents wondering if they can afford to stay.

Many South Portland residents are experiencing the same sticker shock because of a similar citywide revaluation in the midst of the red-hot real estate market.

While there is still time to challenge assessments, many residents also are looking at other avenues for tax relief.

Both Portland and South Portland, as well as the state, offer a range of resources aimed at protecting homeowners and preventing vulnerable populations, such as seniors and economically disadvantaged residents, from being forced out of their homes by rising costs.

Portland Tax Assessor Christopher Huff said understanding these programs and tax exceptions are an essential part of the property value reassessment process.

“Anything that reduces that tax burden is … a welcome program to those that are eligible for them,” Huff said.

The most popular relief program, Huff said, is the Maine Homestead Exemption Program. If you have lived in your property for at least a year and it is your primary residence you qualify for this exemption. The amount of a property assessment that is exempt is set by the state Legislature. This year, legislators  have set it at $25,000 of just value. A $25,000 exemption is expected to reduce a tax bill in Portland by about $330 next year.

“What this means is that, if you qualify, your taxable assessment is reduced by $25,000,” Huff said. “Last year we had over 8,800 properties in the city eligible for that program. For this coming year, it will be close to $3 million in tax relief.”

Both Portland and South Portland also have local tax relief programs aimed at senior citizens.

The Portland Senior Tax Equity Program, or ‘P-Step,’ is a local program passed by the city in 2017 for residents over 62 years old. In order to qualify, residents also must have qualified for the Property Tax Fairness Credit, a statewide tax credit for those who meet certain income and property tax requirements or qualifications. This credit can be claimed while filing the 1040 Maine income tax form.

“If the state gave you a credit for the Property Tax Fairness credit (and you are over 62 years old), the city will match it dollar for dollar up to $900,” Huff said. “Not only could you get $900 through the state property tax fairness credit, but then the city will match that up to $900.”

In South Portland, the program is available to seniors 68 or older and who have also qualified for the state’ property tax fairness credit. In 2020, the maximum benefit a single household would receive was $300 and the maximum benefit for a couple household was $400.

There are also exemptions to specifically vulnerable segments of the population such as a blind exemption, for the visually impaired, as well as an exemption for veterans. Widows of veterans also are eligible for the veteran exemption.

South Portland City Councilor Susan Henderson, who has highlighted these relief programs in the past, stressed the importance of getting ahead of issues like this early on. With the way many of the relief programs are structured, it is easier to take advantage of them before debt has started to accumulate.

“If people are getting into trouble with their rent or their mortgage, they really should seek out help early on,” Henderson said.

“People tend to be proud … and they wait and wait, and when they finally seek help, they are so far that their landlord is talking about eviction, or the bank is talking about eviction. It is much harder to help someone when they’re in that state; for example some of the city programs can help with rent, but not with back rent.

For Henderson, who believes housing is a human right, the reassessment has been frustrating, especially after a trying year of economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The goal is to help people stay in their homes … help people not lose the roof over their heads,” Henderson said. The reassessment is “really going to hurt some people, and I think that’s tragic because all the effort with the pandemic and the recession was to try and avoid hurting people.”

Huff hoped to remind residents that these relief programs were designed to help them and that they should be utilized to their fullest extent.

“People should take advantage of everything available to them,” he said. “Whether that’s a tax relief program, whether that’s challenging of a newly assessed value … these programs aren’t the end-all-be-all for everyone, but their intention certainly is is to help relieve the burden to whatever extent possible.”

A full list of exemptions and programs are available on the Portland and South Portland city websites.

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