Silo Point condos along the Inner Harbor. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
They're some of the priciest condos in the city, but they're taxed like empty lots.
At the Ritz-Carlton Residences along Baltimore's Inner Harbor — where a recent sale topped $1.5 million — the tax bill for most of the condos was $1,309 apiece this year. At Silo Point, an industrial conversion with gourmet kitchens, hardwood floors and sweeping views of the city, the bill for many of the units is $238 each.
Even though they were built years ago, and city inspectors declared them ready to live in, they are still valued for tax purposes as though construction never got off the ground.
All 200 are owned by the developers who built the properties. Some elected officials think it makes sense for the tax bill to be modest until the homes sell, but that's not how the state's property tax law works. The artificially low assessments have reduced the city's tax revenue by more than $10 million in the past few years, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun.
Developers who aren't getting this deal weren't happy to hear about it.
"I'm sitting there with units that won't sell, too — it's unconscionable," said Andrew Viola, a regional manager with Williamsburg-based Bush Construction Corp., which built the 414 Water Street condos in downtown Baltimore. "We're paying our fair share. Why shouldn't every other developer?"
RXR Realty, which developed the Ritz condos, declined to comment. Patrick Turner, Silo Point's developer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Baltimore Sun discovered the low assessments while analyzing a database of city property records it created using a computer program that copied the information off the city's website, one record at a time.
The state Department of Assessments and Taxation insists that the assessed values — $55,000 for each unsold Ritz condo and $10,000 for each of Silo Point's — are not the result of favoritism or mistakes. But after being asked by The Sun to explain, agency officials said they will be increasing the assessed values soon.
The issue, said Deputy Director Owen C. Charles, is that assessors have had questions about whether the condos are "substantially completed" — the point at which the state is supposed to determine the market value of the improvements and assess accordingly. The agency's manual defines the term as "buildings under roof with completed walls."
"This is not something where the office simply forgot to assess these properties," Charles said. "It's an ongoing process for us. We continue to look at these to make sure we pick them up as soon as we're aware they have been substantially completed or have been sold."
But the city's permits office has considered the Ritz and Silo Point condos complete for several years now. It issued certificates of occupancy on the units in 2008 and 2009.
Charles was surprised to learn of the discrepancy. "When the city says 'done,' did they clarify what 'done' meant?" he said.
Asked what it meant, Michael Braverman, the city's head of permits and code enforcement, said: "100 percent complete."
Last week, Charles said assessors do not agree that the condos are complete, because the developers make changes to the properties according to the buyers' specifications once contracts are signed. But he said the agency intends to increase the assessments to full-market value in the next couple of months.
Why now? Because so much time has passed since the developers' representatives applied for the occupancy permits, he said, adding that assessors had planned the change before The Sun inquired.
"We're talking three years after the fact," Charles said. "We'll just put the values on, and the developer will have to appeal if in fact those units are not substantially completed."
Charles said the condos' assessments have been low in part because staff members were guided by a decision involving HarborView's Pier Homes, a luxury townhouse development built on piers. When the unsold units were reassessed as high as $1.4 million in 2009, the developer appealed, arguing that many of the homes were shells that would be finished after buyers signed contracts. HarborView got values knocked down to $20,000 each.
But unlike the Ritz or Silo Point, Pier Homes did not have certificates of occupancy. Either way, the head of the independent panel that reduced the Pier Homes values said he cannot believe that the assessments agency would treat one of its decisions as a precedent for other properties.
"We don't tell SDAT what to do," said Herman Williams Jr., chairman of the Baltimore City Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, which is made up of retired city residents and is not a court of record.
The decision to keep the assessed values of the unsold Ritz and Silo Point condos low has deprived the budget-strapped city of millions of dollars in taxes over the past few years.