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A Pa. museum is paying Black residents back on their overtaxed and undervalued homes

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Research shows that homes owned by people of color in the U.S. are often overvalued when they're being taxed and undervalued when they're being sold. Now a Pittsburgh artist, along with a local museum, have found a way to highlight the disparities. Bill O'Driscoll of member station WESA reports.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: Five years ago, Chester Stoney bought a two-bedroom house on a quiet street on Pittsburgh's north side. He got it for a good price, just under $20,000. Still, Stoney quickly learned the place needed work.

CHESTER STONEY: I got the water turned on, and water was coming down in the ceiling in the kitchen. So I had to, you know, shut off the main valve. And I actually repaired it myself, you know, to save a little bit.

O'DRISCOLL: Then last year, out of the blue, an artist reached out to Stoney to inform him the property taxes on his house were too high.

STONEY: So he did his research on my property and found that I was one of the Black residents that was being essentially overtaxed.

O'DRISCOLL: The artist, Harrison Kinnane Smith, had a proposition. As part of his latest 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 in property taxes and what he is paying - an extra $475 a year. Smith researched local property taxes and sales prices with a data analyst. He says the disparity in Stoney's tax burden mirrors Pittsburgh's as a whole.

HARRISON KINNANE SMITH: There's a 7% difference over the last 10 years in property taxation rates for Black homes and white homes.

O'DRISCOLL: Smith, a Pittsburgh native, says it's not an issue just for those homeowners.

KINNANE SMITH: The property taxes are the primary source of government revenue. And so, you know, in all - whether or not you're being individually overtaxed, we as Pittsburghers are benefiting, complicit in, and these systems touch all of us in many different kind of pernicious ways.

O'DRISCOLL: Smith's exhibit is titled Sed Valorem, Latin for Without Value. The show also includes an experiment involving a different local Black homeowner. Smith commissioned two appraisals of her house. The first was conducted with the homeowner and her personal furnishings, including family photos and Senegalese masks. The second had a white person pose as the homeowner with all decor that might read as Black removed. The result - the quote, unquote, "white version" was appraised at $436,000, 9% higher than the Black-identified original. Megan Confer-Hammond heads Pittsburgh's Fair Housing Partnership. She says such appraisal inequities are widespread.

MEGAN CONFER-HAMMOND: 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.

O'DRISCOLL: It's rare for art to be so data-driven. In the museum gallery, the visual focus is a stack of the Black homeowners' possessions, most in cardboard boxes under a clear plastic tarp. Mattress Factory Executive Director Hayley Haldeman describes Smith as a practical visionary.

HAYLEY HALDEMAN: He is someone who is operating both as an artist but drawing from really, really nuanced and complex concepts of law and data analysis and property tax, wading through them in a way that makes them understandable to the vast array of visitors who are coming to the Mattress Factory.

O'DRISCOLL: Homeowner Chester Stoney hopes Smith's art helps others, too.

STONEY: And it would be great if, you know, we find a way to bring it out, you know, to the city at large.

O'DRISCOLL: That would make this art exhibit one that literally hits home. For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.