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When the city of Atlanta announced film mogul and philanthropist Tyler Perry would donate $750,000 to pay property taxes for over 300 low-income seniors in arrears, some housing experts couldn’t help but wonder: Do we really need celebrity help to prevent displacement?

Perry’s gift will pay off all back property taxes for “every low-income senior in Atlanta,” Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said in a press release, noting the money will cover city, county, and school taxes for more than 300 people.

It will also freeze property taxes for 100 low-income seniors by paying the difference between their current taxes and future increases over the next 20 years through a separate $2 million pledge of $500,000 a year for four years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

These are issues the government—not private-sector billionaires or other philanthropic entities—should be responsible for addressing, said Georgia State University urban studies professor Dan Immergluck. 

Atlanta has other anti-displacement programs that similarly rely on charitable contributions to cover tax increases for longtime homeowners, Immergluck pointed out, including the nonprofit Westside Future Fund, which manages its own anti-displacement tax assistance fund, and the Atlanta Beltline Partnership’s Legacy Resident Retention Program.

The city should be working with the state legislature or establishing its own policies to find “systemic, permanent solutions to displacement”—including options for lower-income renters, not just homeowners—Immergluck told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email.

“These sorts of media-focused efforts won’t mean a great deal and won’t bend the overall arc of displacement over the long term,” he said.

GSU sociology professor Deirdre Oalkey, another housing expert, echoed Immergluck’s concern. “While I think this is very generous of Tyler Perry, I don’t think the city should be relying on private donations to solve this issue,” she said in an email.

But HouseATL executive director Natallie Keiser applauded Perry and Dickens “for prioritizing Atlanta’s low-income homeowners.”

“These displacement-prevention funds are important,” she said, “because we have not been able to get the longer-term tax policy solution that we need.”

Immergluck added that Perry’s grant won’t help Atlanta’s most vulnerable residents—renters, who feel the weight of property tax spikes because landlords often increase rent to cover higher tax bills. 

What’s more, big property tax increases can make it financially nonviable to operate rental housing designated as affordable, Keiser said. “Even affordable rental housing operated by nonprofits are challenged with property tax increases.”

Immergluck advocated a change in the property tax code instead of piecemeal grant programs. “We need permanent, structural changes to the way property taxes work, so that lower-income residents are shielded from rapid increases [in] their property tax bills or their rent bills,” he said.

By contrast, the city’s property-tax grant programs that rely on philanthropy, like the Beltline’s Legacy Retention Program and now Perry’s grants, can present access barriers, Immergluck said. “Temporary programs are hard for folks to learn about and don’t become part of the system. They require people to apply, sometimes through overly burdensome means.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment on why Perry’s help is needed to keep longtime residents housed. 

  • Georgia homeowners seeking property tax exemptions or deferrals can also visit Georgia Legal Aid to explore their options.

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