Rosemary Neill opens the front door of her Kern Place home, where she has lived since the 1970s. Though El Paso often boasts a low cost of living compared to other large cities, Neill believes that the property tax burden will soon make housing in the city unaffordable for many residents. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Upper Valley homeowner Perla Aguilera will have to reevaluate her family’s spending habits as she prepares to pay higher property taxes this year.

Like thousands of El Pasoans, Aguilera saw a spike in her home valuation in 2021. That means that even though some taxing entities kept the same tax rates for their proposed annual budgets or lowered them slightly, she will still have a much higher property tax bill.

Aguilera, an assistant principal at Santa Teresa High School who is married with two daughters ages 6 and 8, said her family moved into their home in 2008. She is in the process of getting a homestead exemption that would sharply reduce her tax bill. Property owners who occupy their own houses qualify for a homestead exemption, but they must apply for the exemption.

Perla Aguilera has owned her home in the Canutillo area since 2008 and is facing a property tax bill approaching $6,000 this year. She and her husband have considered moving across the state line to find relief from high property taxes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The property tax bill on her Upper Valley home has increased 43% — more than $1,700 — since 2012. That includes $700 more they’ll have to pay this year compared to 2020, a 14% increase.

“For us, it impacts our quality of life. So we have to really think about — can we take this vacation?” Aguilera said. “Can we really enroll the girls in their sports activities or even tutoring services?”

Aguilera said the family is also reevaluating keeping their youngest daughter Claire in private school.

“We might not be able to afford the tuition because the taxes are so high,” Aguilera said.

El Paso Matters examined trends in tax rates and property valuations — the two elements that determine a homeowner’s total property tax bill — since 2012. Property owners in the El Paso city limits generally pay property taxes to five governmental entities — a school district, the city, El Paso County, the hospital district that operates University Medical Center and El Paso Community College.

The impact of tax increases varies depending on the school district where homes are located. But in each of the three major districts in the El Paso city limits, which include the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro school districts, the total property tax bill for the average value home has jumped sharply over the past decade.

In the El Paso and Ysleta school districts, where the majority of homes are older and where there has been a steady decline in student enrollment, the tax bill on an average value home — as calculated by the El Paso Central Appraisal District — increased since 2012 by more than $500 when adjusted for inflation, an increase of more than 14% and 20%, respectively.

In the Socorro school district, which has seen new construction and rising home valuations, the total tax bill on the average value home increased by more than $900 when adjusted for inflation, or 27%, since 2012.

While property taxes have been rising, the median household income in El Paso — meaning half of households make more and half make less — declined by an inflation-adjusted 2.6% between 2012 and 2019, the most recent year available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The main driver of rising property tax bills since 2012 has been the city of El Paso which, depending on the school district, has been responsible for half to almost two-thirds of the total tax increase for average value homes, the El Paso Matters analysis shows.

The city of El Paso now consumes a far greater share of the total tax bill on an average value home than a decade ago.

Cutting back elsewhere to pay taxes

Eliza Salas owns two homes in Far East El Paso, one she has owned for more than 10 years which is now a rental and another her family recently purchased and moved into three years ago.

The property taxes on the home she has owned for more than 10 years have risen 57% since 2012, in part because they lost the homestead exemption when they moved into their new house in 2018. The tax bill on their longtime home is increasing by more than $500 this year, or 16%.

Eliza Salas owns a home that’s now a rental property in this modest Far East El Paso neighborhood, where some residents have been hit with a significant increase in their property taxes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Salas, a stay-at-home mom, said she estimates they will pay around $11,000 in property taxes between the two homes. The bill means they have to reevaluate their budgeting for everything from groceries to travel.

“We (also) need to account for our mortgage payment, property taxes on the other house … homeowners insurance and any other additional expenses that might be an emergency. So definitely we have to budget around what we need for end of year expenses,” Salas said.

Abel Cruz, a retiree who has owned his home in Far East El Paso since 2015, closely monitors his property tax bill.

“I have noticed that property taxes on my home have gone up almost every year. So I keep an eye on these things,” he said.

The cost of his property tax bill has increased by almost $800 — 36% — since he purchased the home in 2015. Most of that increase — $600 — is coming this year.

Cruz said he filed a protest of his home appraisal with the El Paso Central Appraisal District this year that went “nowhere.” Despite the increases he said he is not too concerned about the financial impact.

“I can honestly say it’s not going to break the bank or that I will struggle to pay. I’m very fortunate since I get my pension and my Social Security and all that other stuff. So I’m OK. (The rise in property taxes) wouldn’t be something that I would say really impacts my life in a negative way,” Cruz said.

‘It’s still a tight squeeze’

Rosemary Neill, a retiree who owns a home in Kern Place, said she and her husband Robert Neill Jr. bought the house in 1973 for about $23,850.

The house is currently appraised for tax purposes at $193,290, an increase from $149,973 a year ago. State law protects homeowners with homestead exemptions by capping a single-year increase in taxable valuation at 10%. But for Neill, her valuation will continue to rise by 10% in 2022 and another 8% in 2023 under the law.

Neill has been somewhat protected from tax increases over the past decade because the city has increased property tax exemptions for people over 65, and school districts have sweetened their homestead exemption.

But all those savings are likely to be erased over the next two years because of the sharp rise in her property valuation this year, a common occurrence in El Paso.

Rosemary Neill looks at the gallery of family photos displayed in her bedroom in the house she purchased with her late husband in the 1970s. Neill believes the increasing property tax burden will have a significant impact on the numerous poor and lower middle-class families in El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Neill said even though she paid off the mortgage on the home after her husband died in 2015, she still has an account set up to pay her property tax bill and homeowners insurance. She budgets any increases by setting money aside on a monthly basis so she is able to manage.

“Most people live paycheck to paycheck and so retrenching is going to be a really tough thing for them. And I worry. I get the over-65 exemption, but I always know that that cost that I’m not paying is borne by families that are not receiving that additional exemption,” Neill said.

She said she is also concerned the increase in property taxes by the city of El Paso to pay for a large amount of non-voter approved debt is unsustainable.

“When you don’t have much growth in the city of El Paso, what that’s going to mean is our per capita debt is going to just go up because it’s not enough people to spread it out,” Neil said.

She said she is concerned these factors are squeezing homeowners and renters.

“Families are squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and I’m not sure that’s healthy for any community that wants to continue to provide a good base of public services,” she said.

Julie Lucas, who owns a home in Central El Paso, said her rising property tax bill is challenging to manage.

Lucas said she bought her home in 2015, but has recently seen a spike in her property tax bill.

The total tax bill on her $80,000 home is going up by more than $200 this year, a 13% increase in a year.

Lucas said she struggles to pay the property tax bill despite having the homestead exemption, a stipend from Veterans Affairs after her husband passed away and part-time work at a food pantry.

“I feel like yes, pretty much, I live paycheck to paycheck. Even though I do get the stipend and stuff, it’s still a tight squeeze,” Lucas said.

She said she helps both of her adult daughters financially — one with medications and the other, who lives out of state and works in the restaurant industry, who can’t always pay her monthly bills because of the pandemic’s effects on business.

“Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to come up with the taxes. I’m hoping that maybe they could do some sort of payment plan with me. You know, a couple of $100 a month, maybe till I get that paid off,” Lucas said. “I just — I don’t know what I’m going to do this year.”

The city Tax Office does offer payment plans for people over 65 and those with disabilities.

How to reduce your tax bill

Make sure you have claimed all exemptions for which you qualify. Homestead exemptions and over-65 exemptions are the most common. You must apply for these exemptions. Call the El Paso Central Appraisal District at 915-780-2000 for more information.

Protest your property appraisal if you think it’s too high. El Paso CAD often reaches agreements with property owners to lower valuations. The next mass re-appraisal for residential properties in El Paso County will be in 2024.

Robert Moore contributed to this story.

Cover photo: Rosemary Neill opens the front door of her Kern Place home, where she has lived since the 1970s. Though El Paso often boasts a low cost of living compared to other large cities, Neill believes the property tax burden will soon make housing in the city unaffordable for many residents. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Disclosure: Rosemary Neill is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...