She planned to stay in her family home. Then Fulton County multiplied her tax bill.

Denise Reid didn't know about estate law or homestead exemptions when she inherited her family home in Collier Heights. By the time she did, Fulton County sent her $5,000 in property tax bills. (Alphonso Whitfield/WABE)

There’s a way for homeowners to reduce their property taxes and protect against swings in the real estate market. The tax break, known as a homestead exemption, can lower homeowners’ housing costs by thousands of dollars.

But a legal aid firm says Fulton County has denied that benefit to some families after decades of ownership, as they pass their property from one generation to the next. For one woman, she saw more than her longtime family home at risk. 

Denise Reid’s two-story brick house in Northwest Atlanta is all that’s left of her parents’ roots. Their history surrounds her in photographs, propped up on tables and on walls throughout the house. 

Her grandmother poses in the 1940s, her hair done up. Her grandfather, in a tie, sits up perfectly straight. In a silver-framed photo from Reid’s wedding in the 1970s, her dad, Clarence Gragg, is beaming in a white suit.

“My daddy shined his shoes so bad for that wedding,” Reid says. “Literally, you could see his suit in his shoes.”

Reid’s entire family came from one community, a ways north of here, in Acworth. One of her grandfathers was born there a slave. 

But a century later, Acworth still didn’t let Black students into its high school. Reid says her dad worked for Lockheed Martin in Marietta — a job he would hold for 35 years. He wanted her and her siblings to have more. 

“He saw opportunity,” she says.

In 1960, he moved the family to this neighborhood, Collier Heights. The curving blocks of single-family homes were the first in Atlanta built for Black homeowners. Their home was brand new. 

“I remember not having a bathroom, and to move to Atlanta and have a bathroom and stuff like that,” Reid says. “Everybody in my daddy’s siblings’ children wanted to come.”

‘It’s just so many memories in here,” she says. 

Denise Reid remembers what her parents’ brand new Atlanta home meant to the family coming from Acworth in the 1960s. Her cousins were always trying to visit “Uncle Clarence.” (Alphonso Whitfield/WABE)

After decades away, Reid moved back to the house in the early 2000s as her parents became sick. She took care of them. When they died several years ago, they left her the house.

But Reid, now 67 and on a fixed income, didn’t know about estate law or the homestead exemption tax break for people who live in their homes. And by the time she did, these bills came.

In the past, the home’s property taxes were around $100. The letter she got this fall asked for 25 times that.

That was for this year. There was another, a new bill for last year, for around the same amount.

“And it’s about $5,000 that they want in 30 days, and you know I just don’t have it,” Reid says.

What happened to her is something Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Stacy Reynolds has seen before. She says people like Reid regularly come to her when they realize a will doesn’t equal a deed.

“You have to follow up with the probate court and go through this whole series of things that need to happen to be able to make that effective,” she says.

The process can take a while. In the meantime, Reynolds says she makes sure her clients have their homestead exemption. She knows they may need it to afford their taxes. 

“I want to keep my house. I want to keep my mom and dad’s house.”

Denise Reid

But Reynolds says when these children of deceased parents apply, as Reid did, Fulton County has said no. After repeatedly seeing these cases, Reynolds is familiar with the reason.

“Because she doesn’t have a deed in her name,” she says.

That reasoning, however, is ignoring state law, according to Reynolds.

Homestead exemptions are intended for those who live in homes they own. But Georgia code also states that children are eligible for the tax break if they live in the home their deceased parents own.

The law, affecting Fulton and any Georgia county, says this applies as courts are sorting through the estate.

“It’s a very simple thing that they could allow, and they don’t,” Reynolds says.

In Reid’s case, Fulton County not only didn’t allow it.

The county denied her application, and then it also removed the exemption that was in her parents’ name for the previous year. In other words, the county went back in time and increased her taxes — why she got two bills at once.

Reynolds says these small bureaucratic decisions have very big costs.

“I get so frustrated the politicians are constantly talking about how much they really want to support the legacy homeowners, how important they are to the city,” Reynolds says. “And yet she’s in danger of losing the home while she’s trying to get it into her name.”

WABE reached out to several of these politicians, including the Fulton County Commission chairman and District Four commissioner. 

Ultimately, only a county spokesperson responded at deadline. Reid has an appeal hearing next week but the county said the tax assessor’s office just reviewed Reid’s case and reversed its decision. It restored Reid’s homestead exemption for this year, which could cut down half her bill.

The county was still considering last year’s removal. It didn’t comment about its policies beyond Reid’s case.

Denise Reid’s Atlanta home holds her family history now. It’s full of photos of her relatives, black and white pictures of her grandparents and images of her parents at her wedding. Here, she shows one of her dad and siblings. (Alphonso Whitfield/WABE)

And again, at Atlanta Legal Aid, Reynolds says there are others like her.

Without homestead exemptions in these cases, the county won’t offer payment plans. If families can’t pay their tax bills, the county could sell their debt to investors. Eventually, those investors could auction off their homes. 

Reid knows her home is in demand. People come to her regularly asking to buy her home. They say they’ll take it as-is. 

“You know, ‘We’ll fix everything.’ And I was like, ‘I want to fix everything,’ because I want to keep my house. I want to keep my mom and dad’s house,” Reid says. 

She thinks about where she’s from in Acworth. After years of the town developing interstates and parks, Reid says the historic Black community there is gone.

This house in Atlanta is now what she has. It holds her family history. She wants it to stay a base for her children and grandchildren, a place where the family can always return.

“So that’s why I want to hold on to the house,” she says. “Because I feel like they can come back. Somebody can come back.”

This story is part of a reporting project about taxes in metro Atlanta made possible with support from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. Return here for future stories.

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