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City of Syracuse Collects $1.5 Million in Back Taxes through SU Maxwell School's 'X-Lab'

Cal Stewart

Syracuse University researchers and the City of Syracuse have found a unique way to encourage property owners to pay their overdue property taxes. Researchers at the Maxwell School’s ‘X-Lab’ were able to help recover more than 1 million dollars in unpaid taxes by sending handwritten letters to more than 3,800 homeowners.  

Co-founder of ‘X-Lab’ Joe Boskovski says the strategy is based in behavioral science.

“We made a simple letter directly for the property owner receiving it, from a person working for the city. The request, (needed) steps and personalized note were laid out to draw immediate attention. Making explicit the cities desire to help them avoid future consequences, and the services that the tax actually funds provide additional motivation to respond.”

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, who says a main goal of the project is to not just get the taxes paid, but to secure property ownership, stabilize neighborhoods and strengthen the local community at zero cost to the city.

“I, myself, helped out and wrote a few notes, myself, and as a result, we recouped 1.5 million dollars. Perhaps, more importantly hundreds of property owners avoided further more costly action, including foreclosure. “

Maxwell Professor Leonard Lopoo is the Director of the Center for Policy Research and co-founder of ‘X-Lab.’ A child and family studies expert, he says the project’s use of behavioral science paired with rigorous evaluation helped turn this mission into a gratifying one for everyone involved.

“This is a project that really helps the citizens of Syracuse. We know from a lot of research over many many years that instability is very very difficult for children. So keeping them in their same homes and schools over a very long period of time is important to them. It is also important to neighborhoods that there’s not turnover.”

The mayor and researchers hope the outreach strategy will continue to be effective, providing community stability as well as reducing the number of foreclosures in the city.

John Smith has been waking up WAER listeners for a long time as our Local Co-Host of Morning Edition with timely news and information, working alongside student Sportscasters from the Newhouse School.