A 10-bedroom, 10-bath mansion in Houston. An 8,000 square foot home in San Antonio. An elegant house on more than an acre of land overlooking Corpus Christi Bay. These places have two things in common: religious leaders are living there, and those clergy members pay nothing in taxes. They’re able to avoid paying taxes under a law that allows them to declare these homes as parsonages. A Houston Chronicle investigation found nearly 3,000 parsonages in Texas, worth at total of $1 billion, avoiding $16 million in taxes to local governments.
Jay Root is an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle. He helped conduct this investigation.
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Who are the multimillionaire religious leaders benefiting from this law?
Jay Root: They’re of all religions and walks of life, really. Texas is one of nine states without an income tax- a property tax is a very important tax that funds more than half of our public school system and the lion’s share of local spending on roads and public safety. What we’re exploring is how one person’s tax exemption is another’s burden. We focused on parsonages, which might conjure up a humble and drafty little house next to the church, and we did find plenty of those. But we also found a lot of these multimillion dollar homes with pools and hot tubs, McMansions on golf courses in gated communities perched on lakes, you name it.
You’re making an important distinction there. These leaders may not be multimillionaires because they’re using property that belongs to the church, right?
In every case, they are. In fact, to qualify for a parsonage, it has to be owned by the church. You can’t own it yourself.
Why does the law exist?
The parsonage exemption passed in 1928. It was a constitutional amendment. What had happened was churches were allowed to have their church property exempt, but they weren’t allowed to have the parsonage exempted. In 1929, the Legislature adopted a law that allowed this tax break to occur. So, you have to apply just like you do with the homestead exemption. You have to go fill out an application and say this is a parsonage. A clergy member has to live there, and it’s not supposed to be more than one acre. That’s in the Constitution of the state of Texas. Yet, we found over 30 – there are more than that, but we were able to identify and get applications for and confirm- that are more than one acre. Based on our reporting, before we even published this story, appraisal districts were like, ‘Oops, we shouldn’t have done this. We’re going to take steps to remove the excess acreage.’ They’re going to go back and say, ‘Look, you can have one acre, but you’re going to have to pay the property taxes on the excess acreage beyond one acre.’
Has there been any pushback from state lawmakers or anyone at the local government level, saying, “Wait a minute, this isn’t working for us because we need those revenues?”
No, they don’t want to tangle with churches. We were told this very specifically – that it’s hard to tangle legally with churches. We talked to a chief appraiser and we pointed out, ‘Hey, you know, you’ve got a couple of these churches that violate the one acre limit. What are you going to do about it?’ And he said, ‘Look, this isn’t a fight you want to pick.’ Culturally, politically, and socially religious organizations have a lot of influence in the county.
What about the people living in these parsonages? Did you get a chance to talk with any of them about this exemption?
Most of them did not want to talk to us, but I did knock on the door of one of the 11 parsonages that belongs to Highland Park Presbyterian. One of the things that he pointed out was, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t be able to live here in Highland Park, one of the wealthiest zip codes in Texas, if it weren’t for this parsonage exemption. And look at all the good works that we do. We’re using this tax break, if you will, for good works. We’re helping the disadvantaged, the homeless, et cetera.’ I thought that was the best argument that I got for it.