NEW YORK CITY — Misleading language in New York State law has created a red-tape nightmare for countless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans trying to access their legally eligible housing tax benefits, DNAinfo New York has learned.
All soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible for a 15 percent property tax exemption under New York State law. But in order to cash in on the breaks, soldiers have to navigate a thicket of bureaucracy and unclear information that has confused veterans, advocates and even elected officials.
That's because according to state law, the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan are considered part of the open-ended "Persian Gulf Conflict" — which according to the law began in 1990, and is still continuing until the present day.
"We do grant exemptions to people in the Iraq and Afghanistan war. We consider it an extension of the Persian Gulf War," said Owen Stone, spokesman for the city's Department of Finance, which is charged with administering the exemption to vets living in the five boroughs.
According to the finance department's website for property tax exemptions for veterans, the city "provides a property tax exemption to qualified veterans who served in the armed forces during one of the conflicts listed below."
"The veteran must have served in the armed forces during one of the following conflicts only:" the site continues, and then goes on to list wars beginning with the "Mexican Border Period" in 1917, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf conflict.
There is no mention of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
The site offers eligible vets a document to fill out and submit, and directs anyone with questions to call 311 for more information. But when they do, they're told that soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't eligible, according to a leader from the nation's largest nonprofit organization for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Alex Nicholson, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he personally called 311 on Sept. 6 and again on Sept. 9, to ask whether Iraq and Afghanistan vets could get property tax breaks.
"I called and asked if they were eligible for the benefits and the woman said 'No,'" Nicholson said, adding that he did not get a name of the dispatchers.
The finance department spokesman thanked a DNAinfo reporter for bringing the issue to his attention, and said the agency would make sure that 311 dispatchers gave clearer information in the future.
But the confusion apparently even extends to elected officials — at least two of whom have attempted to introduce legislation to extend the benefits on the books to Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who represents parts of northern and central Brooklyn, introduced legislation this year to extend the benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The proposal never made it to the Senate floor for a vote, his office said.
A similar bill was also proposed in 2008, the New York Daily News reported. That legislation also never made it through the Senate's committee for veterans.
The confusion has frustrated veterans including Danylo Rakowsky, 31, a Brooklyn Heights resident who was deployed in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
"We're given conflicted answers...Who do I turn to?" said Rakowsky, who said that when he bought an apartment a few years ago his co-op's managing agent was not sure if he qualified for the veterans benefit. "Even the professionals don't know."
Rakowsky, who served in the Ohio Army National Guard until 2006, said he was told he was ineligible for the exemption when he asked elected officials of his status. Rakowsky decided to go ahead and apply for benefits in hopes that would qualify.
"I still don’t have a direct answer. I don’t have a direct line to the Department of Finance," said Rakowsky. "I'm kind of at a crossroads and now I'm just waiting to see if I get rejected."