Insights for Flourishing: Affordable Housing: Fresh Ideas for Anxious Times

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“Housing equity for older adults is a bioethics issue. It is integral to health equity because housing is a powerful socio-environmental determinant of health. And it is integral to the capability to flourish in late life, a stage of life typically experienced at or close to one’s home. For older Americans to age in place and experience well-being despite foreseeably deteriorating health and modest or inadequate fixed income, the scope of bioethics should attend to a broader range of policymaking ideas and processes that support—or undermine—equity in access to a good life in late life.”
 Nancy Berlinger, Research Scholar at The Hastings Center in Garrison, NY. October 2022

Over the past year, we all have seen the cost of necessities like food and transportation shoot up. And now, on top of this, property owners are facing skyrocketing real estate tax bills.

Unlike graduated income taxes, real estate levies are regressive, flat taxes. They hit hardest on low-income, often elderly, property owners; and upon renters as well, as these costs are passed along by landlords.

Rapid Rise in Real Estate Taxes

Here are three examples obtained from the County’s Albemarle.org website that illustrate how real estate taxes have risen on affordable housing.

A freestanding home of 868 finished square feet built more than a century ago on Railroad Avenue in Crozet was valued at $111,200 in 2017. Today this same home and quarter-acre lot are valued at $216,300, resulting in a 98% increase in the owner’s real estate tax bill in just six years.

A similar home of 864 finished square feet built in 1956 on Browns Gap Turnpike in White Hall was valued at $96,600 in 2017. Today this modest home and lot are valued at $173,200.  This jump in assessed valuation translates to an 82.5% increase in the owner’s real estate tax bill.

In Blackwells Hollow, the assessed fair market value of improvements on our property—a 50-year-old office/barn and a newer one bedroom, age-in-place cottage my wife Carmen and I designed and built— increased from $166,600 in 2022 to $230,000 in 2023. I did wash the windows and I did clean the gutters. Other than that, no improvements were made. Unless the Board of Supervisors changes their present course of action, our real estate taxes on these structures are going up by 38% in just one year!

Are most homeowners asking for or receiving increases in County services commensurate with these colossal tax increases? I don’t think so.

Protections Available under the Virginia Tax Code

Virginia tax code limits year-over-year increases in total real property taxes collected by the County to no more than one percent. Specifically, Subsection A of Virginia Tax Code 58.1-3321 states the County “shall reduce its rate of levy for the forthcoming tax year so as to cause such rate of levy to produce no more than 101 percent of the previous year’s real property tax levies.”

I spoke at the March 15, 2023, Albemarle Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting to suggest creation of what I call a “baseline budget” that adheres to the tax relief and affordable housing mandate of this Virginia tax code. This baseline budget will serve as a benchmark against which to evaluate the many millions of real estate tax dollars presently in the proposed County budget. 

The BOS has scheduled a special public hearing for April 26 to set a rate of levy that exceeds the mandated one percent limit on real estate tax increases. I requested, at this public hearing (as well as upcoming town hall meetings), the County highlight those proposed expenditures funded by levies garnered in excess of the one percent limit. After public discussion and comment, the County can remove or decrease those budget items no longer “deemed to be necessary,” as required under Subsection B. With these savings, the County can then reduce the rate of levy accordingly, from the current 0.854 down to a figure closer to the 0.680 level, where it was back in 2007.

Like many lower income, elderly property owners in Albemarle County, Carmen and I do not qualify for real estate tax relief because of our net worth. The value of our forested mountain land and our hard-earned savings we’ve set aside for our future care is deemed too high.

Carmen spoke on this issue at the same March 15 BOS meeting and she urged the Supervisors to expand eligibility for elderly property owners in dire need of real estate tax relief.  The remedy she offered was to eliminate the current restrictions on net worth, and base eligibility solely upon annual income. 

Under Virginia law, eligibility for tax relief can be established either upon assets or upon income.  It need not be both. Most applicants prepare federal and state income tax returns so information about income can be readily provided to the County. In contrast, pulling together information about net worth is an extra, intrusive burden. And for some assets, fair market valuation can be difficult to do accurately. 

As an added benefit, simplifying eligibility requirements in this manner would reduce the workload on County staff responsible for administration of this program. 

To prevent overly generous benefits going to low income but very high asset elderly landowners, the County can establish a cap on the maximum annual tax relief that any applicant can receive.  Carmen suggested setting the cap at $6,000.

Concluding Thoughts and Ideas

In conclusion, at this time of economic pain from sharp rises in the cost of living, many low- and moderate-income individuals and families are feeling additional financial anxiety from burdensome real estate taxes. Homeowners are seeing their home equity increase, and that is a good thing for them. But this new-found wealth does not generate current income with which to pay these snowballing real estate taxes. Renters, if they haven’t already, soon will feel these rising tax costs passed on to them. If forced to move out, where will people find more desirable, healthier, less expensive living arrangements in Albemarle County?

Readers of the Crozet Gazette, let your voices be heard. I am sure you have good ideas and suggestions to offer our elected representatives beyond those Carmen and I have spoken out about.  For example, how about helping homeowners and renters alike by reducing the rate of levy on buildings used as housing relative to the tax rate applied to other forms of real estate? Or how about this? Limit property taxes owed to no more than a fixed percentage of a property owner’s income.  Here is an illustration for how this would work with a 4% limit. Given an adjusted gross income of $50,000, property taxes owed on a principal residence would be capped at $2,000 ($2,000 being 4% of $50,000).

This spring, call upon the Board of Supervisors to show, specifically, where they propose to spend this year’s multi-million-dollar real estate tax revenue windfall. Be prepared to recommend alternative budget priorities. And as you do, please give particular consideration to the needs and well-being of our elderly, modest income neighbors who helped build this wonderful place we all call home. 

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