Solve the Proposition 13 problem by paying off the difference when you sell
Even if you are not in California, you may have heard of Proposition 13 the ballot measure which changed property tax rules.
It was part of a tax revolt, and it changed how the value of your real estate is calculated for property taxes. As California property started zooming up in price, there were people who owned homes but had minimal incomes. They were facing growing tax bills even though they had not realized the gains on their house. Some were being forced out of houses they had lived in for decades, the story went.
The solution was that while you lived in your home, the tax value would go up at 2% a year, nothing like the real market value. Taxes were limitd to 1% of value.
There have been many criticisms of Prop 13, in particular over how it has seriously reduced local tax income for counties and cities, which is the prime source for funding schools. The bigger problem, I find is the massive inequality it causes. If you buy a home today, you pay tax on its full price. You can afford it, they figure. This means that two people living next to one another in two identical houses pay massively different taxes. My neighbour, who inherited her home from her parents, pays next to nothing. I, who have lived in my home for many years, pay half of what new neighbours pay.
Taxation should not be so different among the same people. In addition, this creates a "moving disincentive." If I decide to sell my house and buy one of equal value, my tax rate will jump a lot. (There is a once-per-lifetime exemption for seniors who "downgrade" their home within a set of counties.)
Nobody seems to know how to fix it because if you try to even out the tax rates, you will cause massive problems for the people who have come to depend on the artificially low rates they have compared to their neighbours. They really will get forced from their homes.
My solution -- let people defer the extra tax as debt
My proposal is fairly straightforward. As in the rest of the world, properties would be assessed and taxed on their market value. However, homeowners could elect to pay less tax, paying as little as the "floor" set under Prop 13 -- the value of their house when they paid for it, appreciating 2% per year.
Any difference would be recorded as a debt on the properly to the county. Interest would also be accrued on the debt. It would only come due when the house is sold, or on certain estate transfers.
In other words, you can pay the market value tax, or you can pay the lower Prop 13 tax. If you pay the lower tax, you accumulate a big pile of debt that comes due when you sell and realize the gain. As such, a chunk of your gain will now go to pay off the taxes you didn't pay, plus interest.
This solves most of the problems.
- Nobody is forced out of their home by growing taxes.
- Counties get all their tax revenue, but much of it is deferred. Since it comes with interest, that's workable though may not give them the best cash flow. (It's better than what they have now.)
- Everybody is treated the same -- nobody gets a windfall by having been in their house for a long time
- Most of the barrier to moving is removed. (Though not all because it does change cash flow.)
In theory, once counties adjust, they could probably even lower tax rates for most people because of the much higher collection they are now getting. In theory; we don't usually see them lower taxes.
Counties could issue tax free municipal bonds to fix their cash-flow problem, secured by the liens on all those houses. They might have precedence against the mortgage, but it should not matter, as these houses are all highly appreciated. (Some would argue it should have 2nd preference, or banks might loan less and depress housing prices. In the end a tax increase will have a modest negative effect on housing prices.)
The tax you don't pay could be a deduction in the year you "owe" it because in theory you paid it, and then took out a loan to provide the cash. Alternately, the total debt could offset the capital gain when you sell if you prefer, making it closer to today's situation, just with less gain.
House prices sometimes fall. One alternative would be to only calculate the final tax bill upon sale of the home. If the home actually went down on sale, there would be no extra tax burden -- but probably no refund. If the home went up-up-up and then down, tax might be calculated on some simple formula as though it rose at a constant rate to the sale price. This has the advantage that the county does not have to assess value. This reflects the generally good principle that you don't pay tax on unrealized gains, which is one of the problems people had with Prop13.
Commercial real estate
Many have noted a loophole with Prop13 on commercial real estate. In many cases it never changes hands, because it is owned by a holding company. To buy the building you buy the holding company. It might be simple -- though far from easy due to opposition from the rich commercial real estate holders -- to have sale of the holding company count as a sale. In addition, there could be some cap on the lifetime of a commercial holding, so that a company has to declare a readjustment some time before 20 years. They can pick the date. It does require an assessor.
Could this sell?
This is much more fair, but we longtime landowners obviously would still not like to vote for it because we would start racking up this debt. As such, it might be sweetened by requiring counties to adjust their tax rates to make it revenue neutral to start, which would bring in the votes of those paying very high taxes today.
Or could people even support it as the right thing to do, to get more money for schools and local services? I benefit greatly from Prop13 but would support it (if I could vote...)