PART ONE: The History of Property Taxes in California

The History of Property Taxes in California

The History of Property Taxes in California

Property Taxes Before and After World War Two

California no longer depended on property taxes as its’ principal funding source after 1912.  And after 1929, during the depression years, there were massive amounts of unpaid property taxes. In fact, some states excluded certain owner-occupied homes from property taxes altogether. Many taxpayers avoided purchasing tax delinquent homes and properties, and governments in some states enforced limits on property tax rates.

These so-called “homestead exemptions” became rather unpopular with the public at large as they tended to be wealthy homeowners,  with what was perceived as unfair property tax relief, and apparently reduced revenue to local governments that depended largely on property taxes from homes rather than other forms of real property.

During World War Two, state and local taxes were stabilized, or decreased, as spending programs were cut back due to decreased needs, or unavailability of building materials and other resources. This was reversed in the post-war years, after 1945,  as governments expanded social programs and took advantage of rising property value to increase tax collections.  Assessment rose, tax rates rose, and the newspapers ran stories of homeowners forced to sell their house mainly because of rising taxes. No one was keeping a low property tax base from parents when inheriting a home.

Once Germany and Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, and World War Two ended… most states replaced the “homestead exemption” with so-called “circuit breakers” which were state financed and clearly benefited blue-collar and middle class homeowners, senior and elderly homeowners, and disabled persons. In many states renters were included by tax measures that actually viewed certain rental payments as property taxes. (By 1991 there were 35 states with some sort of “circuit breaker” exemption in place). 

California Tax Revenue

Property taxes have now created a revenue stream for the state of California that funds changing needs of cities and counties, school systems, and what is referred to as “special districts”.

California’s primary source of state funding is now a combination of sales tax, income tax, excise tax, as well as banking and corporate taxes, and “use tax”, which is a sales tax on purchases made outside one’s state of residence for taxable items that will be used, stored or consumed in one’s state of residence and on which no tax was collected in the state of purchase.

California Property Taxes in the 1960s

During the early 1960s in California there were various scandals involving County Tax Assessors. These particular Property Tax Assessors were caught gifting personal friends and political associates with abnormally low property tax assessments, and unnaturally low tax bills.  Not at all like keeping a low property tax base upon inheriting property from mom or dad in 2021!

The Tax Assessor scandals brought about Assembly Bill 80 in 1966, which imposed standards to hold assessments to market value. The return to market value in the wake of AB 80 could easily represent a mid-double-digit percentage increase in assessment for many homeowners.

A huge number of homeowners in California were impacted with a significant increase in property valuation and tax rates, only to discover that this tax revenue was to be distributed to communities far away from where they resided.

California Property Taxes in the 1970s

This type of activity, distributing tax revenue to distant communities  created a widespread pessimistic attitude among middle class and blue collar homeowners towards the tax system in general, and it’s reportedly biased view towards wealthy, well-connected families.

This viewpoint grew throughout the state until the 1970s, when it morphed into a tidal wave backlash of anger against the existing property tax system. This gave apt. building magnate Howard Jarvis and his Taxpayer’s Association great momentum towards expanding and popularizing property tax relief in all 58 counties in the great state of California.

California’s Famous Tax Revolt That Led to Proposition 13

Within a few years the country was awash with truly emotionalized tax protests, often referred to as “The California Tax Revolt”. Almost every state imposed some sort of limitation on 111 property taxes, coming to a head with the widely promoted Proposition 13 – an amendment to the California constitution, passed by popular vote in California on June 6th, 1978, with nearly 2/3 of Californians voting for Proposition 13, reducing property taxes by 57% – establishing this to be the most effective assault on property taxes in American history.

The Proposition 13 amendment limited property taxes to 1% of full cash value; requiring real property to be valued at its March 1, 1975 value – or on the date it changes hands or is constructed after that date; limiting subsequent value adjustment to 2 % per year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.  This prohibited the sales impact or “transaction taxes” on the sale of real estate; and required a 2/3 majority vote in each house of the legislature to increase state taxes;  plus a 2/3 electorate vote to increase or add new local taxes.

Although Proposition 13 was the most well known initiative to limit property taxes, along with transferring property taxes from parent to child on a property tax transfer  from a parent.  Inheriting property taxes can offer a great upside, when an heir is able to keep parents property taxes. And of course have the ability to work with a trust lender when taking advantage of property tax relief from Proposition 13 and Proposition 19 (formerly Prop 58) and it’s flagship tax break, the parent-to-child exclusion, to avoid property tax reassessment and keeping a low property tax base when inheriting a home, as well as being able to buyout property shares from co-beneficiaries, typically siblings, with a  loan to an irrevocable trust.

Proposition 13 and Proposition 19 make it possible to continue keeping a low property tax base when inheriting a home, however they are not the only property tax measures to limit and control property taxes. Some limit tax rates, or property tax maximums. Other tax measures provide specific groups with limited but significant tax breaks; with some property taxes designed to promote various forms of economic development in various urban or rural areas. Interestingly enough, these tax measures included provisions favoring agricultural land, reduced taxation of owner-occupied homes, exemptions that  benefit seniors, or veterans, or the disabled, the elderly, or the poor. 

Economic incentives built into some of these property tax laws included lower rates on particular businesses, exemptions covering people of a certain age, tax breaks in developmental areas, and more….

>> Click Here for Part Two…

 

What is Proposition 13?

What is Proposition 13?

What is Proposition 13?

Proposition 13 (i.e., People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation) is an amendment to the California Constitution, and was passed by voters in California on June 6, 1978 by close to two-thirds of the voting public. Proposition 13 was designed to decrease property taxes on homes, businesses, and farms by 57% – preventing property tax rates from exceeding 1% of a property’s market value. Property tax reassessment would no longer be able to increase by more than 2% per year, except when a property was sold to a valid buyer.

Boiling Point for the Middle Class & the Elderly

Before the advent of 1978’s Proposition 13, property taxes were notorious in terms of being completely out of control in California, in  all 58 counties. Reports and complaints of, for want of a better term, taxation abuse – were mounting.  Homeowners, especially elderly residents, were losing their homes due to the simple fact that they were unable to pay their rising property taxes. And yet state and local government officials did absolutely nothing to help.

Stories swept across the state like wildfire describing how senior retirees, military veterans, and elderly widows all living on modest fixed incomes were literally being thrown onto the street for late payments; or simply being unable to pay off increasingly high property tax hikes.

By the late 1970s,  property tax burdens were unbearable in the state of California; and just as important – unsustainable for working families, middle class, and even upper middle class homeowners. Obviously, wealthy and ultra wealthy residents could absorb pretty much any tax hike. But that’s merely 1%  or 2% of the entire state.

For elderly middle class folks dependent on fixed incomes, the outcome in the 1970s was frequently a forced sale of their beloved family home – typically the only asset of any real value they owned. And that was what Californians saw month after month, year after year – retirees and middle class working families either selling off their home, their most precious asset, or giving it up to the tax man against their will.

There was even a story circulating around of an elderly woman having a heart attack due to stress while visiting the Los Angeles Tax Assessor’s office, when she couldn’t convince the authorities to take her seriously and lower her tax bill…

Another good example of the state’s inflexible, intractable position on property taxes is a story from the 1920’s concerning a retired couple, as reported in the Newhall Signal newspaper in Newhall, CA. Because this elderly married couple lived in a small home, close to an upscale brand new apartment building, the County Tax Assessor decided to reassess the couple’s tiny house at the highest possible tax rate – as if the land their little home was on would soon boast a massive high-end hotel!  Their small home was taxed at $1,800 per year, regardless of the fact that the retired couple’s total fixed income was $1,900 per year.

Hence, support for Proposition 13 swept the state and filled local newspapers with headlines and reports on this urgent statewide  phenomena. Californians began thinking seriously about what it actually might be like to not be financially crippled  every year by mounting property taxes. 

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association Viewpoint

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association recently wrote: “The San Francisco Assessor was taking bribes to keep business taxes down below the market value. He went to jail. To make sure the valuations were correct and equal in San Francisco, the new assessor used computers.  When a property sold in a neighborhood,  all the surrounding properties found new tax bills reflecting a new market value, resulting in great increases in taxes for everyone. Property taxes went up so quickly in San Francisco that bumper stickers soon appeared pleading: ‘Bring back the crooked assessor!’

The private sector of the economy fared beautifully in the aftermath of Proposition 13, but some people questioned whether this private sector success might not have come at the expense of the public sector. Opponents of the tax cuts voiced concerns that the tax reductions might have gone too far requiring excessive program cuts. Vital services, they said, would suffer, schools would have to close, and fire and police protection would no longer be adequate. Yet in spite of the precipitous fall of the state’s average tax rate, state and local revenues did not fall proportionately. The total general revenue for local governments fell only 1% in the year following Proposition 13.  By FY 1980 revenue had risen more than 10 % the FY 1978 level. The tax base expanded by more than enough to offset the reduction in tax rates.”

Tax Hikes No More

Basically, Proposition 13 managed to lower property taxes by assessing properties at their 1976 value, while capping annual increases at 2% – not allowing property reassessment of any new base year value – with the exception of the home being sold to a new owner… or on the completion of any new construction on the house. 

As of 1978, to everyone’s relief and delight, all residential and commercial real estate owned by an individual, a family, or a corporation was  impacted by new  Proposition 13 property tax    relief measures such as transferring property taxes in California, namely a parent to child property tax transfer or parent-child exclusion  for all types of property  owners – and protected property tax transfers and the right to transfer parents property taxes  when inheriting property and inheriting property taxes. 

Beneficiaries could keep parents property taxes basically forever, or as long as they resided in their inherited residence as a primary home. This was what everyone had been waiting for, and was desperately hoping for.  With added amendments later on, such as the wildly popular Proposition 58 in 1986, with all sorts of California beneficiaries getting trust loans to buyout property from siblings, while locking in a low Proposition 13 based property tax base.

Another lesser known component to this tax measure, that many families did not even take note of, was an important new step that required a two-thirds majority in both CA Legislative houses to implement any further increases of any state tax rates or revenue charged, which included highly sensitive income tax rates.

A two-thirds majority vote was also imposed on local elections affecting local governments who otherwise,  perhaps on a Friday evening  blitz when no one was looking, would happily increase some sort of special interest tax, before the other party could stop them. A two-thirds majority vote would prevent that from happening going forward.  So Proposition 13 wasn’t just about homeowners getting the right to transfer parents property taxes.

For the first time in the state of California, taxation was capped at a strict 2% rate.  For the first time property tax relief (in practice as opposed to lip service), was accessible for middle class, upper middle class and working families – with its’ foundation built on a “base year value” for property tax reassessment, with enforced limits to state property tax rates and limits to increases through arbitrary property reassessment.

California Base Year Values

CA Proposition 13 locked in three critical restraints for property tax reassessment: (a) All real estate now had non-negotiable iron-clad base year values; (b) restricted rates limited property reassessment to a 2% yearly increase; and (c) a property tax limit of 1% of the assessed value was imposed along with the right to transfer parents property taxes and the parent-child exclusion.

Once Proposition 13 passed, property assessments for 1978-1979 were required to be “rolled back” to 1975-1976 property values, establishing the first base year values in California. Properties that have not sold or undergone new construction since February 1975 are viewed as having a 1975 base year value.

Reliable Property Tax Expectations

Because of Proposition 13, for the first time, certainty in taxation lay in the hands of the taxpayer instead of the tax collector. Proposition 13 set up an acquisition value system that treats all homeowners alike in that they pay 1% of the market value established at the time of purchase; limiting increases to 2% per year – creating a an even playing field for all property owners.