The recovery of the Bay Area's real estate markets has muted the public outcry to change Proposition 13's restrictions on assessed value increases. Passed in 1978, Proposition 13 has come under fire for fostering unequal tax burdens.
The reasons that tax-reform fervor is weakening are twofold. First, as the recovery spurs real estate sales, properties will be reassessed at higher market values under Proposition 13's acquisition value system. Second, recent sales are also likely to increase real estate values generally, which will permit assessors to raise the assessments of other property owners. These trends have increased the values of property tax rolls and tax revenues.
Acquisition value system increases tax revenues
One under-appreciated aspect of Proposition 13 is its requirement that assessed values for property tax purposes be equated to acquisition values or sales prices. Critics of Proposition 13 contend that the law keeps values too low and reduces the amount of taxes going to government agencies. But in an active real estate market where properties are held for as little as five years, the opposite is true. In such markets, sales prices are usually climbing, assessed values increase, property tax collections rise, and local governments receive more revenues.
The recent up-tick in Bay Area real estate sales is proving the benefits of Proposition 13 because the values of tax assessment rolls have increased for all counties. For example, the 2013-2014 tax year assessment rolls increased over the previous year by 8.3 percent in Santa Clara County, by 6.0 percent in San Mateo County, by 5.0 percent in Alameda County, and by 4.5 percent in San Francisco. Statewide, assessed values increased by $191.5 billion or 4.3 percent over the prior year.
Recent sales affect assessments
The increase in real estate sales activity doesn't just impact the assessed values and taxes on properties that have sold. It can also affect the values and property taxes for real estate held by investors. Here's why.
Under Proposition 8, the bookend to Proposition 13, assessors can and have reduced real estate assessments in recent years to reflect across-the-board declines in market values. In some cases, the reductions have been considerable, well in excess of the 2 percent annual adjustments that are permitted under Proposition 13.
As real estate markets recover, the Proposition 8 reductions that assessors made in prior years to reflect market downturns usually are reversed. The Proposition 8 values of prior years can shoot up much faster than 2 percent per year for properties that are assessed below their trended Proposition 13 values, depending on where current sales show market values to be. As Proposition 8 values are reversed and values return to Proposition 13 levels, the property taxes on those assets also rise, thereby increasing tax revenues to local governments.
Split roll unnecessary
One of the changes currently advocated by opponents of Proposition 13 is to create a split tax roll which would tax commercial properties differently from residential ones, either by requiring commercial properties to be reassessed annually instead of upon acquisition, or by increasing the tax rates for commercial properties.
However, as described above, such changes are unneeded so long as there is an active market for commercial properties, and so long as sales prices generated by that market tend to increase over time, which is usually the case. When these conditions are present, assessed values will increase and property tax revenues will rise.
As markets continue to recover and assessed values rise, property owners should take stock of their assessed values. Local assessors will begin to set assessed values for the 2014-2015 tax year in January 2014. In some cases, values reduced under Proposition 8 in prior years will be restored to Proposition 13 levels. Taxpayers should ask whether those restored values represent market values, and if a value appears excessive, the property owner should file an appeal.