Wildfires rouse support for Prop 19 property tax break

Ballot measure provides tax incentives to owners of fire-destroyed homes who move elsewhere

Los Angeles /
Sep.September 17, 2020 03:37 PM
Gavin Newsom, Fiona Ma, and Jeanne Radsick (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, and Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Gavin Newsom, Fiona Ma, and Jeanne Radsick (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, and Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Wildfires raging across California have galvanized support for a November ballot measure that provides property tax breaks to owners of fire-damaged homes who move elsewhere.

Proposition 19, which is on the ballot, has the backing of the state’s largest real estate trade group, and recently received the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer Fiona Ma and Christine Pelosi, who leads the state Democratic Party Women’s Caucus.

Under the ballot measure, a homeowner who relocates because of a wildfire would be taxed at their prior home’s assessment if it is lower than their new home’s assessed value. It provides a similar tax break to homeowners over 55 years old and those with disabilities.

Ma touted Prop 19 as a “great initiative for fire survivors” and affordable housing proponents alike at a Thursday virtual press conference, days after Newsom also endorsed the measure.

The California Association of Realtors strongly supports the referendum, calling it: “The property tax fairness initiative.” The group — an affiliate of the National Association of Realtors — says the measure can help with its goal of increasing the number of homes on market by encouraging people to find new housing.

A separate measure also on the ballot, Prop 15, is a more sweeping initiative that deals exclusively with commercial property taxes.

At a Thursday’s press conference, Pelosi called Prop 19 a lifeline for the estimated 24,000 Californians whose homes have been destroyed by wildfires over the past two years. She was joined on the call by residents who have had their homes damaged by recent fires. So far this year, wildfires have destroyed more than 6,100 structures, burned 3.4 million acres and led to 25 deaths, according to CAL Fire.

Opponents of Prop 19 include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the venerable anti-tax group behind the 42-year-old Prop 13. That group has accused CAR of “pandering to the Firefighters Union” in order to chip away at the state’s long-held property tax restrictions.

An obscure part of the November ballot before wildfire season hit, Prop 19 is the latest salvo in the battle over property taxes and the state’s mounting housing crisis.

Following the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, all residential and commercial properties are taxed at 1 percent of the property’s value. That does not change unless the property transfers ownership. Also, a family member inheriting a home would not trigger a reassessment.

Under Prop 19, for residential properties, a new assessment would trigger if the home’s inheritor doesn’t use it as a primary residence. This is sometimes referred to as the “Lebowski rule,” after the Los Angeles Times reported that “Big Lebowski” star Jeff Bridges pays taxes on an inherited Malibu Beach home based on that parcel’s 1950s value. The rule wouldn’t change for commercial properties.

Resulting revenue increases would partly go into the state’s wildfire response fund.

While the measure may curb the number of wealthy property owners receiving tax breaks, its overall impact is not clear. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, municipalities could receive tens of millions of dollars in additional property tax revenue each year.


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