Much like their colleagues to the north, District of Columbia lawmakers are giving serious thought to cutting taxes now that an election is approaching. According to the Washington Post, “10 of the council’s 13 members [are] running for re-election or higher office this year.” It should come as little surprise, then, that the Council recently voiced unanimous support for a generous (but ill-conceived) property tax break for one of the city’s most politically popular groups—its senior citizens. More encouraging, however, was the Council’s decision to delay action on an even more problematic bill that would have showered most of its benefits on owners of the city’s most valuable homes.
The first bill, introduced by Councilmember Anita Bonds, completely eliminates the property tax for any long-term DC resident over age 75 as long as they earn less than $60,000 per year. But as Ed Lazere of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) points out: “If you're 74, you get nothing … If you're 75, you have your taxes entirely limited.” While it’s true that some senior citizens struggle with their property tax liabilities because they are “house-rich” but “cash-poor,” this isn’t a problem limited to taxpayers over age 75.
Rather than wiping out property taxes altogether for those taxpayers fortunate enough to have lived a long life, the District is better off providing this kind of relief more broadly through its property tax “circuit breaker” credit. The credit, which is currently being expanded, will soon be available to both renters and homeowners of all ages earning up to $50,000 per year. It also uses a more sophisticated formula than Bonds’ proposal to ensure that Washingtonians’ property tax bills do not exceed the income they have available to pay those bills. An expert commission created by the Council recently recommended making no further changes to DC’s property tax system, but if the Council nonetheless wants to charge ahead with property tax cuts, the city’s circuit breaker credit is the better tool for the job.
The second bill, introduced by Councilmember (and current mayoral candidate) Jack Evans, would have tightened the District’s existing property tax cap to prevent tax increases of more than 5 percent per year. As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains, these kinds of tax caps are poorly targeted, extremely costly, and often grossly inequitable. Most of the tax breaks doled out under such a cap would flow to owners of expensive homes. For example, DCFPI estimates that nearly two-thirds of the benefits of Evans’ proposal would go to owners of homes worth over $550,000, despite the fact that this group makes up just 31 percent of all DC homeowners. Further inequity arises when, for example, a resident who has owned their current home for a number of years (and racked up substantial tax cap benefits over that time) ends up enjoying a significantly lower tax bill than the first-time homebuyer in an identical rowhouse next door.
Mayor Vince Gray opposes the 5 percent property tax cap because of its “negative financial impact on the District’s revenues, its inequitable treatment of District homeowners and because it does not increase the District’s competitiveness regionally.” These objections are well stated, though all of them also apply, to a lesser extent, to the over-75 giveaway sought by Councilmember Bonds.