Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How to Replace the Property Tax System with Middle-Class friendly Progressive Consumption Taxes

The vast majority of homeowners believe that the current property tax system is inherently regressive, meaning middle class heavily subsidizes the rich. Others think it’s the biggest annual harassment they have to endure. Rich folks owning expensive homes are not too bothered as the system favors them. It is more or less the opposite of the income tax system where the top 1% pays 40% of all federal taxes. According to the Tax Policy Center 44% of Americans will not pay any income taxes this year – not so when it comes to property taxes. Property tax is one of the main reasons why seniors and minorities get uprooted from their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, home is the biggest investment for most Americans and it’s usually controlled by the local governments via their primary revenue tool called the property taxes.

It’s about time we phase out this mostly unfair and inequitable property tax system and replace it with a series of truly fair and transparent revenue tools, thus freeing the homeowners from the clutches of the government control. So, what are the replacement tools (revenue sources)?

1. Introduce Junk Food Surtax on Unhealthy Processed Foods and Beverages – Just the way the middle class must not subsidize the rich people’s property taxes, the health-conscious folks must not subsidize those who basically live off junk foods. This is a (preventive) health issue and, hopefully, this surtax will save citizens billions in health insurance premiums down the road. The counter case is equally compelling: Today smokers are paying a heavy price for their lifestyle (significantly higher taxes on their lifestyle products and higher premiums on life and health insurances, etc.). While we must not take smokers’ choice away, the rest of us must not finance their lifestyles either. The phase-out of the property tax system will take 5 to 7 years, during which as the property tax revenue starts to come down, the Junk Food Surtax should start at, say 10%, graduating up and perhaps leveling out at 20% (will require studies to make the system revenue-neutral). This tax could be implemented at the State level, where the States reimburse counties based on actual collections. If the State becomes an unwilling participant, it must be implemented at the county level. In a Utopian society, this collection will come down to null.

2. Implement Surtax on Basic and Luxury Durable Goods – In order to save $5K to $150K on property taxes at the front-end and capped deductions at the back-end, homeowners would be amenable to the proposed durable goods surtax. Unlike involuntary property taxes, consumption taxes are more humane – families can budget/plan for these expenditures. Since the basic durable goods impact the middle class, the rate must be lower, say 2 to 3% for the basic, followed by the luxury durable and ultra luxury durable goods, with progressively higher rates. For instance, all appliances under $10K could be basic, $10K to $20K being the luxury category and >$20K as the ultra luxury category, with progressively higher rates. Likewise, automobiles could have three categories as well. While counties would be allowed to charge different rates, there must be non-resident tariff provisions to negate any arbitrage; in other words, counties with lower rates must collect the differentials from the non-resident purchasers (from the reciprocating counties) with higher rates. Non-reciprocating counties would be notified of the non-resident purchases. 

3. Let the Investors Pay Higher Sales and Transfer Taxes on Income-producing SFRs – In terms of sales and transfer taxes, single family homes occupied as primary residences must be treated differently from investor purchases for conversion to rentals. At the point of purchase, those investors must pay higher sales taxes (add-on sales surtax). During the last recession, many institutions bought and converted millions of single family homes into rentals creating a whole new SFR Rental industry. Unlike people’s primary residences, these are income-producing properties and must be treated as such. Even during the years of property tax phase-out, they must be treated as a sub-class of the multi-family, paying higher sales, property and transfer taxes than the primary residences, in line with the competing multi-families. This should apply to large institutions as well as other parties and individuals with 5+ rental units including condos and co-ops.

4. Let the Gamers and Flippers Pay Higher Transfer Taxes – At the point of sale, shorter holding periods (say, up to 2 years) must carry much higher transfer taxes so the traders and flippers are separated from the homeowners. In fact, it’s a clear case of moral hazard when primary homeowners and gamers are treated alike by the local assessors. While the gamers are entitled to compete and buy, they must be treated as investors if they sell within the shorter window. They can however bypass the surtax by using the 1031 exchange (federal). Of course, exceptions (e.g., job-related relocation, medical emergency, etc.) must be factored in as long as the use of home as primary residence could be proven. During the tax phase-out period, none of these sales (institutional, traders and flippers) could be used in developing SFR AVMs or as SFR comps, to avoid having to artificially inflate the price/assessment levels.

5. Introduce/Re-introduce Million$-plus Home Sales Surtax – Since the upscale and expensive homes (owners) would be a big beneficiary of the phase-out (followed by no property taxes), the million$-plus home sales must be subjected to additional progressive surtaxes. It must not be a blanket one-size-fits-all rate; instead, it must be progressive in view of the savings – for example, sale price $1M to $2M @2.00%, $2M to $3M @2.25%, $3M to $5M @2.50%, $5M to $10M @2.75%, $10M+ @3.00% etc., etc. While the elimination of property taxes will make the high-end housing market more liquid, the introduction of sales surtax (coupled with higher short-holding transfer taxes) will gradually de-incentivize gamers, stabilizing this volatile segment. Should sales clusters start to balloon just under $1M, the threshold could be lowered to the jumbo mortgage (non-conforming) level. Of course, State’s participation will be important, absent which counties must implement the surtax on their own.

6. Let there be Luxury Hotel (4 and 5-Star) Surtax – These hotels are primarily for the corporate executives and rich folks so additional 5-6% surtax will not harm the hotel industry. In fact, these hotels might even use this surtax as a promo (“We Will Pay Your Surtax”) in order to boost traffic during the off-peak season. A vast majority of these hotels have medium-to-large convention centers – seasonal to round-the-year – so convention center surtax could be an ancillary surtax as well. The hotels that are run as resorts must be subjected to an additional resort surtax. Luxury car rentals must carry sizable luxury rental surtax. Similarly, all golf courses, private and public, must have additional surtaxes. None of these would adversely impact the middle class; even if they impact the middle class to some extent, it would be almost insignificant when compared to the tax savings they would be enjoying from the elimination of property taxes.

7. Counties should Start Selling Naming Rights to its Infrastructure – Let the rich people/private institutions pay to put up their names on local government buildings, county roads, town squares, bridges, marinas, municipal parking, toll booths, service plazas, ball parks, parks and recreational centers, public pools and rinks, etc. (that the local governments own and operate). Of course, public schools and colleges should be exempted. The selling process must be totally open and transparent (via open tenders), thus awarding the naming rights to the highest bidders (some restrictions could apply). Also, in order to attract the right market price, it must also be term-limited, say 3 to 5 years. Counties could also consider private-public joint ventures to build new toll roads and bridges (unable to get federal funding) wherein the private party incurs all costs to build the infrastructure in return for the toll incomes for 10-15 years.

8. Now that Airbnb is Mainstream, Counties must Claim its Share of Taxes – Like Uber, Airbnb has become mainstream competing with the commercial lodging industry, potentially lowering the latter’s occupancy rates and consequently government’s tax revenues. Under the circumstances, states must make sure that Airbnb collects and returns all taxes back to respective states and, in turn, to the originating counties. Given the skyrocketing popularity of Airbnb, this tax revenue will grow exponentially in coming years. In fact, this new-found tax revenue will not only far exceed the lost hotel tax revenue, but it will also generate new taxes in smaller markets where hotels/motels generally are in short supply. Because of the physical nature of Airbnb’s client-properties, it will be easier (than the internet sales) for the states to collect taxes. The emerging Airbnb competition must also follow suit, collecting and clearing taxes to the states.

9. Last but not least, massive Savings will be generated from the Closure of Assessment Offices – In large cities and counties, hundreds of employees work in those offices (Assessor’s office, Assessment Review, Data Collection, Mapping, Valuation and Valuation Modeling, Customer Service, Exemptions, Public Relations and Outreach, Attorneys, etc.). The elimination of those high-paying jobs will save local governments tens of millions in salaries and benefits. Additionally, the closure of those offices will save significant sums in rent, utilities, security, maintenance, IT, web, telecom services, etc. Since governments try to solve all problems by hiring more people (actual case: “The county has hired 60 staffers and plans to bring on 20 more. The [XX] Commission…has hired 16 staffers and plans to bring on another 10 in the coming months.”), the elimination of property taxes will save local governments a ton.

Since property tax is one of the most explosive issues for the local politicians (they win or lose elections based on the assessment issue alone), homeowners and their watch groups must fight tooth and nail to phase it out. Now that the SALT deduction has been capped, even the rich homeowners might be in favor of this phase-out. Of course, the local unions will not be silent spectators in this fight. No doubt, this fight will end up at State Supreme Courts. Of course, in order to win this fight, all homeowners need is one favorable decision, which will spearhead and strengthen the movement coast-to-coast.


Thank you.

Sid Som MBA, MIM
President, Homequant, Inc.

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