The total assessed value of taxable property in all Bay Area counties except Contra Costa hit $1.72 trillion as of Jan. 1 — up $108 billion or a healthy 6.7% over last year — but growth could slow significantly this year as demand for office space slows, home sales plunge and inflation subsides.
County assessors had until July 1 — the start of the 2020-21 fiscal year — to finish computing the assessed value as of Jan. 1 of all taxable property in their county, including land, homes, commercial real estate, business equipment, boats and airplanes. This is called “closing the roll.” The assessed value is the amount subject to property tax. It’s what property owners will see on their 2020-21 tax bill in the fall.
Contra Costa County got an extension until Aug. 10 to complete its 2020-21 roll because of the coronavirus pandemic. If you include its roll from last year, the Bay Area total would surpass $1.9 trillion.
Under Proposition 13, property in California is reassessed, generally at market value, only when it changes hands. (Some transfers, such as between parents and children and by people over 55 in some cases, are exempt from reassessment.) In between changes of ownership, assessors can only tack on the value of new construction or improvements, plus an inflation rate capped at 2% per year. So assessed value is often far below market value.
Cities and counties need property taxes for schools, social services, public health, fire, police and sheriff’s departments and other government activities. The average tax rate in California is around 1.2% of assessed value, including voter-approved local taxes. A $1billion increase in assessed value generates about $12 million in additional taxes.
The main things that boost a county’s tax revenue are commercial and residential construction, properties changing hands at higher prices and the inflation rate. This rate is based on the annual change in the California Consumer Price Index each October. It can be less than 2% but can’t exceed that amount.
In recent years, construction of new offices for tech and biotech companies, and housing for their workers have powered property tax increases in many parts of the Bay Area.
In Santa Clara County, the assessor added $650 million to this year’s roll from construction at Moffett Towers II in Sunnyvale, an office project developed by Jay Paul and leased to Amazon and Facebook; $594.6 million from construction at the mixed-use Santa Clara Square; and $332 million from the Google Bay View project in Mountain View.
It added $102 million from the sale of land underneath California’s Great America amusement park to its owner, Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., which had been leasing the land from the city of Santa Clara.
In San Mateo County, two big contributors to this year’s roll were the Facebook campus expansion in Menlo Park, which added $561 million, and the Burlingame Point Project just south of San Francisco International Airport, which added $544 million. The Burlingame project, which includes four office buildings, was envisioned as a life sciences campus, but Facebook decided to lease the entire complex. It will move its Oculus virtual reality division into it next year.
In San Francisco, the sale of Levi’s Plaza for an estimated price of $820 million added $400 million to the roll and the newly opened Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors, added $350 million. Commercial projects that take years to build are added to the roll incrementally, as construction progresses.
For the Bay Area, this year’s growth rate was on par with last year’s, but some assessors warned that the shelter-in-place orders that took effect in mid-March could slow their roll growth.
Demand for office space is already declining as the great work-from-home experiment shows signs of success. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in May that within 10 years as many as half of its employees can work remotely. Jack Dorsey’s San Francisco companies Twitter and Square said they’ll let most employees work from home permanently. So will Quora of Mountain View and San Francisco’s Coinbase, which call themselves “remote-first” companies.
In San Francisco, companies signed new leases on just 266,000 square feet of office space in the second quarter, the lowest level since at least the 1990s, according to Cushman Wakefield data. In Silicon Valley, office leasing in the second quarter hit its lowest rate in 16 years, brokerage firm CBRE reported.
Falling home sales are another concern. The number of existing single-family homes sold in the Bay Area fell 37% and 51%, respectively, in April and May compared with the same months last year. The median price of homes sold in those two months declined just 0.8% and 2.5% year over year, according to the California Association of Realtors.
The sales plunge — caused by restrictions on home showings, falling stock prices and uncertainty over where prices are heading — is a problem for counties because fewer homes are reassessed at higher prices.
But if prices also fall sharply, recent home buyers could seek a Proposition 8 tax reduction. This proposition says that if the market value of a home falls below its assessed value, the homeowner can ask the assessor to temporarily reduce the assessed value to the market value.
After the real estate bubble popped in 2006, home values fell so deeply that most Bay Area assessors applied reductions automatically to ones that had sold in the few years before and after the housing market crashed. Although millions of homeowners got tax reductions, Bay Area assessment rolls generally rose, albeit modestly, thanks largely to the inflation factor.
As home prices recovered, most of these reductions were reversed and those homes are now assessed where they would have been had they not gotten the reduction. In San Mateo County, only 295 residential properties still have a Prop. 8 reduction, down from 34,7000 in 2011-12.
This time around, assessors expect to see a flood of requests for property tax cuts from businesses, not homeowners.
“The value of commercial property is the income it generates. If your tenants moved out, went broke, stopped paying rent, or all of the above, then we are going to see significant reductions,” Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone said. “I predict the negative impact on commercial property values as a result of COVID-19 will be greater than the impact that occurred in the (previous) recession, which was a residential-triggered recession.”
He added that the inflation factor next year could drop below the 2% cap, as it did five times since 2003. In 2010-11 it dipped below zero. In April, the California Consumer Price Index was slightly below where it was in October.
The roll is the assessed value, as of Jan. 1, of all secured and unsecured property subject to property tax, net of exemptions. Most Bay Area counties completed, or closed, their rolls by the July 1 deadline.
*Contra Costa obtained an extension to close its roll by Aug. 10 because of the coronavirus pandemic
Source: Chronicle research
In San Mateo County, “We anticipate that these disruptions will have a negative impact on the 2021-22 assessment roll,” Assessor Mark Church said in a news release. The shelter-in-place mandate likely affected retail and hotel properties, and many commercial and residential property owners “experienced lost rent while also being subjected to eviction moratoriums.” He also said the county would be “proactive” in reducing assessments where “market data shows that the fair market value on January 1, 2021 is lower than the calculated taxable value.”
One wild card is Proposition 15, the split-roll initiative on the November ballot. It would maintain Prop. 13 treatment for small businesses, agricultural land and residential property, including apartment buildings. But it would require other commercial and industrial property to be reappraised and taxed at its full market value periodically, with a partial tax exemption for business personal property such as computers and office equipment.
If passed, it would be phased in over several starting in 2022-23. When fully implemented, it could increase statewide property tax revenues by $7.5 billion to $12 billion annually, according to a Legislative Analyst’s report. But it also would create “significant new administrative responsibilities for counties, particularly county assessors” that could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars per year.”
Kathleen Pender is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kathpender