It’s a sellers’ market as home prices continue to rise, inventory falls
Despite some rumblings about a real estate bubble about to burst, home prices across the Bay Area’s nine counties rose by nearly 11% year-on-year to October 2017, according to the Mercury News, which reports that the region’s median sale price of a single-family home was $800,000. In Alameda County that number was $815,000, while in San Mateo and Santa Clara the figure easily surpassed $1 million. Home sales in the Bay Area fell in the same period. Some of that slowdown is attributable to the devastating North Bay wildfires, according to CoreLogic, which supplied the data, but it’s the cycle of low inventory and high prices that mainly accounts for sluggish sales activity, the article reports. The dearth of inventory is likely good news for those who do put their home on the market. As Tim Ambrose, president-elect of the Bay East Association of Realtors, put it: “Buyers are lining up like the Apple store.”
Where did all the hipsters go?
While craft microbreweries and vegan restaurants seem to be proliferating at a rapid clip in the East Bay, this does not, it appears, signify that Berkeley or Oakland are hipster hubs. Neither is San Francisco, despite rumors to the contrary. According to the U.S. Hipster Index (yes, you read that right), compiled by MoveHub.com, the most hipster cities in the Bay Area are Santa Rosa, Modesto and Sacramento. The most hipster city in the country? Vancouver, Washington. How does one define hipsters you may well ask. MoveHub describes them thus: “… hipsters are a subculture of 20- to 30-somethings who position themselves as non-mainstream pioneers; free-thinkers and non-conformist conformists.” MoveHub uses five criteria to compile its ranking: number of microbreweries, thrift stores, vegan restaurants, and tattoo studios per 100,000 city residents, and rent inflation in the last year. Oakland ranks just behind San Francisco in the survey, which ranks 61st. MoveHub notes that bigger cities simply can’t compete in the index — Los Angeles is in 133rd place and New York is at 143rd — because “their hipsterness is diluted by their size.” Of course, there are many who would consider it a win coming in last in this particular league table!
The allure of the ‘petite’ size house — times three
Paying $800 per square foot for a home in Berkeley, where the average is nearer to $620, according to Redfin, may seem questionable, but there is something about diminutive houses — often referred to as ‘sweet bungalows’ or ‘cute cottages’ in real estate speak — that appeals. Curbed SF says the 786-square-foot, two-bedroom, “totally teal” bungalow at 1198 Cornell Ave., makes up with charm what it lacks for in size. Priced at $629,000, it has been on the market for 14 days. In Oakland’s Laurel neighborhood, its listing agents stress the charm of the 933-square-foot home at 3750 Madrone Ave., on the market at $649,000, putting it at $696 per square foot. Perhaps what it lacks in indoor volume is compensated for by front and backyard spaces that include a “protected vegetable garden, side yard, large deck area, dog run and a one-car garage.” Also coming in under 1,000 square feet is 1420 Harmon St. in Berkeley which is described as a “sweet two-bedroom, one bath bungalow on quiet street.” Listed at $695,000, the home is 928 square feet ($749 per square foot).
Don’t miss the Neighborhood Guides in Berkeleyside’s Real Estate section: from Albany to Uptown Oakland, these area profiles, curated by local real estate experts, include information on housing inventory, neighborhood hotspots, lifestyle, walkability and commutes.
Emma Carroll, a UC Berkeley grad student, is thinking about taking out loans just to pay what could be a substantially higher tax bill.
Jerry Pohorsky, an engineer in Santa Clara, might put off his plans to buy a new electric vehicle if a federal tax credit gets cut.
And John Hansen, an attorney in Castro Valley, is considering moving to Georgia in part to avoid paying some California income and property tax he could no longer deduct from his federal bill.
As Republicans square the last details of President Donald Trump’s massive tax overhaul before a final vote in Congress, many Bay Area residents are running the numbers and worrying that they’ll end up paying more.
The plan is the biggest rethinking of America’s tax code in a generation, though it’s still a work in progress, with a congressional committee ironing out differences in versions passed by the House and Senate. For many people around the country, it will mean lower tax rates and a simplified filing process. Trump and other supporters say it will jump-start the economy and generate jobs.
But the bill slashes many housing and state-tax deductions that are popular in the Bay Area. California’s high taxes and the Bay Area’s high home prices will likely make our region one of the most adversely affected places in the country, and accountants and tax experts say there’s not much taxpayers can do to avoid it.
“Given the way the tax bills are written now, the Bay Area is certainly a big loser from this plan,” said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley professor who has written a book about California tax policy.
Both bills will ax the deductions for state income tax. That won’t be a big deal for most Americans, but California has some of the highest income taxes in the country — and nearly half of Bay Area residents take advantage of the state and local tax deductions. Of the top 7 U.S. counties with the highest average state and local tax deduction, four — San Mateo, Marin, San Francisco and Santa Clara — are in the Bay Area, according to IRS data.
The tax plan also limits some of the biggest financial incentives for buying and owning a home. Both versions of the bill cap the property tax deduction at $10,000, while the House version limits the mortgage interest deduction to loans of up to $500,000, down from the current $1 million. (Existing loans would be grandfathered in.) The median Bay Area home price is about $800,000, compared with about $200,000 nationwide.
“This doesn’t affect 95 percent of homeowners in the country, but it affects basically everybody here,” said Joseph Salazar, a tax specialist and financial adviser in San Jose. “If you have a young couple looking to buy their first house, why would they want to move here?”
Salazar predicted that without these big financial incentives to buy a home, the Bay Area could see a slump in the housing market and a growing percentage of renters. However, he said people shouldn’t necessarily plan on selling their home, as the bill also makes fewer homeowners exempt from paying capital gains tax on the profit from selling their house.
Losing the deductions is a big deal for Hansen. Though the interest deduction from his more-than-$500,000 mortgage would be grandfathered in under the tax plan, he would lose the state and local tax deduction that he says has helped save him “a substantial amount of money.” He expects his tax bill to go up under the GOP plan.
“Maybe the only answer is to move to another state,” said Hansen, who said this could be another incentive for him and his wife to move to Atlanta to be closer to their grandkids. As a Democrat, he said he thought Trump and Republicans were trying to write a tax bill with increases that “mostly affect people who don’t vote for them.”
Even some of Trump’s biggest local fans are questioning the tax plan’s effect on their pocketbooks. Lori Drake, the former chair of the Alameda County Republican Party, said she supported the idea of simplifying the tax code and most of the bill, but opposed getting rid of deductions for state income and property tax, which she uses.
“We should be against that,” she said, “because it’s not fair to get double-taxed on anything.”
Losing those deductions isn’t bad news for everyone in the Bay Area. The bill would nearly double the standard deduction, raising it to $12,000 for individuals or $24,000 for married couples, and most people who take the standard deduction can expect to pay fewer taxes under the bill. The Senate bill also would double the child tax credit, to $2,000 per child, while the House bill would raise it to $1,600.
The Bay Area residents who will benefit from the tax plan, accountants predict, include renters with relatively low incomes who don’t pay a lot of state income tax and retirees who don’t have outstanding mortgages. The super-rich will also likely see reduced tax rates outweigh their lost deductions, and will benefit from other provisions like a reduction of the estate tax.
“Looking at our situation, I think it’s going to be a better deal,” said Bob Jackson, 65, a San Jose Democrat and retired mail carrier. He and his wife take the standard deduction and have no mortgage on their mobile home, which they rent a space for instead of paying property tax. “It’s good for people like us.”
On the other hand, the bill could mean higher taxes for graduate students like Carroll, who’s halfway through her six-year PhD program in molecular and cell biology. The university waives $13,000 of her tuition each year for doing research. Under the House bill — but not the Senate bill — that waived tuition would now be considered taxable income, added to the $35,000 annual research stipend she currently pays taxes on.
She’s estimated if the House bill passes, she’d have to pay about $1,500 a year in new taxes, although some of that could be mitigated by the higher standard deduction. She’s planning to take out loans to pay for that.
“If I have to pay taxes on a considerably larger amount of money that I never actually make, it’s going to be hard to continue my studies,” said Carroll, who did not want her political affiliation disclosed.
Some students have called on Berkeley and other universities to help support graduate students if the tax change goes through, possibly by reducing their tuition. Meanwhile, the House bill also repeals a provision that allows current and former students to deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest.
Other tax provisions that are popular in the Bay Area and could be lost include the $7,500 credit for the purchase of an electric vehicle, which helps make some EV prices comparable with gasoline cars. The Senate bill keeps the credit, but the House bill nixes it.
That’s bad news for electric vehicle aficionados like Pohorsky, a former president of the Electric Auto Association of Silicon Valley. He bought his current ride, an electric Toyota RAV 4, in 2002, when plug-in cars were still a curiosity. After 15 years, it’s losing battery capacity and showing its wear, so Pohorsky has been planning to buy a new Chevy Bolt.
But without the $7,500 credit, he’s not sure he’d buy the $36,600 car. It’s a calculation that could lead many like him away from EV purchases.
“It will slow down electric vehicle adoption for sure, and that affects all of us,” said Pohorsky, a Republican. “The number of electric cars on the road is only about 2 percent, so we still have 98 percent of the population to convert.”
The tax bill also cuts deductions for victims of disasters like earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes. There are special exceptions for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — but not for those hit by the blazes that devastated the North Bay. (Republican leaders have said they plan to pass separate legislation for California wildfire victims.)
Still, there are many in the Bay Area like Jan Soule, a San Jose Republican retiree from the tech industry, who says the tax plan “makes sense.” The house she and her husband have owned for decades is paid off, and they have relatively low property taxes thanks to California’s Proposition 13 — so they won’t miss many of the deductions.
She doesn’t believe her party is using it to punish blue states. And if some Californians are angry about having to pay a higher tax bill, Soule said, “maybe they’ll wake up to the fact that our state taxes are out of control.”
SAN FRANCISCO — The GOP’s tax overhaul would be “absolutely devastating” for California’s efforts to house its low-income residents, Assemblyman David Chiu said Wednesday, speaking from an affordable apartment building that couldn’t have been built without the tax provisions Republicans are seeking to eliminate.
As lawmakers in Washington rush to finalize their tax reform plan, Chiu’s comments underscore what housing advocates have been saying for weeks: the bill will be a major blow to California at a time when the state is experiencing a historic shortage of homes for low-income families. To highlight the real-world implications of the proposal, Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, voiced their concerns from inside a Mercy Housing development in San Francisco that houses 150 low-income families — one-third of whom used to be homeless.
“All the work that we did this year, the hard work of advocates working for years, if not decades on this, could be wiped out overnight if Donald Trump and his Republican allies are successful in passing the so-called tax reform,” said Chiu, who chairs the assembly’s Housing Community Development Committee.
In San Jose alone, the bill threatens to upend 1,381 units of planned affordable housing, many of which are intended to shelter veterans or the homeless, said Ray Bramson, acting deputy director of the city’s Housing Department.
“The result is some of these units either aren’t going to get built at all,” he said, “or they’re going to be delayed a long time.”
That’s because those projects would have been funded largely using a 4 percent low-income housing tax credit — one of the most important weapons used to fight the affordable housing crisis — and one that will be off the table if the tax plan passed by the House becomes law.
“It’s a frightening place for us to head towards,” Bramson said.
Developers access those credits through private activity bonds, which the House bill would eliminate. Statewide, those credits fund more than $2 billion in affordable housing construction per year, Chiu said.
The low-income housing tax credits remain under the Senate version of the bill, but they could still take a hit because the plan lowers the corporate tax rate, which would also lower the value of the tax credits, housing advocates say. Republicans say the overhaul would simplify an outrageously complex tax code, and Speaker Paul Ryan promised the House bill would save an average family of four nearly $1,200 a year on their taxes.
Oakland stands to lose 1,497 planned affordable housing units if the tax credits are jeopardized, according to Michele Byrd, director of the city’s office of Housing Community Development.
San Francisco has about 6,000 units of affordable housing in the pipeline that could become a casualty of tax reform. And the city has another 4,400 units already under construction, which it must now scramble to protect, said Kate Hartley, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Developers must rush to tap available bonds before they vanish in the tax overhaul, and in so doing, they will rack up between $10 and $20 million in extra interest costs — money that could otherwise have been used to house more people in need.
“The harm done to our communities across the country by these provisions is severe,” Hartley wrote in an email.
On Wednesday, Chiu spoke to Hartley and other affordable housing advocates inside one of the buildings that might have been on the chopping block if the GOP’s reforms had come a few years earlier. The group gathered in a communal room at the heart of the Mission Bay apartment complex, a short walk from ATT Park. A Christmas tree shimmered in the corner — evidence that staff is preparing to host a holiday dinner and gift exchange in a few weeks for the building’s low-income residents, including more than 250 children.
Low-income housing tax credits contributed more than $30 million toward building Mercy’s Mission Bay apartments — more than 40 percent of the project’s total construction cost, said Barbara Gualco, director of real estate development for Mercy Housing California.
“We wouldn’t have been able to build this without them,” she said. Gualco, the housing advocates and the politicians had just visited the cozy apartment of a mother and her three children, all of whom used to be homeless.
The idea of losing the tax credits that helped fund that family’s new home is “unimaginable,” Gualco told Rendon as they continued their tour. “It feels apocalyptic.”