“Aging in place” – D.C. Council considers tax relief to make it happen

Grandpa and Grandma Walton (played by Will Greer and Ellen Corby on the 1970s television series “The Waltons”) aged in place on the family farm in Depression-era Virginia, surrounding John Boy and all the family with love and stability. (Photo courtesy of The Waltons)

Fifty years after the riots that rent the social and economic fabric of the city, the District is riding high.

Tax revenues and real estate development are booming. But Irene Kang said residents who have borne the burden and heat of the day should receive the reward of their labors, and be allowed to age in place.

“D.C. is a transient city,” said Kang, the chief of staff for Councilmember Anita Bonds. “But most seniors have roots here. We must ensure that people who know the community and have skin in the game can stay here. We want community-oriented people who care about their next-door neighbors.

“Our older residents lived here and put down roots and invested in the city at a time when nobody wanted to live here, when D.C. was thought of as the murder capital of the world. Now when we’re in the midst of a boom, you can sell for a good profit margin. But a lot of our D.C. seniors don’t want to sell, they want to age in place.”

A bill currently under consideration by the city council, the Senior Citizen Tax Relief Amendment Act of 2017, would make the difference in allowing older residents to stay put. The bill was introduced by Councilmember Vincent Gray.

According to the city council’s website, the bill “provides tax relief for District seniors by providing an exemption from real property taxes to those who have owned a residence in the District for at least 20 years, are 70 years old or older, have an annual adjusted gross [household] income of less than $60,000 and less than $12,500 in household interest and dividend income.”

Ramon Estrada, a 37-year resident of the 14th and U corridor, said he thinks the proposed law rocks.

“It makes it affordable for seniors to live here,” said Estrada, a former chairman of the local advisory neighborhood commission and past president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. “When you’re on a fixed income, you can’t afford to pay these huge tax bills that come due every six months. Assessments have gone way up based on recent sales in the neighborhood. Places that were once more affordable are less affordable, places like Dupont, Shaw, Logan Circle.”

He thinks the concept of aging in place is hugely beneficial to the health and wellness of seniors.

“I’ve seen my neighborhood improve, so that we now have lots of amenities, Trader Joe’s, a hardware store, public transportation,” Estrada said. “Those are amenities I want as a senior. If I’m forced to sell [because of skyrocketing property taxes], I lose that. And it’s very social here – I have lots of friends. I’m active in [local] associations. I would lose all that if I had to move away.”

Estrada said the threat to older people on fixed incomes is no phantom.  

“Imagine if you’re a senior who lives in your own home,” he said. “The mortgage is paid. You own it. You’re living on social security and may not have the money to pay [the high property tax]. People have lost their homes over non-payment of property taxes. Banks or investors have paid the taxes, bought the houses, flipped them and the seniors are out on the street.

“This bill would put a stop to that.”

Elaine Sarao said her husband, Paul Kervin, has owned their house on Corcoran Street near Dupont Circle since 1972. He paid $19,000 for it. It needed a lot of work.

Before Kervin bought the house, 17 people lived in squalid rooms on the second floor. The attic was full of pigeon droppings, which his family members helped shoveled out. The roof and the heater had to be replaced soon after he occupied the house.

Sarao said people like her husband, who worked to restore the District’s historic neighborhoods when they had fallen on hard times, are deserving of a break now that the young and the groovy have discovered the charms of the neighborhoods older residents saved and revitalized.

“We provided the stability to the community so the city can now undergo this economic renaissance,” Sarao said. “What this is doing to seniors is economic gentrification. It’s driving out the very people who are the foundation stones of the community.”

Kervin said it’s great that a lot of people want to live in the city now.

“The bad part is that my property taxes have gone up 10 percent a year since 2007,” he said.

Kervin said he attended a community meeting in the Trinidad neighborhood last year with city council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who discussed the increase in real estate assessments. According to a handout Mendelson distributed at the meeting, the city expects a $10.5 billion increase in property assessments from 2017 to 2018. Kervin has crunched the numbers.

“I am estimating increases [in tax revenue] of $71.4 million for non-residential property and $53.8 million for residential property,” he said.

Kervin said Mendelson felt the pain of those struggling with high property taxes.

“He said that as an individual you can control how much sales tax you pay by buying less,” Kervin recounted. “You can control your income tax by earning less. But property tax is a tax you cannot control.”

Irene Kang from Councilmember Bonds’ office said that a 2013 fiscal impact study of an earlier version of the current tax relief bill estimated the exemption for seniors would cost about $4 million a year.

That earlier bill, introduced by Kang’s boss, was passed into law by the council and signed by then-Mayor Vincent Gray.

Kang said that bill was gutted during the 2014 budget cycle.

“It was changed into a deferral program,” she said. “If you’re 70 or over, it defers payment on your tax bill but it does not exempt you from paying the real estate tax. Seniors don’t want to defer payments. Only 293 homeowners took advantage of the deferral program as of last month.”

In an email, Kang described an additional bill her boss has introduced that would also provide tax relief to seniors in their sixties.

It would “provide 90 percent and 80 percent deductions in real property tax liability for senior citizens and persons with disabilities whose household adjusted gross income is less than 20-40 percent of the area median income. This bill was for those seniors aged 65 and older.”

Lindsey Walton, the communications director for Mendelson, said the chairman has not stated his views on the bill introduced in January by Gray.

“The chairman has not indicated his position on this legislation as it has not had a hearing and I would imagine he would want to see what testimony comes out of such a hearing before taking a position,” she said.