Dian Feral has lived in the frame house on a corner lot in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood for more than 30 years since she bought it for $87,000 back when she worked the graveyard shift at the Keebler cookie and cracker plant.
It was never what she’d call a good house, situated in what she describes as a “poverty-stricken area” and beset with frequent repairs. But it has nonetheless provided her an affordable home even after the plant closed in 2001 and she fell back on her savings and a company pension that allowed her to pay off the mortgage.
For the last few years, 69-year-old Feral has squeezed another benefit from the home she shares with three cats and two ferrets. Because of her age and the fact that she has lived in her house for more than 10 years, Feral qualifies for the property tax break called the senior homestead exemption. It saved her $530 off her last tax bill of $1,402.
“It makes a difference,” she says. “That’s a substantial amount of money. It’s maybe one vet bill. It’s a home repair. It’s a lot of things. It’s meaningful.”
In a time of sticker shock from property valuations and rising concern over inequity in the housing market, the two-decades-old exemption stands as both a means of financial relief for many homeowners but also a tool that — in its present form — has raised questions of fairness.
A 2019 study by the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that the exemption disproportionately benefits white homeowners. And overall, roughly half of all older Coloradans don’t qualify for an exemption either because they rent instead of own or, if they do own a home, haven’t lived in it for 10 years. Those who do qualify for the exemption are less likely to be experiencing poverty than all older Coloradans.
Although lawmakers have pushed forward with a measure to provide broad property tax relief in the current session, they have for years flirted with strategies to make the senior exemption a more effective tool — for renters as well as homeowners, for more Black and Latinx homeowners and for more people experiencing poverty.
“People know it’s not an equitable program, and at times the whole program was on the chopping block because the benefits are not distributed equitably,” says state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat. He adds that while bills addressing the senior exemption were introduced twice previously, “neither had kinks worked out.”
A hedge against rising taxes
Voters installed the senior homestead exemption into the state constitution via referendum in 2000 as a means of helping older homeowners remain in their homes as rising property taxes threatened to outrun their often-fixed incomes. The exemption allows those who are at least 65 on Jan. 1 of the year they apply, and who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years, to subtract up to $100,000 of their home’s value before calculating property taxes. (Disabled veterans also can qualify for the exemption.)
Technically, the tax break allows homeowners to deduct 50% of the first $200,000 of appraised value. In Colorado, where the median home price exceeds $500,000, that break easily fits most long-term homeowners in the state’s hottest areas, and can reduce their tax bill by hundreds of dollars. It can also figure into qualifying homeowners’ decision on whether to stay or sell, since the exemption isn’t portable.
Some years ago, an audit of the program raised concerns about “checks and balances” — basically, ensuring that those who claimed the benefit actually qualified, says JoAnn Groff, the state property tax administrator. The result was that the Division of Property Taxation’s role expanded to run applications against databases of deaths and income tax returns to confirm that the properties were, in fact, owner occupied as a primary residence — and that the claimant was still alive.
“The benefit doesn’t get to follow you into the next world,” Groff says. “But when someone passes, the county assessor doesn’t necessarily get it, so this is a way that we can be sure that the exemption ends when someone is no longer with us … It’s a pretty thorough review, short of going out to someone’s house and ringing their doorbell and making sure that they’re living there.”
Since its inception, lawmakers have mulled a number of tweaks to either expand or contract the exemption, which requires the state to backfill lost revenue to the counties that contain the qualifying homes. As Colorado’s populace ages and more people qualify for the exemption, it places a growing burden on the state budget.
In 2002, the state granted 123,380 exemptions and paid counties about $62 million in lost tax revenue. The average tax savings totaled $503.
For the 2020 tax year, Coloradans claimed nearly 270,000 exemptions totaling nearly $158 million in county taxes that had to be backfilled by the state. On average, a qualifying applicant saved $585.
It may seem a drop in the bucket in a $30 billion-plus budget, but it’s not exactly insignificant.
“It’s big enough that it’s consistently considered when cuts are required,” Kennedy says of the exemption. “We talked about cuts when COVID hit, but fortunately found other things to cut. It’s consistently among the big ticket items that need reform. By making it more equitable, we can reform the longevity of the program.”
County notices of property valuation that went out in January contain an alert that instructs homeowners that they may be eligible for the exemption. A simple application must be completed and filed no later than July 15. Homeowners can contact their county assessor for more information.
Because the exemption is enshrined in the state constitution, lawmakers are limited in what they can do to tweak it. But the legislature does have the authority to adjust the size of the exemption, and can even suspend it during economic dry spells — as it did after the 9/11 attacks in the early 2000s and from 2009 to 2012, when the state budget reeled from the impact of the Great Recession.
AARP keeping tabs
The homestead exemption looms large for AARP Colorado’s roughly 670,000 members — the vast majority of whom are homeowners, including many who have owned their homes for at least 10 years, says state director Bob Murphy. But he also recognizes that while the tax savings can be a nice bonus for well-off Coloradans, the exemption doesn’t extend to a lot of folks for whom even a few hundred dollars could be critical.
“By any objective analysis (the exemption) is not completely fair,” Murphy says. “Generally 40% of folks who live in Colorado own their homes and 60% rent. So there’s a sort of inherent inequity between owners and renters.
“And it’s not means-tested. I don’t know how many people that would impact, but that’s one of the questions that legislators have grappled with for several years as they look to make changes.”
Murphy says that leads to a third point: A legislative change in the exemption has some urgency because in a state where the population’s older demographic continues to grow, impact on the state budget increases every year.
He notes that the Gallagher Amendment, had it not been repealed by voters, would have triggered an 18% decrease in the residential assessment rate — the second largest property tax cut in modern Colorado history. So in addition to removing some longstanding residential property tax relief (another factor in the just-introduced bill) the repeal ends up making the homestead exemption that much more expensive for the state to backfill.
The many moving parts of the state’s financial mechanism make the homestead exemption a tricky thing to try to fix.
“Sometimes those efforts have unintended consequences,” Murphy says. “You could make it more equitable, but that in turn could result in blowing a bigger hole in the state budget….So it’s definitely important to our members, and we understand that we’ve never really had to advocate for or against it. But any objective analysis shows discussion of refining that is probably valid.”
Data points to inequities
The CFI study from 2019 notes that of more than 480,000 Colorado households with at least one older homeowner, only slightly more than half qualify for the exemption. And while 60% of older white households qualify, only 40% of older Black households and 21% of older Latinx households qualify. People of color account for more than a quarter of the over-65 population but only 13.6% of homestead exemption qualifiers.
Chris Stiffler, CFI senior economist and author of “Inequities in Colorado’s Senior Property Tax Exemption,” notes that the exemption is, in one sense, insulated against well-off homeowners benefitting too much because it’s capped at a $100,000 deduction whether a home is valued at $400,000 or $1 million. But it’s difficult to fine tune it beyond that.
“The legislature can zero it out,” he says, “but it’s trickier to not give it to the super wealthy, and beef it up for lower-income people.”
Stiffler says the purpose of his research wasn’t to come up with any sort of recommendation, but to see what the data would tell him. His biggest takeaway from the research cross-referencing databases was how many Hispanic/Latinx intergenerational families don’t own their homes — which puts them at a disadvantage in terms of the homestead exemption.
He adds that about a dozen states have a “circuit breaker” that kicks in if property taxes exceed 20% of a homeowner’s income and pays the difference to provide relief to lower income seniors.
In Colorado, individual counties sometimes have programs that can help older residents mitigate property taxes, including by doing volunteer work. Homeowners 65 and older also may qualify to defer property taxes. The state treasurer pays the tax in the county where the homeowner resides and places a lien on the property that must be settled once the homeowner dies and the property is sold or the title transferred.
Kennedy says that he plans to propose a bill that would provide means testing for an exemption, but it would likely involve eliminating the current program by dropping the exemption to zero and starting from scratch on a different approach.
“It’s more complex than it sounds,” he says. “You have to restructure the entire program. We’ve wrestled with it over the years, and we want to make sure it’s equitable and accessible. And we want to make sure it is efficient for the state to administer.”
Key to any revamp, he says, would be finding a way to make it accessible to renters.
“Seniors who rent struggle as much as seniors who own,” Kennedy says. “In addition to property values, Colorado has a competitive rental environment. It’s very difficult to find affordable rental housing. I’m going to work on something over the interim, and come back with (a bill) in 2022. I’ve run a pretty robust stakeholder conversation around this, and I intend to do the same over the interim.”