3 Ways COVID Changed Property Taxes

Cris K. O'Neall of Greenberg Traurig on new avenues for challenging property tax assessments.

Cris K. O’Neall

Changes brought by the recent pandemic continue to impact the property tax regimes of many states. Clearly, COVID-19 greatly reduced property values and property tax revenues, particularly where real estate markets determine the fair market value used in setting assessments.

But the pandemic has had other far-reaching effects, some of which may continue for years to come. Here are three trends reshaping property tax dynamics, and ways taxpayers can use those factors to reduce their tax liability.

1. Downturn Horizons Extend (Will Things Ever Return to Normal?)

Many property types have experienced value declines over the past 18 months. The question is how much longer the declines will continue. For example, will hospitality property revenues and values rebound in 2023? Or 2024? Will consumers continue to make online purchases, as they were forced to do during the pandemic, forever abandoning the traditional brick-and-mortar retailing outlets usually found in power centers and shopping centers?

The difficulties in estimating time horizons for the recovery of real estate markets creates uncertainty. At the same time, it presents opportunities for short-term and longer-term property tax relief for many property owners and managers. This is particularly the case where pandemic-driven change has permanently changed markets and created “new normals” for some real estate subsectors.

2. Local Tax Authorities Offer More Leniency

When the pandemic commenced in spring 2020, property owners sought to extend the time within which property taxes had to be paid. Rather than penalize property owners for not paying by deeming them in default, many jurisdictions allowed property owners more time to pay, extending deadlines that were once thought unchangeable. Some jurisdictions extended deadlines for more than just payment: They gave taxpayers additional time to file property renditions, property tax appeals and exemption requests.

While many tax advisors expected this leniency to cease following the worst of the pandemic, the opposite has happened. Some property tax jurisdictions continue to give taxpayers more time to pay and have extended deadlines to comply with filing requirements. An example of this is seen in the California State Board of Equalization’s July announcement that it plans to author legislation giving the tax agency more power to extend deadlines under certain circumstances.

3. Restricted Access Drives Property Value Declines

COVID-19 has tested and perhaps expanded the valid reasons taxpayers can cite to prove property value declines and seek property tax reductions in many states. Prior to the pandemic, taxing jurisdictions were quite willing to grant property owners value reductions and property tax refunds for properties damaged by fire, earthquake, flood or other calamities. But such value reductions were always based on the physical condition of the property: If the calamity caused physical damage to the property, making it less useable, then a value reduction and tax refund would be granted.

The pandemic changed this. COVID-19 had the unique effect of making properties unusable and, therefore, less valuable solely due to restricted access. Public health concerns in general and government orders prohibiting citizens from frequenting public places depressed property values without inflicting any physical damage at all. Thus, government stay-at-home orders and public health fears made ghost towns of shopping centers, hotels and resorts, entertainment venues and other places where large crowds previously congregated. Almost overnight, the values of those properties greatly declined, sometimes to a fraction of pre-pandemic values.

Existing laws relating to property tax relief were not written to address restricted-access value declines. Nevertheless, many local assessors recognized the effect of pandemic-driven property value declines, including those caused by restricted access. Some taxing jurisdictions have even been proactive in reducing assessments due to downturns caused by COVID-19 in selected real estate markets, not waiting for taxpayers to file administrative appeals or lawsuits challenging property tax assessments. For example, California county assessors have asked commercial property owners to voluntarily submit valuation data early in the assessment cycle in order to reduce assessed values before the deadline for filing property tax appeals.

Despite recent real estate market value declines and efforts by local assessors to recognize such losses, the values of property tax rolls have continued to grow. In Los Angeles, the largest property tax jurisdiction in the U.S., the assessment roll increased by 6 percent during 2020, which was consistent with the preceding three years. Tax assessment rolls in San Francisco and San Diego hit record highs during 2020. Miami, Seattle and even Oklahoma City experienced similar increases. This stable growth of property tax rolls during the pandemic has allowed assessors to grant assessment relief to properties most affected by restricted access.

So the question arises, how long will local assessors continue to give COVID-19 property tax relief? Further, have the pandemic’s restricted-access property value declines created new opportunities for future property tax value reductions? Time will tell.

Property Tax Reduction Opportunities Abound

The pandemic has created many opportunities to reduce property taxes, particularly in states where assessments reflect fair market values, and especially in sectors hard hit by restricted access issues. Uncertainty as to when market values will rebound, if ever, means property value reductions may remain in effect for more than a few years or assessment cycles.

Furthering this opportunity is the willingness of local taxing jurisdictions to extend deadlines and consider pandemic-induced property devaluations, including those caused by restricted access. This year and next, and perhaps beyond that, property owners and managers would do well to work with local taxing authorities to reduce their property tax assessments and, if need be, file property tax appeals.

Cris K. O’Neall is a shareholder in the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at oneallc@gtlaw.com.

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