Our reliance on the property tax to fund civic needs is adding to higher housing costs and aggravating the affordability crisis for renters and homeowners alike.

Share story

THE elderly gentleman’s story is becoming all too common in our community. He bought his Columbia City home decades ago, raised a family, paid off his mortgage.

Long since retired, he lived on a modest fixed income. As he walked his neighborhood, he noticed things changing. Neighbors moved out, their homes torn down, shiny new dwellings were selling for nearly $500,000.

He couldn’t afford that, and wistfully he wondered how much longer he could afford to live in the house that was his family home. “Even the property taxes keep going up,” he said with a note of resignation to his voice.

Sadly, he’s not alone. As property-tax bills were sent out in February, they increased across King County 9.35 percent, largely driven by the generosity of voters. In Seattle, taxes jumped even higher — about 15 percent on average. Seattle’s hike was largely thanks to a major transportation levy, funding of a metropolitan park district and a publicly financed campaign voucher system.

These are the highest increases we’ve seen in a decade. And the reality is, property-tax increases like this aren’t sustainable.

King County Assessor John Wilson took office on Jan.
King County Assessor John Wilson took office on Jan. 1.

Low-income seniors, veterans and disabled homeowners may qualify for a property-tax exemption offered by my office. These exemptions can be the difference in someone’s ability to stay in his or her home.

Our website contains information on how to apply for an exemption, on property-tax rates, assessed valuations and how to appeal your assessed value: kingcounty.gov/depts/assessor

Property taxes vary depending upon property location and the number of jurisdictions levying taxes (such as state, city, county, school district, port, fire), and the assessed value of that property. The 15 percent tax jump in Seattle is for a median priced home of $480,000. A property in South Park might see a smaller increase while one in Madison Park might see a larger one.

Voter-approved ballot measures are the main driver of higher property taxes. Seattle voters passed a $930-million transportation levy in November, on top of earlier votes to fund libraries, parks, and a families and education program. Countywide ballot measures for fire protection, an emergency communications program and services for children also contributed to tax-bill increases, but they are much smaller when compared with Seattle.

Which brings me back to this: How much longer will voters support higher property taxes for public services? Our elected officials are working hard to combat the high cost of housing. Yet, I wonder whether our continued reliance on the property tax is adding to higher housing costs and aggravating the affordability crisis for renters and homeowners alike.

Most landlords pass the property tax cost on to their tenants. Even older homeowners, who get the senior tax exemption, may pay higher taxes because state law doesn’t shield them from a voter-approved “levy lid lift.” This should be corrected.

Looking ahead, I suggest we need a community discussion on what is the appropriate use of property taxes to fund local services. I voted for the recent school levies because we want well-funded schools for our kids. But at some point, voter support for more property taxes will diminish. A levy failure could have significant negative consequences on schools or other services.

There are no easy answers. But ignoring how we pay for our municipal needs and wants only invites problems we can and should avoid. Older homeowners like the gentleman from Columbia City shouldn’t live in fear of being taxed out of their homes. And middle-class families, whether homeowners or renters, form the economic foundation for a sustainable community.

The historic generosity of taxpayers is not a given. To ignore the financial consequences threatens driving families out of Seattle and King County and making housing affordability only worse.