Public Comment

Berkeley Homeowners Fight for Fair Taxation

Lilana Spindler
Saturday July 18, 2020 - 04:07:00 PM

Historically, Berkeley voters like equity, so they approved taxes with built-in equity. The City of Berkeley charges homeowners for city services through taxes calculated according to the size of their dwelling. Hence, a large home would pay more tax than a small home, theoretically ensuring that city services are paid according to dwelling size. But, recently, some homeowners have discovered that they pay more than their equitable share since they are taxed also for undeveloped understories, even those with a sloped dirt base where one cannot walk upright due to insufficient ceiling height. The tax code defines dwelling as “designed for human occupancy”, so the non-conforming spaces should not be subject to the tax. Many of the basements in the city are, in fact, not taxed. A group of 11 Harmed Homeowners, most of them elderly and a third of them black, wrote a letter to the city on July 1 asking for relief from the unfair tax overages. 

An opposite problem has also developed through the years. Construction addition square footage is often not added to the database, leaving the schools, library, fire department and parks with less revenue than is available. A recent survey of over 500 such underassessed homes by the public outreach group Berkeley for Assessment Tax Equity,, reveals $2.85 Million in lost city revenues and $931,000 in lost county revenues for the last 10 years. So, why does the city continue to overcharge some instead of correcting inaccurate assessments? So far, because it can. But the movement to persuade the city to reform is gaining momentum. Here are people pushing for change: 

  • A widow in South Berkeley who pays an extra $1575/yr because of a calculation error
  • A family in South Berkeley who pays an additional $1361/yr for nonlivable space
  • A longtime renter who buys a retirement home and finds he pays $774/yr for a sloped dirt space
  • A partially sighted widower in South Berkeley who pays $1181/yr for an understory less than six feet high
  • A South Berkeley couple wanting to house a disabled relative, who pays $968/yr extra for a dirt understory, permissible only with a $100,000 house lift.
As folks in Berkeley discover they have been overpaying for years, they feel cheated. Larger, remodeled homes are paying fewer assessments than they do. Many taxpayers in this city with a generous voting base, fear the lopsided tax burden they bear each year contributes to their households’ economic fragility. 

In contrast, there are artificially fortunate homeowners made financially more secure by the same city department, paying no new taxes after building a permitted addition: 

  • A Northside family’s $53,000, permitted 500+ sq ft second story should have had additional taxes of $1300/yr
  • An owner of a 3500 sq ft fourplex pays taxes on only 2300 sq ft, saving $1200 a year
  • A Berkeley Hills owner of a 3300 sq ft home saves well over $3000 a year in taxes after a non-reassessed $100,000, 1500 sq ft addition
  • A North Berkeley homeowner paid for a $175,000 permitted basement-to living-space conversion of 1000 sq ft but pays no increase in county taxes, saving at least $2000/yr
  • The owner of a North Berkeley architectural gem with $100,000, 500+ sq ft ADU built in 2004 escaped reassessment, saving thousands in taxes
These lucky homeowners receive unlawful tax discounts every year, although these tax increases should be the requisite contribution to the community. So, when a retired dentist in Northside doesn’t pay taxes on a third-story permitted addition and a few councilmembers don’t pay tax on a basement conversion and a usable attic, a second story and a sunroom, City services suffer. Affluent homeowners, who can afford to add square footage to their homes, must not be subsidized by financially fragile and disadvantaged members of the Berkeley community who are tricked into paying for non-livable space. It is well past time that the Berkeley City Council corrects this problem: city auditors have asked for reform since November 1994, but the city continues to discard their ethics and perpetuate inequity in taxation. Now the people are asking for reform. 

Lilana Spindler is a Berkeley taxpayer, UCB Alumni ‘90 MCB, and currently is employed as an Elementary School Environmental Educator