Will 2021 Bring Property-Tax Relief?

In honor of Women's History Month, we are resharing a Viewpoint from veteran attorney Cynthia Fraser on how last year’s dramatic events are affecting asset values and property taxes.
Cynthia Fraser

Across America, 2020 transformed the urban core. Hotels sit vacant, deprived of business by travel that has been all but suspended. Restaurants under occupancy restrictions struggle to break even or have closed for good where winter weather precludes outdoor dining. In some locations, plywood sheets encase office and commercial buildings for protection against vandalism. In my own city of Portland, Ore., walking through parts of downtown is like walking through a ghost town of shuttered businesses that once teemed with commerce.

Suburban and rural properties have sustained similar impacts, while fires have ravaged many communities. With skyrocketing unemployment in many states, governments have set eviction moratoriums, and the number of tenants not paying rent continues to grow. Landlords may begin to file for bankruptcy protection in increasing numbers as their own bills—including property taxes—come due.

How long it takes for cities to bounce back from the events of 2020, and for property values to recover, will depend upon each community’s economic vibrancy. Because property tax is a state tax, any relief from this tax burden depends upon each state’s statutory date of value and whether its tax law contains a force majeure clause, which frees a party from a contract’s obligations when an unforeseen event prevents their performing its terms.

Matters of time

Most states value property as of Jan. 1 for taxes due later in the same year. Thus, in most jurisdictions a property’s taxable value for the recent tax year reflects what was known or could have been known about the property and market conditions as of Jan. 1, 2020.  

Lockdown for COVID-19 did not begin in most states until March 2020. The fires that devastated forests, agricultural land and communities across that nation took place over the summer and fall. No crystal ball predicted these events, nor the catastrophic fallout and snowballing impacts on property values.

Many contracts contain force majeure clauses. In most states, a force majeure law provides an adjustment to the market value for property taxes when there was a catastrophic event that destroyed or damaged property during the tax year. These statutes typically provide for an adjustment based on the event’s timing, and in most states recognizing force majeure, it is critical to appropriately report the property damages to receive this retrospective reduction in taxable property value.

Some states, including Oregon, have passed legislation extending the deadline to report property damage from fire that will allow for a reduced real market value for a portion of the tax year.

Force majeure laws do not typically recognize a decline in property value due to a pandemic or the economic effects of boarded-up city blocks. Any records tracking the decline of property values will help taxpayers address novel valuation issues for this coming tax cycle. The long-term effects of these economic forces will weigh on property values for years and to varying degrees.

Prepare to protest

Assessors will vigorously fight the taxpayer’s request for a reduction in taxable value when their coffers are already low due to the loss of other tax revenues. For apartment landlords, it will be important to track nonpaying tenants, particularly in the states and cities that have enacted laws preventing evictions for nonpayment of rents. Retail landlords should track local market conditions and news of business closures that result in stores and restaurants going vacant, as that information will be important in supporting tax appeals this coming year.

Perhaps the largest unknown in the market is what will happen to the office sector. Office workers the world over have adapted to remote working. Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Webex have replaced conferences and board meetings, client visits and even many court hearings. The need to live close to a downtown office, or even in the same city, has diminished. Businesses are rethinking the need to staff their offices full time, and workers may be reluctant to commute to an office when they can effectively do their job at home.

Multiple factors will shape the real market value of properties this coming year. In 2020, taxpayers may have struggled to pay or protested tax liabilities that were based on values and valuation dates which preceded the crises that were to come that year.

By contrast, the uncertainties of the pandemic and its economic fallout will be tied to what is known as of Jan. 1, 2021. Property values across the nation will surely be affected, and this time around, taxpayers will be able to appeal assessments that fail to reflect the detrimental effects that many of the past year’s events have inflicted upon their property’s market value. Be sure to have the facts, figures and experts to deliver this information lined up in order to achieve a successful property tax appeal.

Cynthia Fraser is an attorney specializing in property tax and condemnation litigation at Foster Garvey, the Oregon and Washington member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.