I’ve never really felt the Bern – in fact, I’m starting to resent the Bern lately – but the presidential candidate from Vermont isn’t wrong about the tenderness with which we minister to the 1 percent, even in this bluest of states.
The rich are different, even if you put them in trailers. Take the tax loophole for mobile home “mansions” that the Los Angeles County assessor would like to send on its merry way.
Start with a mobile home built before 1980. Rent a space or two for it in a mobile home park, say, along California’s spectacular coastline, steps from the sand, bluff-top panoramas.
Now demolish it down to the chassis, with just enough material attached to the wheels to qualify it, very technically, as the essence of a structure that theoretically could be hauled away if you ever wanted to leave, which, not being insane, you wouldn’t.
Dig a hole around the whole mess, put in a permanent foundation and construct a gorgeous, 3-bedroom residence around this “vehicle” – big deck, tile roof, gourmet kitchen, chandeliers, walk-in closets, landscaping. Voila! You now have a fabulous instant beach house that, under California tax law, is technically a rickety old trailer with some personal property around it.
And while your beachfront neighbors in Malibu or Santa Cruz or Ventura County pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in property tax for their views, your fellow taxpayers can go pound sand if they want a similar cut from you, because you’re living in your “vehicle,” legally speaking.
Your tax bill? Maybe a couple hundred bucks in personal property tax on your new decking and lean-to, plus $20 or so in lieu of your vehicle license tax. Your bargain? Priceless.
“This is like if you took a kid’s Red Flyer wagon and stuck it under your crawlspace and said your house was a wagon,” Los Angeles County Assessor Jeffrey Prang told me.
Bogus, in other words.
There aren’t an enormous number of these properties. The state Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees mobile home parks, estimates that a couple thousand at most are scattered up and down the coast.
But there are enough to be annoying, and it’s not a new problem. As far back as 2002, “mobile mansions,” as Prang has dubbed them, were flummoxing the Santa Cruz county assessor and turning up in home design articles out of Ojai.
So for a year or so now, Prang has been trying to get them into a tax classification that would allow his county, where at least a couple hundred of these properties grace Malibu-area mobile home parks, to collect its fair share of taxes on them. The remodels, he notes, often run to $500,000 and upwards, and sell for millions of dollars – not a lot, given the 1 percent or so personal property tax rate, but not nothing, either. Plus, there’s the perception that slumming haves are getting over on nearby have-nots.
“This is not a huge impact,” Prang admits. “But it’s glaring and it’s obvious.”
Last year, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, introduced legislation, sponsored by Prang’s office. Senate Bill 434 would close the property assessment loophole for old mobile homes that have been renovated, upgraded and ensconced on the land beneath them to the point that, as homes, they’re essentially neither old nor mobile anymore.
The bill sailed through the Senate last June without serious objection. But since then, it has been stalled in the Assembly.
Part of the hang-up, according to all involved parties, appears to be that, while these remodels may look exactly like houses – and the ones in Malibu are definitely swanky – looks can be deceiving. The Housing and Community Development views the construction as technically no different than what you’d find on any trailer with, say, a porch and a carport. Even a mobile home that, to be moved, would have to be torn from its $500,000 foundation and luxury add-ons is still mobile, by the state’s definition.
County assessors can already tax the personal property around a mobile home’s original footprint. But Prang points out that that original square footage is usually a big chunk of the structure. And, he notes, a lot of these buildings are clearly not mobile, but until his inspectors have the clear right to check out every beam and strut in every remodel, owners of these tricked-out beach trailers will keep pretending that they can actually, if improbably, be driven away.
Prang was in Sacramento this week with other state assessors urging lawmakers to address this issue. As a 99 percenter paying my own property taxes, I wish they would find a solution that works.
It may fall short of the fix that is truly needed – the real windfall is going to the corporate owners of these beachfront trailer parks, whose taxes under Proposition 13 have been kept in the bargain basement for decades. And care would have to be taken to ensure that the far less wealthy majority of mobile home dwellers isn’t inadvertently punished.
But we can’t afford this ongoing sense that, even in the little things, the rich are gaming the system. We don’t need Bernie Sanders to tell us that if the poor can’t win even in trailer parks, something is wrong here. Close the loophole, people. Heal the Bern.