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Real Estate Tax Break Program for Seniors Set to Change Next Year

(Updated at 1 p.m.) Some changes are on the way for Arlington’s real estate tax relief program for seniors, though officials declined pursue the sort of sweeping overhaul favored by some in the community.

The County Board approved a series of tweaks to the program’s eligibility criteria Saturday (July 14), in a bid to better realize the county’s goal of helping older Arlingtonians stay in their homes even as values, and associated tax bills, creep upward.

Starting next year, the program will be open to homeowners age 65 or older and people with disabilities, with an annual income of up to $99,472 and household assets — excluding the home itself — up to $400,000, a slight increase from the old $340,000 limit. The county is also now letting people apply for an exemption from 75 percent of their tax bill, when the program previously only let homeowners try for an exemption from their full bill, half of it or a quarter of it.

“This is important not just for a compassionate community, but a community that works,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey.

To make up for some of this expansion in eligibility, the newly revised program stipulates that the top earners eligible to apply for tax relief — households making anywhere from $80,000 to $99,472 per year — can only apply for deferrals on their tax bills, not exemptions. Yet even that change frustrated some in the county, who would’ve preferred to see the Board move to a deferral-only system instead.

“I absolutely cannot understand why we want to help out the heirs in Spokane of people who are receiving an exemption,” Dave Schutz, a local activist and ARLnow comment section veteran, told the Board.

Caitlin Hutchison, an assistant director in the county’s Department of Human Services, said staff and a working group convened on the issue considered such a policy change, but ultimately decided against it. She noted that the city of Hampton moved to a deferral-only system, only to change course after many homeowners with reverse mortgages “almost immediately received notice that foreclosure proceedings would initiate” when tax bills came due.

“I have no interest in protecting inheritances,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “I am concerned that folks can stay in their home without a notification of eviction or having to leave the county.”

Hutchison also noted that the program broadly does not serve the wealthiest Arlingtonians — 76 percent of households who applied for the program last year had an annual income of $60,000 or less, and total assets of $100,000 or less. Since the tax relief changes were first proposed, the Board also added new limits on the eligibility of owners of properties valued at $1 million or more.

But Kathryn Scruggs, a longtime affordable housing advocate and member of the working group discussing the issue, argued that the program needs an even more substantial makeover to serve solely homeowners with “low incomes, low asset levels and lower than average home values.”

“There is no justification for increasing the asset limit, that just diverts resources from the people who need it most,” Scruggs said.

The revised program is indeed likely to cost the county an extra $154,000 in tax revenue each year. But Hutchison argued that the asset limit changes will help homeowners keep pace with rising home values, and stay in the county longer.

The tweaks will also help Arlington keep pace with its neighbors, Hutchison said, as both Alexandria and Loudoun County have higher asset limits for similar programs.

And as the county struggles to manage a surge in its student population, Dorsey argued that it can only be a good thing for Arlington to keep older residents in their homes for as long as possible.

“Typically when seniors leave their homes, they’re not replaced by seniors,” Dorsey said. “The more we concentrate our housing stock on families with children, the more it creates pressures in other areas.”

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Morning Notes

Power Outage in Clarendon — A small power outage affected several businesses in Clarendon yesterday evening, including Arlington Independent Media and Galaxy Hut.

County to Expand Citizenship Aid — “Arlington government officials plan to expand a subsidy program that helps prospective U.S. citizens pay the costs associated with their efforts. County Board members on July 14 are expected to increase the subsidy amount and expand the ranks of those eligible to participate in the subsidy program, which is funded by private donations.” [InsideNova]

Local Couple Helps Seniors to Downsize — “Bill and Betty Ubbens, realtors with Weichert Realty and parishioners of St. Ann Church in Arlington, assist seniors with downsizing… The Ubbens have found the biggest resistance to decluttering is the ‘sheer amount of stuff to go through and the time to complete the inventory and planned disposition of the property.'” [Arlington Catholic Herald]

Arlington Man Wins Big in Poker Tourney — Arlington resident Yaser Al-Keliddar won more than $150,000 and a World Series of Poker bracelet in a $3,000 limit hold’em tournament in Las Vegas earlier this week. [World Series of Poker]

Monitor Broken at ‘Super Stop’ — As seems to happen every so often, the electronic display at the Walter Reed Drive “Super Stop” along Columbia Pike — also known as the “million dollar bus stop” — is broken. A sign on the monitor, which is supposed to show real-time bus arrival information, says a replacement is planned. [Twitter]

It’s Friday the 13th — Be careful out there. But then again, only 27.4 percent of you are superstitious.

Photo courtesy @thelastfc

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Real Estate Tax Break Program for Seniors Could See Eligibility Changes

Arlington officials are set to move ahead with changes to the county’s real estate tax relief program, a policy designed to help older Arlingtonians stay in their homes amid rising property values.

The program is currently open to homeowners age 65 or older and people with disabilities, with an annual income of up to $99,472 and household assets — excluding the home itself — up to $340,000.

But the County Board could agree to advertise changes today (Tuesday) that would bump up the total asset limit and change how the county awards tax exemptions by income level.

“This is really for folks who tend to be on limited or restricted income, where their homes have appreciated in value to the point where it makes it hard to stay in that home,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “This is not a sweeping overhaul of the program… it’s about efficacy, making sure the program reaches the people who qualify for it.”

The proposed policy changes would increase the asset limit to $400,000 to account for rising home values, and allow the county to adjust that amount annually as property values and the area’s median income level changes.

The Board is also considering allowing people apply for an exemption from 75 percent of their total tax bill, based on their income level — previously, the county only offered a full exemption, relief from half of the tax bill or relief from a quarter of the bill.

For the very top earners allowed to apply for tax relief — households making anywhere from $80,000 to $99,472 per year — the policy change would restrict them to only applying for a deferral from the taxes, not a full exemption. Previously, the policy allowed households making that much to apply for 25 percent or 50 percent exemption, but only if at least four people lived in the home in question.

County staff estimate that about 90 of the 915 households who apply for the program could lose their exemptions under that change, but they expect many would still receive a deferral instead.

Cristol notes that this proposal is the result of roughly two years of effort by a working group convened by the Board to study the issue. She doesn’t expect that the changes will result in some sort of major fiscal impact to the county — staff wrote in a Board report that Arlington will lose about $154,000 in annual revenue under these proposed changes — but merely better target the program at reaching people who need it.

“The goal is to tighten it and make it more effective as a program, not lower obstacles for participation,” Cristol said. “This is not a large scale policy change.”

According to a report prepared by county staff for the Board, 76 percent of households who applied for the program last year had an annual income of $60,000 or less, and total assets of $100,000 or less.

Should the Board approve the request to advertise item on its agenda today, the county would hold a public hearing at the Board’s July 14 meeting.

Photo via Arlington County

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Arlington’s Lone Social Security Office Set to Close on June 22

The lone Social Security Administration field office in Arlington is officially set to close its doors two weeks from now, as county leaders continue to press for answers on why the location is shutting down.

The SSA announced in a news release Wednesday (June 6) that the office, located at 1401 Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn, will close on June 22. That will force the roughly 25,000 Arlington residents who visit the office each year to leave the county to receive an in-person consultation on their benefits.

In its release, the SSA suggested that Arlingtonians will be able to visit the administration’s offices in Alexandria, Fairfax or D.C. instead, or even use the SSA’s online services. Yet, ever since news of the office’s closure became public last month, advocates for seniors and local elected officials have argued that Social Security recipients often lack the transportation options and technical savvy to make those alternatives viable.

“This field office is conveniently located for our older and disabled Arlington constituents who trust and rely on the direct assistance provided at this location and may lack close access to transportation, or wish to discuss their affairs in-person rather than over the internet,” U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote in a May 21 letter to the SSA’s acting inspector general. “At a time when our nation’s population of seniors is growing, it would be imprudent to reduce access to services seniors need and demand.”

The SSA claims, however, that its “expiring lease” at the Rosslyn building is forcing it to close the office. That argument doesn’t hold much water with Arlington leaders, who have long lamented that Rosslyn boasts an office vacancy rate of more than 20 percent.

“Given the vacancy rate within Arlington County and the likely continued availability of existing space, office space availability is not an issue,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) wrote in a May 1 letter to the administration’s inspector general.

Beyer also noted in his letter that the county has “made an overture to assist with finding a suitable space” for a new office in Arlington — a county spokeswoman confirmed that County Manager Mark Schwartz made such an offer. An SSA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on what discussions the agency has had, if any, with Arlington officials about staying in the area.

Kaine and Warner added in their note that county leaders have even floated the possibility that “it may be possible to extend the field office’s current lease because redevelopment of the Wilson Boulevard location is unlikely to occur for several years.” The County Board approved a full redevelopment of the block — also the location of the famed “Deep Throat” parking garage where Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met with a source to help break open the Watergate scandal — back in 2014, but demolition work still has yet to start in the area.

Accordingly, Beyer, Kaine and Warner all demanded an investigation into how the SSA ultimately decided to close the office, and the administration’s inspector general agreed to order a review of the matter on May 21.

“The Social Security Administration should postpone the closure of its Arlington office while this review goes forward,” Beyer wrote in a statement. “It would be inappropriate for the office to be closed before the effects on the community are assessed. I thank the Acting Inspector General for undertaking this review, and look forward to its conclusions.”

The SSA office closure in Arlington is hardly an isolated decision, however. The administration has closed 125 of its roughly 1,250 offices since 2000, according to the advocacy group Social Security Works.

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Civic Groups Plan Meeting on Potential Cherrydale Senior Living Center

A new senior living center could be coming to Cherrydale on a property along Lee Highway.

McLean-based Artis Senior Living is considering building a new facility on the north side of Lee Highway near the intersection with N. Taylor Street. Representatives intend to bring some development ideas to an April 26 community meeting convened by several civic associations.

The Lee Highway Alliance will play host to that gathering at its headquarters (4620 Lee Highway) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (April 26), and the Cherrydale and Waverly Hills Civic Associations will help coordinate the discussion.

Sandra Chesrown, president of the Lee Highway Alliance and vice president of the Waverly Hills Civic Association, says Artis has yet to divulge many details of what the new facility might look like so it can first hear the community’s concerns.

Indeed, county real estate records show that Artis, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has yet to even buy the 2.7-acre property.

A message sent out on the Cherrydale Civic Association listserv suggested that Artis is considering a “seven-story, 184-room assisted living residence” on the property.

“The facility would allow Cherrydalers and their family members to age right in our neighborhood,” the message read. “It would have a sizable workforce. There might be some issues with parking. We certainly want it to be welcome addition to the neighborhood.”

Made up of five separate parcels of land along the 4300 block of Lee Highway, the property was owned for decades by Louis Courembis, records show. Courembis transferred those parcels to William Murray, a local estate attorney, in September 2015, and the county hasn’t recorded any other sale of the land. Murray did not respond to a request for comment.

The property is currently home to a single-family house and several other structures. All of the land is valued quite highly — county assessments pegged one parcel as worth nearly $3.5 million in 2018, while the other four are assessed from $687,000 to $880,000.

Photo via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

More on Art Truck — Arlington’s new art truck will bring “hands-on experiences to schools and public events.” The art truck’s offerings are curated by Cynthia Connolly, who was involved in Arlington’s punk music scene in the 80s and 90s. There is no direct cost to county taxpayers, since the art truck is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and other contributions. [WTOP, Twitter]

Pitch, Hit, Run Event in Arlington — Boys and girls ages 7-14 can participate in the Scotts MLB Pitch Hit & Run skills challenge at Barcroft Park Friday night. There is no registration fee and the first place overall champion in each age group will advance to the next round of competition. [Eventbrite]

Renovations at Culpepper Garden — A major renovation project will soon be getting underway at Culpepper Garden, a retirement home for low and very-low income seniors age 62 years and older. Built in the 70s, Culpepper Garden is undergoing renovations of its 204 original apartments and some of the building’s amenities. [Connection Newspapers]

Photo courtesy of our local tech guru, Alex Chamandy

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Morning Notes

Local Senior Completes Alcatraz Swim — Arlington resident Mary Schade, 71, completed the 1.5-mile Alcatraz Escape from the Rock swim in San Francisco, placing first in her age group. She was the second-oldest swimmer in the race, which featured choppy, 59-degree water and a stiff wind. [InsideNova]

Arlington History Books — “Our Man in Arlington” Charlie Clark has found a number of “out-of-the-mainstream histories of our fair county,” including one book, first published in 1957, that “summarizes two centuries of legal boundary changes” involving Arlington County or its geographic predecessors. [Falls Church News-Press]

Shirlington Apartment Building Bought, Rebranded — Waterton, a real estate investment firm, has acquired the 404-unit Windsor at Shirlington Village apartment complex and rebranded it as “The Citizen at Shirlington Village.” The purchase price for the apartment building at 3000 S. Randolph Street was a reported $144 million. The new Chicago-based owners plan to upgrade the apartment units, outdoor spaces and the fitness center. [Washington Business Journal, BusinessWire]

Teachers Explore New Commuting Options — With the encouragement of Arlington Public Schools, some teachers are switching from a solo driving commute to carpooling or biking, as seen in a new video from Arlington County’s Mobility Lab. [YouTube, Mobility Lab]

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Morning Notes

Equinox Gym Coming to Clarendon — “Clarendon is getting an Equinox health club — just the third standalone location of the gym in the D.C. area. The high-end fitness facility will be part of the Market Common development in the Arlington neighborhood, according to two real estate broker sources familiar with the deal.” [Washington Business Journal]

Local Seniors Have Millennial Transit Traits — “Arlington seniors are fairly tech savvy. They are generally comfortable with transportation tasks such as searching options online to using apps on their smartphones. They generally have a young frame of mind and are open to considering new ways of doing things (including trying various modes of transportation) and the latest technology.” [Mobility Lab]

History of Local Newspapers — Arlington, Alexandria and D.C. have a rich history of local newspapers, with one currently-published paper tracing its roots back to 1800. [Falls Church News-Press]

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Police Looking for Missing Senior

Update at 11:20 p.m. — The missing woman was found safely earlier this evening.

Arlington County Police are asking for the public’s help in finding a missing 77-year-old woman last seen in Pentagon City.

Police say Dorothy Getsey was last seen around noon today at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City mall. She was there on a group bus trip of Vietnam War veterans, according to scanner traffic.

“She was wearing all black clothing, a gray cross-body purse and has long gray hair,” police said in a press release. “Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Ms. Getsey is asked to call the Emergency Communication Center at 703-558-2222.”

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Aurora Hills Community Center To Reopen Monday Following Renovations

After a four-month project to refresh its inside, the Aurora Hills Community and Senior Center is set to reopen Monday.

The center at 735 18th Street S. near Pentagon City will be open once again on May 15 for senior activities and community events, including meetings of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association.

At an open house Thursday, community members could take a look around the revamped space. The main meeting room has had a new floor and ceiling installed and new audio-visual equipment added as well as some extra storage.

A breakout room to host fitness classes and other smaller activities has had similar treatment, while the center’s kitchen has new appliances and the front desk has been moved.

During the temporary closure, senior programs relocated to the Gunston Community Center.

The project is part of a $555,000 rehab of the community center and adjoining library, approved last year by the County Board.

The library’s renovations have already been completed. A report by county staff, presented to the County Board as it was considering the upgrades, hinted that the entire building eventually may be torn down to make way for a new elementary school.

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Morning Notes

Sofar Sounds music performance by Chris Scholar in Crystal City 3/21/17

Metro PD Searching for Sexual Battery Suspect — Metro Transit Police are trying to identify a man who may have touched another rider inappropriately on an Orange Line train near the Clarendon station last week. [NBC Washington]

Local Tax Relief for Seniors — Last year 929 Arlington residents took advantage of the county’s real estate tax relief program for seniors, together saving $4.1 million in taxes. [Falls Church News-Press]

County Honors Transportation ‘Champions’ — “The Arlington County Board today honored 22 businesses as Platinum Level Champions for their commitment to operating and enhancing sustainable transportation programs for employees and tenants.” [Arlington County]

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Board to Consider Upgrades to Aurora Hills Library, Community Center

The Arlington County Board is expected to approve $555,000 in interior upgrades to the Aurora Hills Community Center and Library at its meeting this weekend.

The low-slung building, located at 735 18th Street S., near Pentagon City, houses both a library and a senior center. In explaining the need for upgrades, county staff said the center is “an aging facility.”

“The proposed renovation includes demolition of existing and construction of new office, storage rooms, kitchen, new ADA bathrooms, receptionist desk, circulation desk, new floor finishes, additional electrical and mechanical system upgrade,” county staff wrote. “The work will also include the restoration or repair of ceilings and walls in areas that are impacted by this interior renovation.”

Some programs at Aurora Hills will be moved to the Gunston Community Center during construction. The renovations were originally set to take place a bit later than currently scheduled, but were “accelerated” by the County Board, staff say.

The county staff report hints that the Aurora Hills center may eventually be torn down to make way for a new elementary school.

“The site was also identified during the Arlington Public Schools’ South Arlington Working Group process as a possible site for redevelopment in conjunction with Schools;” says the report. “The proposed improvements will provide operational and program value for a number of years until such time that the County and Schools choose to pursue a redevelopment.”

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Group to Consider Changes to County’s Tax Relief Program for Seniors

For sale signIn 2015, 940 Arlington households took advantage of a tax relief program for seniors, thus avoiding $4.2 million in real estate taxes.

A new working group appointed by the County Manager will be conducting a “comprehensive review” of that program.

The program is currently offered to homeowners age 65 or older, with an annual income of up to $99,472 and household assets (excluding the home itself) up to $340,000. Depending on the income level and assets, the homeowners may qualify for a full or partial exemption. A deferral of taxes until the home changes ownership is available for any portion that’s not exempt.

The County Board included funds in the latest county budget for a review of the program.

“In conducting research for the [Affordable Housing Master Plan], the County found that many low-income senior households on fixed incomes face financial stress related to increasing condominium fee and real estate tax burdens,” said the new Real Estate Tax Relief Working Group charge. “The AHMP’s accompanying Implementation Framework included a recommendation to review the goals and guidelines of the RETR Program, and to consider redefinition of income levels, asset levels, and criteria for exemptions and deferrals.”

In the recent Arlington County Board primary, Board Chair Libby Garvey was criticized by Democratic challenger Erik Gutshall for supposedly “threatening the ability of our most vulnerable seniors to live in Arlington.”

Garvey explained that she wants to lower the eligibility barriers for the tax deferral program. She hinted, however, that the full tax exemption might be under additional scrutiny, as it can “provide quite a windfall” to a homeowner’s heirs once the home is sold.

The working group is tasked with presenting its final recommendations this winter, ahead of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget process.

The full county press release, after the jump.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz reported today to the County Board on the official charge for a Real Estate Tax Relief Working Group that will perform a comprehensive review of the County’s program.

“We all acknowledge that Arlington’s rising property values and related increase in the property tax burden is sometimes difficult for seniors on a fixed-income to deal with,” Schwartz said. “This working group will be taking a hard look at our current program and present recommendations early next year on what, if any, changes should be made to better achieve our goal of supporting residents, where we can, who wish to age in place.”

The working group, which will be appointed by the County Manager this month and report to him on its findings, is charged with:

  • Researching and reviewing best practices across the nation related to real estate tax relief.
    Engaging and informing the community and relevant stakeholders of the group’s ongoing efforts and discussions.
  • Determining if there may be Arlingtonians who qualify for real estate tax relief but are not currently participating in the program, and providing recommendations for what could be done differently to effectively reach these residents.
  • Collaborating with a consultant to conduct surveys and/or focus groups to gauge the program’s historical success in reaching eligible Arlingtonians and enabling these residents to stay in their homes, and to ascertain what changes (if any) would allow the program to better address elderly and disabled Arlingtonians’ needs.
  • Using identified best practices and survey/focus group results to inform an analysis of the current program’s approach to enabling elderly and disabled Arlingtonians to stay in their homes.
  • Providing recommendations on how to best structure and administer the program in Arlington moving forward.

Read the charge to the working group, which includes timeline and proposed members.

In Fiscal Year 2015, 911 households received a full or partial exemption and 29 households received only deferrals, resulting in a combined $4.2 million in uncollected revenue.

The County reviews criteria for the Tax Relief Program annually as part of the County budget process. The working group will conduct a broader review involving the community. One of the key recommendations of the Affordable Housing Master Plan adopted by the County Board in September 2015 was to review the goals and guidelines of the program, and to consider redefinition of income levels, asset levels and criteria for exemptions and deferrals.

Virginia localities are authorized to provide real estate tax relief to homeowners aged 65 or over, as well as to permanently disabled homeowners.

  • The current Arlington County Tax Relief Program provides an exemption or deferral from real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners whose annual household income is below $99,472, and whose household assets (excluding the value of their Arlington home) are below $340,000.
  • A household may receive a full, 50 percent or 25 percent exemption depending on income, assets and household size. For households receiving a partial exemption, the non-exempt portion of the tax may be deferred.
  • Homeowners within the income guidelines who have assets over $340,000 but below $540,000 may defer payment of their real estate taxes until their property changes ownership.
  • No interest or penalty fees are charged.

The County Manager will appoint a limited-term advisory body, the Real Estate Tax Relief Working Group, which will consist of a chair and vice-chair, along with members representing the following:

  • Commission on Aging
  • Disability Advisory Commission
  • Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission
  • Housing Commission
  • Member(s)-at-large
  • Real Estate Tax Relief Program participant(s)

The working group will produce a final report on its key findings in early 2017. The report could include recommendations for eligibility, structural, administrative and other changes to the existing program.

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Arlington Named ‘Best City To Retire’

Aerial view of apartment buildings in Courthouse (Flickr pool photo by Alex Erkiletian)Arlington County continues to receive accolades. It has just been named the ‘best city to retire,’ according to a new report by Bankrate.com.

The report used eight categories to rank 196 cities, including cost of living, crime rate, walkability, wellbeing, taxes, health care, weather and culture.

Arlington was ranked highly in most of the categories, with low crime and tax rates complementing “great” ratings in walkability, culture, healthcare and well-being.

Arlington’s main drawback was the high cost of living. Another negative: the weather only receiving an “average” rating.

“We found that smaller cities and suburbs fared the best,” said Bankrate.com analyst Jill Cornfield. “Most seniors prefer to live in these types of communities because they offer access to big-city amenities without as much hustle, bustle and crime.”

Four of the top 10 cities on the list are located in the D.C. area with Alexandria, Silver Spring and Rockville all receiving high marks as well.

The top 10 cities in Bankrate.com’s rankings are:

  1. Arlington, VA
  2. Alexandria, VA
  3. Franklin, TN
  4. Silver Spring, MD
  5. West Des Moines, IA
  6. Nashville, TN
  7. Sarasota, FL
  8. Rockville, MD
  9. Des Moines, IA
  10. Murfreesboro, TN

Flickr pool photo by Alex Erkiletian

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Dr. Ruth to Speak at Ballston Common Mall

Dr. Ruth Westheimer (courtesy photo)Famed octogenarian sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer is slated to speak at an event in Ballston next month.

Dr. Ruth has been added to the agenda of the Beacon 50+ Expo, to be held on the third level of Ballston Common Mall from noon to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 26. The 86-year-old will be talking about and autographing her latest book.

The free event will also feature “expert speakers, health screenings, informative resources, technology education and entertainment for older adults and their families,” according to a press release.

More than 100 exhibitors are expected to be on hand, and “giveaways and doors prizes will be plentiful.” The keynote speaker at the event is Dr. Robert Fischell, inventor of the rechargeable pacemaker, the implantable insulin pump, and dozens of other “life-changing medical devices.”

Another 50+ Expo will be held in Maryland — at the Silver Spring Civic Center on Sunday, Oct. 19.

Courtesy photo

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