Opinion: Berkeley property owners should see if they are eligible for a tax refund

Berkeley sometimes assesses taxes on unfinished basements, which should not be taxed.

Berkeley’s taxes for libraries, parks, schools, paramedics, fire services, etc. are some of the highest in the region. This tax burden can be difficult for a variety of homeowners, and especially for fixed-income seniors.  Fortunately, it is possible to get a refund of some of the city taxes if you have an income of under $52,200.00 a year. A refund for schools’ taxes is available for income-qualified and people over age 65.

If you are not low-income and over 65 but have an inaccurate tax bill, you may also be entitled to a refund and correction.  Checking the city’s arithmetic can be a worthwhile effort.

Looking specifically at the Berkeley Public Library tax, we see how the burden between homeowners can vary.

One elderly homeowner on Parker Street with a 1,100-foot square home pays $511 in library tax.


Another home on Parker, twice the size at 2,200 square feet pays only $263 for the library tax.

These differential burdens reflect Berkeley’s haphazard practice of charging some homeowners more than the actual size of their dwelling unit. The same problem is seen with the billing of the schools’ taxes.

$1,195 in schools’ taxes must be paid by the homeowner with a dirt, unfinished basement that is taxed under their 1,000 square-foot home.

$712 in schools’ taxes for their next-door neighbor with a developed and livable, but untaxed, basement.

These discrepancies within Berkeley play out city-wide, even though the California Building Code requires basements to have flooring and to be 6’8” in height.  Basements are defined in Berkeley’s code as the lowest usable space of a building, and usable space is defined by finished walls or heat. To understand how the discrepancies originated, we can reminisce back to the 1980s when the city’s libraries were facing stiff budget cuts. The volunteers in the citizen’s budget advisory committee devised a dwelling square footage tax to give the libraries the funding they needed to avoid cuts in services. Put before the voters was this ask, “For all dwelling units, the tax shall be imposed at the rate of ($.0761) per square foot.” After it passed, the library volunteers pored over the city’s residential building records to tabulate the city’s dwelling square footage database. They had no appraising knowledge or assessment training to do this task.

Today, the library tax allots $20 million to the library, allowing for high-quality collections and programs. However, audits in past decades have pointed to failures in the billing of the library and other taxes.  For example, a 2005 city audit said:

“There is the likelihood that the taxable BSFT for some parcels might have been understated or overstated, resulting in improper assessments.”

Many problems still exist today, like one-story homes billed as two-story homes and two-story homes billed as one-story homes.  And there is that 24-unit apartment building billed as a 2,670 foot home!

Savvy homeowners can check if their home’s dwelling size matches their taxed square footage by looking at the list of city taxes on the right side of their tax bill. This year the library tax rate is $0.2272.  During the pandemic, one elderly homeowner in South Berkeley discovered that she was taxed for 4,250 square feet when her home was only about 2,000 square feet.  She applied to Berkeley for a refund and correction. Since all 11 of the city parcel taxes are based on dwelling size, the correction lessened her tax burden considerably!  The schools’ tax burden alone went from $2,649 to $1,874 per year for this elderly homeowner.

Multifamily owners have benefitted from reductions in these square footage taxes, like one council member who had success in his 2013 application to remove the taxes on the non-conforming basement on his rental property. That tax reduction became permanent.  Others have enjoyed similar reductions in dwelling taxes when they complained about taxed dirt-floored, low-ceilinged, or unfinished basement spaces. Recently, 11 homeowners have requested to receive the same type of correction the councilmember and others have been granted.  Some of those requests are still pending and some have been denied.

Seniors and/or low-income families who qualify should apply for a refund of the city’s Dwelling Square-footage Tax assessments.  Information and application forms can be found here on the city’s website. on the website.

We have challenged the city to make homeowners’ taxable square footage data public, which they have now done.

Through our research, hundreds of undercharged homes and multi-family properties have been identified. You can view this data comparison tableau to see all the residential properties in Berkeley. This year, the city has captured some escaped assessments on at least two of the previously undercharged homes our work has identified.  Overburdened, low-income homeowners, some paying tens of thousands of dollars for dirt space over the past decades, should be allowed equitable tax imposition and an appeal process accessible to every taxpayer.

I started Berkeley for Assessment Tax Equity as a public outreach group offering transparency about the city’s dwelling square footage taxes. If you think your dwelling square footage taxes may be incorrect, or if you need help applying for the Very Low Income Refund, we can help you figure it out.  Please get in touch if you need assistance.

Lilana Spindler is the founder of Berkeley for Assessment Tax Equity, a public outreach group offering transparency about the city’s dwelling square footage taxes.