It was an essential promise of Proposition 13: People would be able to keep their homes, neighborhoods would be stable.
That promise played a role in the U.S. Supreme Court upholding Prop. 13 when it was challenged.
“Because the State has a legitimate interest in local neighborhood preservation, continuity, and stability,” wrote Justice Harry A. Blackmun in the 1992 opinion, “it legitimately can decide to structure its tax system to discourage rapid turnover in ownership of homes and businesses.”
Prop. 13, however, has not stopped gentrification and displacement in neighborhoods across the state.
Proposition 13 has helped keep Dorothy in her home since 1956. But in this neighborhood, she’s an exception. According to census data, only about 10 percent of residents moved into the area before or during the 1980s. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
It turns out that as prices soar, the tax benefits of Prop. 13 aren’t enough to stop owners from selling or renting their properties. As for stable property taxes: They offer no direct help to renters.
Which is not to say that there aren’t significant benefits for long-time homeowners.
Limited property tax increases have helped keep people like Dorothy in her three-bedroom, one-bath home in North Oakland.
Dorothy, whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy, says she bought her modest home back in 1956 for $10,000. Today it’s worth more than $500,000. According to county records, she pays less than $1,300 a year in property taxes. Someone buying that same home today would pay more than $5,000.
Dorothy says she’d struggle to pay more. So she’s appreciative of the low taxes.
“I’m good,” she says, “I’m still very blessed.”
“When I look at how some people had to sell to leave and go other places to live, I’m doing good to still be sitting here since 1956.”
Dorothy talks to us through her metal screen door; she says she wasn’t dressed for company. Another neighbor walks over. “I’m just checking on you,” he calls up.
Dorothy says her son is encouraging her to move someplace closer to him, someplace with cheaper housing.
She’s not ready to go.
“My church is right around the corner up there, and when I get ready to go to the beauty shop I walk down the street.”
Her neighbor, Donna, has lived on this block since 1989. She’s in her early 90s and equally rooted.
“More or less keeping on, keeping on, takes about all the energy I have really,” she laughs. “At my age, I wouldn’t dream of moving out, and I have no intention of living in an old person’s home, believe me.”
But the Dorothys and Donnas may well be the exception—the outliers a generation after Prop. 13 fundamentally changed California.
“In some cases it could help people hold on, dig in their heels,” says Dowell Myers, an urban planning professor at USC. “But against this tide of a [housing] shortage, you can’t stop change at all. It’s like a flood. It’ll overwhelm you eventually, it’ll break through your defenses.”