By Don MacGillivray

 

True success through public advocacy in state and local state legislation is often difficult. Fortunately reversing the changes made by the 2011 state legislature to the Senior Property Tax Deferral Program (SPTD) was successful.

In that year, the state required everyone in the SPTD program to reapply and this reduced the number of senior citizens on the program by 40 percent. Those that had reverse mortgages would no longer qualify for the property tax deferral.

This was a tragedy for many of these seniors on low and fixed incomes as they would lose their homes.

There were good reasons for the state to take this action. It would reduce the SPTD program budget which then would be added to the general fund. It would reduce an expanding program due to the housing downturn.

It was thought that it would eliminate those that were taking unfair advantage of the SPTD program. Many low income seniors need both a reverse mortgage and the property tax deferral for them to stay in their homes.

Under the STPD program, the state lends money to eligible low-income homeowners to pay their property taxes, and the loans are repaid when the homes are sold or the owners pass away.

These changes to the SPTD program resulted in a flood of phone calls and media concern to legislators, state staff, county property tax officials and various bank officials to learn the effects of these actions. Legislative leaders seem unfazed until an organized effort developed.

All this came to the attention of the Impact NW Senior Advisory Commission. One of the members was losing her home and another was willing and able to organize the senior advocacy group called the, “Alliance of Vulnerable Homeowners”.

A coalition of senior organizations weighed in to help including Elders in Action, Oregon Homeowners United, Oregon State Council of Retired Citizens, Impact Northwest, United Seniors of Oregon, the American Association of Retired People of Oregon, the Oregon Association of Area Agencies on Aging and Disabilities (O4AD), the Oregon Housing Alliance, Economic Fairness of Oregon, and the Oregon Advocacy Coalition for Seniors and Persons with Disabilities.

It was not long before two public hearings were scheduled in Salem to review the situation. Acceptance that the state had done something wrong was slow to register especially with the Joint Revenue Committee, but several individual legislators were listening since this affected people all across the state and many political leaders at all levels of government soon knew there was a problem.

With the interim legislative session set to begin in February 2012, a bill (HB 4039) was quickly prepared to give a two-year reprieve to many participants. More public hearings were held before the House Revenue Committee.

The eloquence of the speakers impacted by their losses and the intransigence of the state made a great impact on the committee members and the public. With much effort, the bill passed and was signed into law, but there was much to be done in the 2013 legislative session.

The groups and individuals involved were meeting to discuss how to proceed. Several public meetings of affected seniors were held in Portland with key legislators so they could hear the complaints and dissatisfaction in person.

The advocates for SPTD greatly appreciate the help of Representative Vega Pederson, Representative. Alissa Keny-Guyer, Representative Ben Unger, Representative Phil Barnhart, Representative Vicki Berger, Representative Michael Dembrow, Senator Betsy Johnson, Senator Ginny Burdick, and Senator Jackie Dingfelder.

As the 2013 legislative session approached, bills were drafted to ameliorate much of the problematic legislation as possible while keeping some of the original ideas. Again, hearings, contacts with legislators, and using the assistance of the many seniors’ organizations helped make the facts known and changed many of the attitudes in Salem.

During the senior lobby day in April 2013, over a dozen folks went down to talk with senators and representatives directly about the situation. Efforts were assisted by researchers from Oregon State University that had studied the issue and reported the SPTD program was very important for senior homeowners living on less that $15,000 per year.

In mid-session, House Bill 2489 passed and at the end of the session House Bill 2510 also passed. Both were signed into law by Governor Kitzhaber. This kept the majority of seniors, about 2,200, in the SPTD program.