Senior tax deferment program

Women hug at the Claire Teague Senior Center in Great Barrington in 2018. The town is considering a pilot program that would allow seniors to defer property tax payments until their home sells.

Amid COVID’s dark clouds, one silver lining for the Berkshires has been the early signs of much-needed growth for the region. The Eagle editorial board has suggested steps local and regional leaders should take to make the most of this trend. But Berkshire communities must also take care to ensure its most vulnerable residents aren’t squeezed out if and when this potential boom materializes.

With this in mind, Great Barrington is weighing a senior tax deferral program as home values in the town continue to rise, after the plan’s proponents pitched a five-year pilot to the Select Board. Great Barrington leaders should strongly consider it, and their counterparts in other communities should follow suit and begin to think about not just taking advantage of fluctuating housing markets but insulating those residents who disproportionately face the downsides of such trends.

It can be a great thing to see your house’s value appreciate before your eyes — unless you’re a senior living on a fixed income who must keep up with the increase in property taxes. What’s happening in the market now — a largely positive development for the region — is going to lead to higher tax bills for most homeowners, including many who are least able to afford the hike. The downside of significant regional growth is that folks like this are at best put in a more precarious position and at worst priced out of their own homes. Proposition 21/2 puts levy limits on how much local governments can raise property taxes in a given year, but valuation increases are not limited — meaning revaluation could still up tax bills dramatically for some homeowners.

As communities prepare to take advantage of these growth trends, they should also mitigate the added burden on those who might otherwise be forced out of the neighborhoods they call home.

The Great Barrington proposal would attempt to do that by allowing elderly homeowners to defer property tax payments until their house is sold.

The plan’s backers looked at some of the more than 100 Massachusetts towns that already have such a program, such as Newton and Sudbury, noting that deferred taxes and interest are paid in about six years on average.

It’s an approach supported by several elder advocacy groups, including the Massachusetts Council on Aging and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, though the latter suggests that the state create a pilot revolving loan fund to study the economics, since implementation could increase state debt, though it’s not clear that the take-up rate among seniors would be high enough to do so. Pending legislation on Beacon Hill would explore this, and lawmakers should seriously consider such a measure to help municipalities support constituents on a fixed income while the parts of Massachusetts that desperately need a growth spurt hopefully see one.

These trends carry great potential for a region that badly needs rejuvenation. But it shouldn’t come on the backs of our most vulnerable neighbors, like the retiree or widow who might struggle with an increased cost of living.

Municipalities must do their best to protect them amid inevitable growing pains. A tax deferral program for seniors could be a good place to start.