Saturday, June 02, 2012

A Tax Refugee's Farewell To New England

It's official: my partner got and accepted a job offer, we're leaving Connecticut, and erelong I'll be a Virginian again. Northern Virginia, this time; same high cost of living as the northeast, plus only THRICE the humidity! I expect my blog updates will be sporadic in the near future; right this second, I do not even know the answer to the question "What will my mailing address be, one month from today?"

Of course I'm happy and excited about the upcoming move: new things to see, new people to meet, and my chance of finding a good professional job in my field will surely be higher in northern Virginia than it is in central Connecticut.

But I'm heartbroken all the same, and already homesick though I have yet to leave. In terms of climate and geography, New England is my absolute favorite part of the country. I love sleeping beneath a blanket next to an open window in July. I openly gloated three years ago, when the Southland sweltered under 90-degree temperatures while I wore a jacket the first weeks of summer, to fight off the light chill of daytime temperatures in the low 60s.

Virginians, by contrast, will never need jackets in July unless they're living through some post-apocalyptic catastrophe scenario wherein the Yellowstone supervolcanic eruption or a massive thermonuclear exchange plunges the entire world into artificial winter. Which would be a bad thing, and I cannot in good conscience wish for it, so I'd best re-acclimate myself to eight months of sweaty summer out of every twelve (sigh).

I also like the fact that Connecticut, and the northeast in general, rank among the more socially liberal parts of the US. Connecticut wasn't the first state to allow civil unions -- but it was the first state to allow them because the legislature voted in favor of it and the governor signed it into law, rather than to comply with a court order. Even our Republicans tend to be moderates, unlikely to say "I believe in small government and personal liberty" in one breath and then add "unless it's in the Bible or between a woman's legs" in the next. (Connecticut Democrats and Republicans do tend to stink regarding the TSA and the war on drugs, of course, but that's true of Dems and Reps throughout the country, blue state and red state alike.)

So why am I leaving Connecticut in favor of a state whose political and geographical climates I find inferior in every way? Because "money." Specifically, taxes. I love Connecticut but I hate being poor, and this state's tax policy ensures only the rich can afford a middle-class existence.

I still recall the disbelieving horror I felt back in 2008, when I was a staff writer for an alt-weekly and did a story about property taxes in the city of West Hartford: An old man lived in the 1950s Cape Cod house he'd inherited from his parents. In 2007, his annual property tax bill was around $8,000, but after the citywide real estate revaluation the following year, his property tax bill nearly doubled, to just over $15,500.

What's the point in saving up to buy and pay for a house, if you still have to pay almost sixteen grand a year in "rent" to avoid homelessness? And that outrageous tax bill was four years ago, and the city has raised its property taxes higher than inflation every year since then -- Zod only knows what the bill is this year.

I once calculated that -- bearing in mind my landlord charges us below-market rent, because we're good tenants who've lived here for eight years -- if he converted our building to condos and gave us our place as a gift, the higher property taxes resulting from the switch to individual ownership would probably force us to reject the offer. Between property taxes, owner's insurance and our newfound responsibility for maintenance costs, we couldn't afford our apartment if we owned it outright,  because the property taxes alone would almost equal our current rent.

Granted, Virginia has a reputation as a high-tax state, by southern standards. It's the only state in the region to charge property tax on cars -- just as Connecticut does. But I'll tell you this: a few months ago I was feeling nostalgic, and Googled the name of an old lady I used to know. She lives in Virginia, in a small suburban city roughly equivalent to West Hartford (in the sense of being more upper-middle than middle-class, smaller and wealthier than the cities bordering it). 

Her city puts its property tax rolls online; in 2010 her house was valued at a half-million dollars. It's a larger, newer, generally better house than that 1950s Cape Cod in West Hartford, in a more-or-less equivalent neighborhood ... and her property tax bill was $2,500. For the entire year. A more expensive than average house, in a more expensive than average city, in a state reputed to charge more expensive than average tax rates -- yet her tax bill is still only a tiny fraction of what it would be here.

THAT is why I'm leaving Connecticut. I understand that, for as long as I live, I'll have to shell out money every month to avoid being homeless. Right now I pay that money to a landlord. If I had a mortgage, I'd pay that money to a bank. If I paid off the house completely, I'll still owe rent to the property tax collector. But I could manage $2,500 a year or less in anti-homeless bribes to the city government. I can't afford $8,000 to $16,000 a year for the same privilege, though, especially not when that rises higher than inflation every year.

There exists in America a contingent of people who believe that anyone who complains about high taxes is a rich, evil Scrooge-type who'd sooner see poor kids starve than pay an extra one percent sales tax on his yacht. Doubtless some anti-tax folks are rich evil selfish Scrooge-types who think just that. 

Not me, though. My anti-tax complaints aren't motivated by "hatred of the poor," but "hatred of the policies that keep me poor."
Still: A tiny, mean-spirited, schadenfreudy part of me thinks it'll serve Connecticut right, if my soon-to-be-vacant apartment is rented by the never-employed, never-married single mother of a half-dozen special needs children. ("Special needs" here to include "I need free breakfast because mom couldn't give me any, because she spent the grocery money on sexy lingerie to entice the daddy of child number seven.") Tax codes suggest that the state of Connecticut and all municipalities therein utterly loathe double-income no-kids households like mine, and lash out at anyone who deigns try to save money and build up assets over time; maybe they'll find happiness with my polar opposite instead.


Anonymous Robert Hewes said...

I left Bristol CT almost a year ago, and moved down to Florida. It's so frikkin' freeing. Not only do I not pay ridiculous property taxes on my house, my car, my dogs, and my ukelele, I also don't have to pay state income tax. And even the sales tax down here is lower than CT. I sure can't blame you for the move -- and living in the biggest and richest MSA in the country should certainly open up your career prospects.

So congratulations to your partner on the promotion, and congrats to both of you on the move!

1:52 PM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

Don't forget that besides property taxes there are also homeowner's association dues to pay in most suburbs and exurbs these days.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

Only if you buy in an HOA, Smartass. No way will I do that. I'd sooner live out in the sticks and commute, or better yet keep renting.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading your blog chronologically backwards here... didn't you end up with a HOA anyhow? Couldn't you find a place without? And how much more are you paying in fees to make up with those savings on the property tax?

Just wondering...

5:43 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

I didn't buy a place with an HOA; I'm just renting.

8:40 PM  

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