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‘Mansion tax’ prevails in court as judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Measure ULA

November 15, 20234 min read

An L.A. County judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging L.A.’s “mansion tax” on Tuesday, marking the end of a months-long legal challenge from the luxury real estate community that looked to declare the measure unconstitutional.

The transfer tax known as Measure ULA was passed in November and took effect April 1, bringing a 4% charge on all residential and commercial real estate sales in the city above $5 million and a 5.5% charge on sales above $10 million, pumping millions into housing and homelessness-prevention efforts.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Barbara Scheper issued a tentative ruling dismissing the challenge on Monday after hearing arguments from both sides, and she officially dismissed the lawsuit on Tuesday, according to court documents.

The ruling is a big win for housing activists, who say that L.A. desperately needs the money raised by the tax.

“This is a great day for Los Angeles,” said Joe Donlin, who serves as director of the United to House LA coalition, which brought the measure onto the ballot in November. “The judge’s ruling confirms what we knew all along: ULA is the law of the land and it’s the will of the people. And it reminds us of the power of the people to shape our city’s future for the good.”

Donlin said he was surprised the ruling came out so soon.

“Before the hearing, we thought it might take weeks or months, but this was a positive sign that the judge didn’t feel compelled by the plaintiff’s arguments,” he said.

Greg Bonett, senior staff attorney for the Public Counsel who worked to defend the measure, applauded the decision, calling it “a resounding victory for the power of the people to initiate transformative solutions to address our city’s housing and homelessness crises.”

The judge’s ruling is a blow for many in the luxury real estate community, who claim that the transfer tax has frozen the market and stifled development.

Keith Fromm, an attorney for Newcastle Courtyards, one of two groups challenging the measure, said he plans to appeal the decision.

“The order contains numerous errors of law which the appellate courts will hopefully recognize and correct,” Fromm said. “The ruling is simply one step in a very long journey to justice.”

The legal battle — which was headed by two main groups: Newcastle and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. — became a national conversation, as other cities looked to L.A. to see how it would implement such a tax.

Other cities such as San Francisco, New York City and Culver City have implemented transfer taxes, but L.A.’s is unique in scope and scale, not just taxing home sales but all property sales above $5 million.

Voters approved the measure with a 57% majority in November, and the tax became a hot-button issue immediately after.

Advocates argue that the tax is a way for luxury property owners to contribute to solving L.A.’s housing crisis, while opponents say it discourages development and pushes owners out of L.A. and into cities that don’t have the tax, such as Beverly Hills, West Hollywood or Santa Monica.

“With Measure ULA, we are now going to lose billions of dollars every year in economic development and property tax revenue in order to raise less than $500 million through the tax,” said Jason Oppenheim, a real estate agent with the Oppenheim Group and star of Netflix’s “Selling Sunset.”

The luxury real estate market froze in the months after the measure took effect, as many luxury homeowners looked to find loopholes to avoid paying the tax. Many hired accountants to find workarounds, such as dividing their homes into three parcels and selling them separately to stay under the $5-million threshold at which the tax kicks in.

Many homeowners held off on selling their homes, hoping the lawsuit would overturn the tax. As a result, funds raised by the tax have fallen dramatically short of original projections since sales have slowed.

In November, proponents of the tax estimated it would raise roughly $900 million a year. In March, a report from the city administrative officer lowered that number to $672 million. Then in April, Mayor Karen Bass’s first budget proposal, a $13.1-billion plan, included only $150 million in projected revenue from Measure ULA.

The number was chosen out of caution, as the city wanted to funnel as much money as possible toward housing and homelessness issues but not so much that it wouldn’t be able to pay it back if the measure were ruled unconstitutional.

But with the court’s latest ruling, spending will likely increase.

On Wednesday, the L.A. City Council’s budget, finance and innovation Committee will meet to discuss the implementation process, and the ULA coalition will propose that $12 million be reallocated to short-term emergency assistance for renters.

In August, the City Council passed a $150-million spending plan for funds raised by Measure ULA. It was the first time funds were specifically allocated since the tax was passed in November, and the plan sent money to six programs: short-term emergency rental assistance, eviction defense, tenant outreach and education, direct cash assistance for low-income seniors and people with disabilities, tenant protections and affordable housing production.

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