Last week, a letter from a Washington woman started some wheels turning in my head. The wheels have been turning ever since, but without result.
"With governmental changes bringing floods of new people into Washington to look for housing at frequent intervals," she wrote, "the real estate market here is horribly inflated and gets steadily worse. Our assessment has just been increased 33 per cent.
"The burden of these ghastly increases falls hardest on people who are old and are living on fixed incomes. Usually on small fixed incomes. People like us. We just barely get by when the status quo is maintained. When one of our fixed costs goes up, we are in trouble.
"Our real estate taxes in D.C. are based on what other houses have sold for recently, not on what we paid, or could afford to pay. We are being taxed on the basis of somebody else's income, somebody else's lifestyle, somebody else's ability to pay.
"When we bought our house, we paid $12,000 for it. We will now be taxed on and $80,000 valuation.
"When will have to pay a tax absed upon the assumption that we can afford to live in an $80,000 house, or could afford to go out and buy an $80,000 house in today's market. The truth is that we are 70 years old, no longer employed or capable of earning a living, and forced to live on a very small income.
"When our taxes are increased, we have no choice except to reduce or eliminate some other expenditure, whether it is for food, clothing heat or something else.
"When or tax assessment goes up, we must also pay more for our home-owner's insurance. They won't sell us homeowner's insurance unless we insure for the assessed value.
"I was told by the D.C. government that if we were 20 years old and had an income of less than $7,000, we could get tax relief, but they can't do anything for people who are 70 years old but have an income of $7,200 a year. There is something very wrong in this situation."
When the wheels first began to turn, I told myself that the situation was probably not quite as bad as my correspondent had painted it. After all, her Social Security checks had risen as her taxes had risen, hadn't they?
It didn't take me long to realize that this was a specious argument. Inflated food costs eat up Social Security increases. There is usually precious little left to take care of life's other necessities. It's just not in the cards for a 6 per cent rise in Social Security payments to cover a 38 per cent rise in "rent" paid in the form of real estate taxes.
So the wheels turned a little more, and I said to myself: "If her house is really worth $80,000, she can sell it, invest trhe $80,000 in something safe, and move into an apartment."
But again the wheels stopped abruptly. I realized that if she sells the house she'll have to pay a commission of about $5,000. If she doesn't buy another house, she'll have to pay a huge income tax. She'll have to uproot herself and move to a new neighborhood, which will probably make it necessary to find a new doctor, new pharmacist, new church, new friends, new everything. She'll have to get rid of some of her furniture and part of her lifetime collection of possessions because they won't fit into an aprtment.
What 70-year-old person would view such an upheaval with enthusiasm? Why can't elderly people be permitted to live out their lives in peace? Why can't an affluent society shield them against the impact of economic forces with which they can't cope?
I am glad to note from a story in yesterday's Metro section that public officials are aware of the need for answers to these questions. But they are nowhere near a consensus on how much the tax burden on the elderly should be eased, the formulas under which this might be achieved, or how to replace the tax revenue that would be lost by giving the elderly some relief on their real estate taxes. We have a long way to go on a problem that should have been solved yesterday.