Stanford wants 'educational' tax exemption for faculty homes | September 16, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 16, 2022

Stanford wants 'educational' tax exemption for faculty homes

Millions potentially at stake for local schools if the university prevails, county administrators say

by Sue Dremann

Stanford University is seeking to reduce its tax burden on two faculty houses by claiming they are used for educational purposes.

If successful, additional exemptions the university might seek could result in millions of dollars of lost revenue for local schools and governments, particularly the Palo Alto Unified School District, according to Santa Clara County administrators.

Stanford filed an application for a tax refund on the two properties, whose addresses have been redacted from documents, in 2021. The university claimed the educational-use exemption under provisions of the California Constitution and the Revenue and Taxation code. The total request for the property tax excusal is $20,657 in the first year for the two properties and would apply in every subsequent year, the county stated in an email to the Palo Alto Weekly.

If the university pursues additional refunds based on the same claims, the county and local jurisdictions could potentially lose nearly $5 million annually, including $2.3 million each year to the Palo Alto Unified School District. These losses would hurt K-12 students, teachers, and the local economy, Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said.

The properties are currently being taxed based on their current market value, as is the case with all properties in California. Stanford wants a tax discount of 25% on the land value beneath the properties, which it owns and leases to faculty members. The university claims that it has an "interest" in the properties and that they are exempt from taxation as an educational use. Stanford is not making an exemption claim for taxes paid by the faculty members who own the homes located on the leased land.

But the county has flatly rejected the claims. An Assessment and Appeals Board notified the university in October 2021 that it had no jurisdiction to grant or deny exemptions, nor to consider allegations that claims for exemptions from property tax have been improperly denied, according to a letter to the university.

The university then filed a claim with the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in February 2022 for the refund, and Stanford has now designated hired attorneys as their Power of Attorney to deal further with the matter, according to Stanford's claim letter.

Williams said the county has denied the claim. He noted the county is not denying the educational status of on-campus properties such as student dormitories. The two residential properties, which are long-term leaseholds to faculty members, are not the same as libraries, academic buildings and other facilities that are everyday uses for education on the campus. They are also not located in the core academic campus with these other educational buildings, Williams said, disputing Stanford's definition of "on campus."

Stanford owns 8,180 acres of land in Santa Clara and San Mateo County. The university was not required to pay taxes on more than $15.9 billion of its holdings during the 2021 fiscal year, the largest tax exemption in Santa Clara County, according to the Santa Clara County Assessor's Office, Williams noted.

Stanford's residential portfolio

More than 1,200 single-family residences are among its holdings. Those homes have a value of almost $1.1 billion, according to the county.

Increasingly, the university has also been buying up single-family homes in the cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and surrounding communities to meet the needs of professors the university has said it wants to attract.

Stanford owns the ground lease for its properties. Faculty members lease the ground, often for decades, until they are no longer affiliated with the university. The faculty member purchases the home that is on the land. The faculty member agrees to a value cap of 2% a year, which keeps the home's value down for the next buyer who takes possession, according to the university's residential ground lease.

The properties can also be transferred to the surviving spouse of an active faculty member who has died, even if the spouse serves no educational connection to the university. Williams noted this would seem to belie an educational use.

The issue emerged after the Santa Clara County Tax Assessor's Office began reassessing property values in 2018 for home purchases that occurred in 2017 and thereafter.

In 2019, about 50 Stanford University faculty members who purchased their homes through ground leases in the prior three years had their properties reassessed by the county. Using a little-known rule for homes owned under ground leases, the county valued some single-family homes 12% to 48% higher. The new assessments were based on open-market purchase prices of nearby homes.

Stanford's stated reason for requesting the exemption is to alleviate cost-of-housing hardships for faculty.

In a written statement, Stanford said: "Homes in the faculty subdivision on Stanford's campus have traditionally been assessed property taxes based on the faculty's purchase price of the property, like other residential properties in Santa Clara County. In recent years, the County Assessor has increased the assessed value of some newly purchased faculty homes on Stanford's campus to levels above the faculty purchase prices.

"The Assessor's re-assessment of properties at levels beyond faculty purchase prices has created unexpected and substantial financial hardship for some faculty homeowners and does not reflect Stanford's restrictions on faculty sales, ownership and use of these properties. It is important to note that faculty homes are on ground leases, so homeowners do not own the full property interest in these homes. Stanford is seeking a partial property tax exemption for some of the affected homes based on the value of the interest in the property retained by Stanford as the underlying property owner."

The university stressed that it is critical to Stanford's educational mission to provide housing that is affordable for faculty.

"Stanford's retained interests and restrictions in the homes are designed to achieve this objective of affordable faculty housing," the university stated.

Williams said the faculty homes are "functionally not distinguishable from private residences. Nobody would conflate them with a student dorm. The houses are the same as every other private family house. The difference is that Stanford subsidizes the purchases."

Stanford's claim to the board of supervisors said that high Bay Area housing prices make it impossible for many faculty members to afford homes in surrounding neighborhoods off campus.

Similar concerns and claims were raised in a lawsuit against Orange County regarding land leases and faculty housing at the University of California, Irvine. University administrators also argued it needed the exemption to attract quality faculty.

A lower court sided with the plaintiffs against the county, ruling that a provision of the state constitution that excludes from taxation a property that is "used exclusively for public schools, community colleges, state colleges (or) state universities," applied in the Orange County case. The state Court of Appeal and California Supreme Court overturned that ruling, however.

In 1992, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that faculty and staff who lease campus houses must continue to pay property taxes. About 200 U.C. Irvine faculty and staff had sought exemptions.

The Supreme Court found that leased housing on land owned by a tax-exempt institution may be tax exempt only if the housing is essential to the purpose of the institution.

"If their leasehold interest in the property on which the homes are situated is entitled to an exemption because the property is being used for faculty housing, then it is difficult to understand on what basis an exemption could be denied to the faculty members' property interest in the homes themselves," the Supreme Court stated.

If the use of property for faculty housing is an exclusive use of property for university purposes under state provisions, then a faculty member who bought a home on private property and used it as his or her family residence also could claim an entitlement to an exemption because that property too would be property used for faculty housing, the court noted.

"As these examples demonstrate, plaintiffs proposed interpretation ... proves too much," the court said.

"The leasehold interests of (U.C. Irvine), which are privately owned interests used for the private owner's residences, are not property used exclusively for university purposes within the meaning of section 3(d). Plaintiffs are not entitled to the exemption they seek," the court reasoned.

The Palo Alto Unified School District, in an amicus brief supporting Orange County, stated the harm that a tax exemption would cause. Citing tax revenues it receives from Stanford, the school district noted a significant part of its funding is derived from taxes from Stanford University employees who lease their land from the university.

The Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders' Association in 1991 had filed a claim for an exemption for its individual leaseholders, but it was not part of the lawsuit in Orange County. The claim was contingent on the Supreme Court's Orange County ruling and it wasn't pursued, the university noted in a public statement after the high court's decision.

In its current claims, Stanford has cited some of the same tax code and state constitution sections as were used by plaintiffs in the Orange County case. It's unclear what new arguments Stanford would bring that were not already decided by the high court in the Orange County case.

Williams wasn't surprised by the university's efforts, however.

"What's not new is Stanford's pushing the boundaries" regarding its attempts to garner tax exemptions, he said.

He noted the university's successful win in 1978 of a tax exemption for the Stanford Golf Course on 166 acres.

The county claimed in a lawsuit that the golf course didn't qualify for the exemption because it wasn't exclusively used for educational purposes within the meaning of the state constitution.

The Santa Clara County Superior Court and the state Appeals Court ruled in favor of Stanford, however, since the university used the golf course for golf class instruction of students, intercollegiate and intramural college competition by students and university team varsity long-distance running. Stanford students, faculty and staff also use the course for recreational golf play. The court said that even if the majority of the use is for paid members, they are still alumni.

Email Staff Writer Sue Dremann at [email protected]


Posted by South PA resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 16, 2022 at 7:26 am

South PA resident is a registered user.

Stanford University continues to take the low road and do the wrong thing by being a poor citizen of Palo Alto skirting its financial obligations to fund our city’s school district. With one of the world’s largest endowments, it can’t afford to pay its fair share for our children and those of its faculty???

As a parent of PAUSD kids, tell me why I should pay taxes but Stanford faculty parents should not for the same education for their kids? How is that equity?

Would be great if the many PA resident graduates of Stanford would pressure the university to do the right thing, though it’s shameful that that effort is needed.

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2022 at 8:20 am

felix is a registered user.

My 78-year old husband grew up in Stanford leased faculty housing. Beautiful big house. This was back when car mechanics, teachers and grocers could own homes in Palo Alto.

The point being that Stanford leasing faculty housing isn’t tied to post-1970’s land value necessity - it was done way before then and always taxed.

That Stanford feels no duty to pay its fair share in taxes to even our schools that educate its faculty members children, while no doubt using our great schools as a selling point to attract new faculty, is why the words “hypocrisy” and “irony” were invented.

Stanfords ever-expanding greed and sense of entitlement should be strongly resisted, or it should adopt The Robber Barons as it’s mascot.

Posted by South PA resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 16, 2022 at 8:35 am

South PA resident is a registered user.

And just to be clear, Stanford’s deeply hypocritical and disingenuous attempt to hang this on ‘affordable housing for faculty’ is risible. Stanford can surely afford to pay for that housing out of its $B endowment rather than foisting the financial obligation to provide affordable housing for its faculty onto the already tax burdened residents of Palo Alto.

An obviously sham argument by Stanford. Why is it so hard to get Stanford to do the right thing?

Seems when they failed to pull off this stunt at the last failed GUP debacle, the lesson they took away was to dig in and refuse absolutely to pay their fare share.

Posted by MES
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 16, 2022 at 10:17 am

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Absolutely no tax breaks of any kind for Stanford. Perhaps all of us who teach out of our homes should apply for an educational tax break, too. I wonder how that would go over? Not well, I imagine.

Also, learning that the Stanford Golf Course gets a tax break, is very disturbing. It's also dead wrong.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 16, 2022 at 10:49 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Just say NO to Stanford and let THEM alleviate the "hardship" on THEIR faculty by giving THEM a raise.

Let them start housing THEIR community on THEIR campus rather than buying up houses in town. With Research Park and their huge campus, it's not like they're lacking for room.

Their boundless arrogance and demands show they're NOT good neighbors. They threw all the patients of 100+ doctors and dentists into chaos during the pandemic when they abruptly and unexpectedly terminated their long-term leases because they got a huge donation to expand the Children's Hospital.

And trust them: their huge expansion won't add a single "net new" car trip to our already congested roads. Just another Stanford miracle.

Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 16, 2022 at 11:23 am

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Another example of how cheap, cheap, cheap Stanford is. A great business tactic.

Posted by Eugenio Miranda Ph.D.
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 16, 2022 at 11:26 am

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I can understand how some Palo Alto residents might be against this tax measure but we must not lose fact that Stanford University made Palo Alto what is is today and not the other way around.

Leland Stanford put Palo Alto on the map and in the interests of higher education, let's not overlook the vast prestigeous contributions Stanford University has made to Palo Alto as a whole.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2022 at 11:30 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Wow. This defines chutzpah.

In the university town I grew up in, the private universities were not so land rich. Their faculties bought modest homes in town (my father-in-law was one of them) and paid their taxes. They were glad to do so. These educators valued education for all. They were welcome members of the school community, bringing their fair share of dollars and volunteer time to the table.

Stanford benefits handsomely from their ground leases. The community delivers high quality education to their tenants, contributing to the value of that land and those leases. Stanford should pay for what they are taking from the community's education system, not refuse to pay their fair share to poorly funded local public schools to further fatten their fancy schmancy private school endowment.

Wealthy Stanford's demonstrated attitude of entitlement and ambitious growth plans are rapidly becoming a liability for communities they touch...and for the education of children associated with the Stanford community and our communities. It makes me heartsick to see this. To nearby communities... Watch and learn. Your neighbor, Stanford, is not a friend.

Stanford has become the fabled rapaciously greedy dragon that protects its hoard, at any cost, even if it means destroying the communities around it. They have become a private, elite, self-serving institution that seems not to care about supporting the educations of the next generation in their own community. Interesting set of values there, Stanford administration. You are looking soul sick.

Posted by KS
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 16, 2022 at 11:39 am

KS is a registered user.

As I read the article, "Stanford is not making an exemption claim for taxes paid by the faculty members who own the homes located on the leased land." So it is the university itself that wants to save on its own taxes (not individual faculty members) and not pay its fair share. Stanford faculty members have kids in PA schools yet the university wants an exemption. One more reason to resent the university (I say that as a Stanford grad and former staff member.) Bad move on Stanford's part!!!

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 16, 2022 at 11:56 am

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When are we finally going to close the huge tax break for businesses deliberately created by Prop 13? That would be a boon to Palo Alto. When Prop 13 was passed, approx 50% property taxes were businesses, and 50% were homeowners, if I remember correctly. a few years ago, businesses were about 25%, and homeowners 75%. Why? Most businesses never sell their properties, or very rarely, so most of their tax assessment values can rise by only 2% per year. Business property should be reassessed to market value every 10 years, about the average time that homeowners own their houses. This based on old data, so it's quite possible that retired boomers have increased average time ownership time for homeowners.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 16, 2022 at 12:13 pm

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What I gleaned from this story is that the County Assessor decided to change the long-time method of calculating taxes on these faculty-restricted houses to jack up the County's tax income. Seems logical that Stanford would seek to counteract that move, and not obviously unfair.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 16, 2022 at 12:34 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Leland Stanford put Palo Alto on the map and in the interests of higher education, let's not overlook the vast prestigeous contributions Stanford University has made to Palo Alto as a whole."

Are you at all aware of how furious many local Stanford grads and retiring faculty are at its newish arrogance a and and how many are boycotting reunions and cutting it out of their wills? When one hears totally mainstream respectable grads threatening to paintball Stanford's billboards boasting about how community-minded it is, one has to wonder.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 16, 2022 at 3:39 pm

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The Robber Baron of old is as strong and greedy as ever.
Didn't they also get an exemption on the new housing on their property on ECR in MP?

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 16, 2022 at 8:04 pm

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AUDACIOUS. The County should continue to say no.

Posted by A resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 16, 2022 at 8:29 pm

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I hope in this faida between Stanford and the county the one who will be paying won’t end up to be the Stanford faculty who bought houses on campus, as it has already happened (with an increase of their property taxes that doesn’t reflect the real market value of houses on campus, and the new County’s idea of a Stanford historical district). The house market on campus is limited to Stanford faculty. The houses cannot be sold to the Palo Alto and surrounding areas billionaires, and there is a much lower capital gain if you sell them. Why individual professors have to pay a property tax that doesn’t reflect the real value of their houses and it’s much higher than the selling price?

Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 17, 2022 at 11:57 am

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This is a case of an organization with a $37.8 billion endowment trying to nickel and dime local schools. Stanford is no longer an organization focused on education or any altruistic purpose, it is solely focused on growing its own wealth and influence, as we have seen over and over again. Stanford should be treated as a FOR PROFIT corporation for tax purposes with no exceptions. If it looks like a corporation, smells like a corporation, acts like a corporation, it should be TAXED like a corporation. Stanford Inc.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2022 at 3:14 pm

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@observer Re: Mayfield Agreement/MP res r trapped behind steel, concrete, breathe exhaust fumes & have horrid lease manager, cheap as dirt Stanford. Up hill are the MA, SU nice apts, trimmed, prim, inviting, w open green space. MP looks through 14't cyclone fence to a smelly, Astro turf city soccer field residents are not allowed access. Web Link can help the discussion about (Le)land Stanford's ghastly piggy backing on crying poor job retention, recruitment while using the mentality of corporate welfare so that their property gets a 'free ride' over & above the oppressive housing crisis in BA .

"These guidelines, together with Administrative Guide Policy 3.6.1: Bank Accounts, govern the appropriate maintenance of bank accounts and services for the benefit of Stanford University and its affiliated controlled entities. These guidelines ensure best practices are followed to safeguard the university's assets, minimize risk & prevent potential financial losses. Anyone w financial responsibilities associated w the university should understand these guidelines.

These guidelines apply to any school, department, program, center, lab, institute or other entity in which the university has an interest. This includes subsidiaries in which the university has greater than 50 percent ownership, foreign or domestic, as well as entities using any of the university's tax ID numbers (TIN). Only authorized staff identified by an official delegation of authority flowing down from the Board of Trustees may open, close, grant online or electronic/mobile access or change (maintain) bank accounts. Accordingly, only authorized financial staff of the university may request a bank account. Bank accounts are defined as any account w a financial institution that holds funds of the university." End quote.

Watch how the web article is buried by mystery algorithm/SU PR hack.

Posted by SJW
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2022 at 4:46 pm

SJW is a registered user.

Just amazing, really amazing. Where does Stanford get these totally ridiculous ideas? Greed comes to mind.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 19, 2022 at 5:21 pm

ndn is a registered user.

I don't know that property taxes should assessed just because someone has the means. Would you like that applied to yourself? Stanford's argument doesn't sound unfair or farfetched to me ( I am not in any way a party of Stanford). Their business is education and its income is derived from and for education, none of it benefits but educational endeavors even indirectly sometimes..-They should be treated as an educational endeavor. If you think that's unfair let us scrape Prop 13 altogether.Not all of us partake services offered by the city, but some of us (no children or children in non-pub schools for example)use more categories of services than others and to me that's fair. Most of us recognize that without Stanford's influence not just Palo Alto ,but indeed California would be much poor. I'm even saying the world would be much poor and not just financially. We are not a collection of people with randomly assigned interests but a county looking forward. For that to happen we see that our institutions play a large part in our future and treat them with respect and recognition of their role. Stanford needs a little tax break, perhaps not as much as they want but some.I hope they get it.

Posted by Laurie
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 19, 2022 at 6:32 pm

Laurie is a registered user.

Stanford doesn't pay the taxes for campus leaseholders. The individual faculty pay those taxes. Why shouldn't these people pay taxes on the purchase prices of their homes LIKE EVERY OTHER PERSON IN SANTA CLARA COUNTY? Why should they pay taxes on an imaginary home value imagined by the county? Paying taxes on the purchase price of a home seems pretty reasonable. A house that sells on campus for $2,800,000 will generate more than $30,000/year for SCC and Palo Alto. Not sure why everyone is yelling at Stanford about this.

Posted by StephenM
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2022 at 8:36 pm

StephenM is a registered user.

Laurie and others have hit the nail on the head: The tax assessments in question (which are paid by the house owners/lessees not Stanford) are not based on the purchase price but rather on what the assessor thinks they would have been sold for if they were houses that don't have the limitations Stanford imposes regarding to whom the houses can be sold (only eligible Stanford employees), how much they can be sold for (price increases limited by CPI), and the fact that the owners must sell after 50 years. Given these limitations, it is hard to argue that the assessment should be the same as for otherwise comparable Palo Alto houses. I would assume that the prices Stanford sets have been carefully chosen so that whatever savings there are relative to what the house might cost were it not subject to these limitations are chosen so as not to create taxable, imputed income.
Thus, the appreciation cap etc. should suffice to justify the prices without need to invoke what appears to be an ill-founded appeal to claiming tax-exempt status for the land.

Posted by resident
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 20, 2022 at 10:50 am

resident is a registered user.

This article is not clear and potentially misleading. Are you sure that Stanford is asking for a tax exemption for the University? I thought that the University was arguing on the behalf of people who own houses on campus. The issue here is that when the County assesses the value of houses on campus, they use comparables in Palo Alto and Menlo Park and not on the true value of the house. The true value should be based on potential sale price. Houses on campus have lower sale prices because 1) the homeowner does not own the land, 2) the homeowner leases the land (i.e. pays to use the land), 3) the homeowner can only sell the house to faculty who qualify, and 3) the children of the homeowner cannot inherit the house. Furthermore, faculty who purchase the new houses under discussion must move out when they retire and their spouse cannot inherit the house. These qualifications reduce the sale price. Who would buy a house under these conditions? Faculty who cannot afford to purchase a house off-campus. The County assessment should be based on the true value (i.e. sale price) of the house. I believe that this is the issue that is being discussed with the County and, if so, this article is misleading at best.

Posted by Deborah
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 20, 2022 at 3:41 pm

Deborah is a registered user.

I'm astounded by intensity and negativity of these responses. The problem with Palo Alto being driven by the residentialists is that housing prices are so astronomical, at this point only foreign investors seem to be buying houses in Palo Alto.

Stanford, because it has to do this or it can't hold on to good staff and faculty, is subsidizing the housing, however, County of Santa Clara decided that property tax is based on the full assessed value rather than the purchase price. High end salary for faculty at Stanford is, I think, around $200K. Who can, earning that amount, afford $30 to $40K in property taxes every year?! Not me.

I think it is this problem that Stanford is trying to address.

Personally, I'd much, much, much rather have Stanford staff and/or faculty as neighbors than a house owned by an investor.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 20, 2022 at 4:03 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Stanford just bought up a Sand Hill Road apartment complex, removing its 700 units from Palo Alto's available housing stock because they're limited to the Stanford community that Stanford refuses to house on its own land.

Web Link

If Stanford's having problems paying its staff, maybe it could use its huge endowment to give them raises? Or maybe it could save some money by cancelling its plans to add several MILLION more square feet of offices and drop its appeal of the limits placed on its expansion? And/or maybe it could stop buying up College Terrace and removing those homes from PA's available housing stock which ALSO pushes up prices for everyone else?

Posted by GHA
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2022 at 10:45 pm

GHA is a registered user.

Re Sand Hill Road apartments (Oak Creek): they sit on Stanford land. Stanford bought the lease back ahead of schedule to house postdoctoral fellows, who are having a mighty hard time finding decent housing in Palo Alto. The university has recently completed a 2400-bed complex for graduate students.

Re taxes for schools: Stanford homeowners have always paid the full whack of Prop 13 assessed value in property taxes, as Laurie wrote, like every other homeowner in the county. The tax assessor has changed the rules in mid-stream. Imagine buying a million dollar home, but the assessor values it at 2 million, with all the tax implications that implies--that's what has happened and the university has been trying to get things back to the way they were to allow buyers and sellers some certainty.

Re Stanford students in Palo Alto public schools: first, PAUSD serves not only Palo Alto and Stanford, but also parts of Los Altos Hills and Portola Valley, so less implication of carpetbagging please. Long ago a woman on the bike next to me at the gym was complaining about Stanford kids taking up space in "Palo Alto's" schools. I pointed out that Stanford residents pay the same taxes as everyone else, and that Palo Alto was in fact sending its students to schools on land DONATED BY THE UNIVERSITY for BOTH public high schools, one middle school, and two elementary schools (plus one in Menlo Park). Palo Alto has certainly benefitted by not utilizing its own land for these schools.

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