Homestead Program Rebates Delayed Forcing Homeowners to Make Choices

By Brenda Flanagan

“I’m middle class. Sometimes, I wonder, y’know, will I stay middle class?” said West Orange resident Lillian Rockwood.

Rockwood lives in West Orange and forks over $14K in property taxes every year. To make ends meet, the retired school teacher’s now working as a realtor and says, she needs her Homestead rebate. She’s got bills to pay.

“For instance, I just had a tooth pulled. That was $700 and then you think– It’s gotta be replaced and that’s another $2K and where does the money come from?” said Rockwood.

Many seniors living on fixed incomes, like Rockwood, disabled and low-income homeowners miss their Homestead Rebate. They wrestle with New Jersey’s property taxes– the highest in the nation averaging $8,000. But the rebates won’t go out until May of next year– forcing some homeowners to make terrible choices.

“People can’t wait to eat, they can’t wait to take their medicine or turn the lights on or have heat in their home. And we’re gonna have many folks in NJ struggling to make those choices because they’re not gonna get their rebate check on time,” said Evelyn Liebman from AARP.

Evelyn Liebman says the AARP gets calls and emails every day from seniors looking for their Homestead Rebates. During conference calls with legislators, that’s the hottest issue.

“This is about the senior tax property freeze,” said Liebman.

Rebates for 2013 average $516 for elderly and disabled homeowners earning less than $150K. Low income homeowners average $402 for a total of $395 million. That’s money Gov. Christie says the state can’t afford to pay now, because it faces deep revenue shortfalls.

“I’d love to give people tax relief; but until we decide to be adults and deal with the problem we know we have, we’re not gonna be able to do that,” said Christie.

Christie’s disbursed three Homestead Rebate payments in five years– in all, averaging only $1,188. Compare that to the more than $4K paid on average in the years before he took office. Christie blames a bad economy.

“It’s unfortunate, that’s what the Administration choses to do– push it away. That was a neat way of not having rebates for a year,” said Asm. Vincent Prieto.

“But that’s what happens when you don’t grow an economy. You get into a situation where you can’t keep your commitments,” said Sen. Steve Sweeney.

“This is not the way to run government,” said Rockwood.

Rockwood’s decided her home goes on the market this coming Feb. Who knows? She might sell it before she gets that homestead rebate.