When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, the impact of a tax refund can be life-changing: Nagging debts repaid. Money saved for a child’s college education.
For nearly 50 years, California State University, Northridge’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Clinic has provided cost-free expert tax assistance for families and individuals with low incomes, leading to such benefits, said Rafi Efrat, Bookstein Chair in Taxation and the director of the VITA Clinic. CSUN student volunteers have benefited as well, as they have earned IRS certification for tax preparation, giving them real-world experience and a professional head start.
That win-win relationship is expanding dramatically throughout the Los Angeles region this year. Thanks to a new collaboration between CSUN and four other Los Angeles County California State University campuses — known as the CSU 5 — and six LA-based community colleges, the reach of VITA will extend far beyond its traditional roots in the San Fernando Valley. The expanded service area will stretch from Long Beach in the south, Antelope Valley in the north, to Pomona in the east, Santa Monica in the west and all areas in between.
The services are available to those with household annual incomes of $54,000 or less.
“The taxpayers we serve have the opportunity to obtain vital resources for a financial fresh start in their lives,” Efrat said.
CSUN officials, business leaders and elected officials gathered Feb. 9 in front of Bookstein Hall — home to the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, which oversees the VITA clinics — to celebrate this expansion. CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison was joined by U.S. Congressman Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles); Bill Allen Hon.D. ’14, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation; Lisa Salazar, director of workforce development and economic opportunity for the Los Angeles mayor’s office; Tracy Chadwick, acting director for the IRS Stakeholder Partnerships, Education & Communication (SPEC), Area 3 office; and Efrat.
Efrat received a $344,250 grant from the California Department of Community Services and Development to expand the VITA program to include the CSU 5 VITA Initiative, named for the California State University campuses in Northridge, Los Angeles, Dominguez Hills, Long Beach and Pomona. The CSU 5 campuses work together to ensure their educational and research strengths play a significant role in shaping the future of the region.
Each CSU campus is teaming up with at least one community college in its region to build a comprehensive network of free tax preparation outreach services in its immediate area. The community colleges taking part in the initiative include College of the Canyons, East Los Angeles College, Los Angeles Mission College, Long Beach City College, Mount San Antonio College and Santa Monica College. Students at each of the 11 participating colleges can obtain training to become an IRS-certified tax volunteer, and the community college students can continue their efforts when they transfer to a nearby CSU campus.
“The VITA Initiative was selected because it is so well aligned with the CSU 5’s goal to leverage the strengths and resources of our CSU campuses to serve the LA region, while also giving students the opportunity to learn and support their communities,” Harrison said. “By leveraging individual campus strengths and working together within the CSU 5, students will help thousands more low-income individuals and families from across the region — including non-English speakers, people with disabilities and veterans — file tax returns for free and get the Federal and California Earned Income Tax Credit they are entitled to.”
CSUN VITA clinics prepared more than 7,500 tax returns in 2018, saving low-income LA residents an estimated $1.1 million in tax preparation fees.
Thanks to the expansion, the VITA Clinics expect to deploy more than 1,000 student volunteers to serve more than 13,000 low-income taxpayers in Los Angeles County, Efrat said. The 11-campus collaboration has the ability to provide free tax preparation assistance to non-English speakers including those who speak Spanish, Armenian, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese and Farsi.
“The first-in-the-nation collaborative model that we launch today will not only benefit the thousands of low-income taxpayers in Los Angeles County, but also offer tangible professional-growth opportunities for many-low income and first-generation college students enrolled in the 11-campus collaboration,” Efrat said. “By offering the student volunteers the opportunity to obtain training to become an IRS-certified tax volunteer during their community college years, this collaboration would position those same students to maintain continuous involvement with the VITA program as they transfer to the four-year CSU campus nearby.”
Cárdenas praised VITA volunteers for helping blue-collar workers in the community who may not realize they qualify for the low-income tax credit.
“VITA is here to help the community [members] that still have a low-income tax credit, that still have a few items in there that will make a world of difference when they see a return of maybe $500, $1,000, $2,000 or more that they didn’t realize belonged to them,” he said. “I want to thank you very much for the good tears you’re going to bring to their eyes, because you [didn’t] just make their day, you actually made their year.”
Allen thanked CSUN and the CSU 5 partners for their work to expand opportunities and innovation across the region. He called the VITA program critical to assisting an even greater number of individuals and families, ensuring they get the fairest possible treatment under the tax code.
“I also want to give special thanks to the state of California for investing in this initiative, for awarding this grant to bring substantial new resources that will help scale this proven program’s beneficial impacts across our entire region,” Allen said.
This year, CSUN’s VITA Clinic began offering its services to low-income members of the public on Jan. 28. Its program will run through April 13 at CSUN and satellite locations throughout Los Angeles County. For more information about the VITA Clinic, including locations and qualification for its services, visit its website at vita.csun.edu or call (818) 677-3600.