Property Taxation and Informality

Challenges for Latin America
Martim O. Smolka and Claudia M. De Cesare, Julio 1, 2006

Rampant informality, so emblematic of large cities in developing countries, poses many challenges for property taxation systems. For instance, tenure rights in informal settlements are often obscure or even unknown; buildings are constructed gradually over time, self-construction is common, and the whole unit may never be finished; property value depends on vague or intangible factors such as the security provided by community organizations; the occupant or even the legal owner may be too poor to pay taxes; administrative costs of tax collection are higher than in the formal areas, whereas assessed values are often much lower; and there is hardly any public investment in infrastructure and services.

These critical features of informal housing seem to violate many of the premises on which the administration of a property tax system is grounded: identification of taxable property and corresponding taxpayers; description of the property’s physical characteristics; determination of property values on a reasonable market basis and according to predictable measures; the taxpayer’s presumed ability to pay; collection costs that are relatively low compared to the revenue collected; and an expectation that tax revenues would benefit the area from which the tax was collected.

This comparison depicts the essence of the conventional wisdom on informal occupations and the reasons why they are generally disregarded for taxation purposes, but misconceptions and prejudices are evident. This article examines some of these biases and their consequences for property tax collection in informal areas. The Latin American situation is used to illustrate this debate, but this study is still exploratory due to limited data. The arguments discussed indicate promising directions for further analyses, rather than conclusive findings in most cases.

Informal Occupations

In land occupation and housing, informality is a multidimensional phenomenon involving thorny issues related to land tenure; noncompliance with urban norms and regulations, such as minimum lot size, allowance for public spaces, and street layouts; inadequate provision of public services and equipment; and occupation of improper areas, such as environmentally protected or ecologically risky areas and contaminated brownfield sites.

Slums originated by land invasions are the first image of informality that comes to mind, but other social and physical forms of informality range from pirate subdivisions, usually characterized by market sales of land having no clear title, to situations where even legally qualified owners with titled land do not conform to existing urban norms and regulations.

According to the United Nations–Habitat (2003), about 928 million people (32 percent of the world’s urban population or 43 percent of the population of developing countries) currently live in slums with precarious urban infrastructure and inadequate public services. If current trends and policies continue, the report estimates that slum populations will increase by 37 million per year to reach a total of 1.5 billion people in 2020. Although Latin America accounts for 9 percent of the world’s population, it comprises about 14 percent of those who live in slums.

Why is Informality a Problem?

Informality disorganizes the functioning of urban land markets, since illegal, irregular, and clandestine operators are able to reap higher profits by avoiding some costs, such as taxes, the cost of protecting the land from invasions, or the cost of providing basic urban infrastructure and services. Contrary to expectations, land prices per square meter in informal settlements are often higher than those in formal areas, when discounting investments related to the provision of water, electricity, drainage, sewerage, and other services.

Moreover, informality is expensive for society. The costs of curative policies to upgrade irregular settlements are higher than the cost of new land development, and indirect social costs include the presence of criminal activity and natural disasters caused by development in environmentally sensitive areas. The evidence also suggests that informality is both a cause and an effect of urban poverty. The geographic distribution of poverty tends to overlap with the spatial pattern of informal arrangements, although the magnitude and persistence of informality cannot be entirely explained by poverty. A survey conducted by the Instituto Pereira Passos (2002) based on the Brazilian Census of 2000 found that about 64 percent of the population classified as poor actually lived outside the slum areas.

Myths of Informality

There are many prevailing myths about how informal settlements are either established or operated, including the perception that occupants in informal areas are neither willing nor able to pay property taxes. In fact, not only are occupiers usually willing to pay the tax as a way to legitimate their land tenure, but they are often quite able to pay it. New occupants, in fact, have already paid the property tax in the form of higher land prices, yet the payment went to either the subdivider or original landowner instead of the government.

Moreover, payment of the property tax by occupants of informal areas is likely to legitimate their right to demand public services and other urban improvements from government authorities. Many informal occupants also realize that private provision of basic services through informal means, such as buying water from a truck, is likely to be more costly and risky than payment of the property tax.

Other myths or assumptions about informality include beliefs that occupants of informal settlements are necessarily poor; informal settlements are occupied only by unemployed and informal workers; formal property title is necessary to obtain access to credit; informal settlements are homogeneous entities clearly distinguished from formal settlements; and occupation of informal settlements is made through nonmarket transactions.

Property Tax Collection

In an attempt to relate property tax collection per inhabitant to the presence of informality, we used data based on a survey of municipalities conducted in 1999 by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE 2001). Table 1 presents data that measured two criteria: the occurrence of slums (i.e., informal settlements caused by invasions) and the existence of all types of irregular land development. Slums occur in 27.6 percent of all municipalities in Brazil, while irregular land development (including slums) occurs in almost 44 percent of them. The maximum value of property tax collected is higher in larger municipalities and those with slums and other irregular developments, and the revenues also tend to be higher on average than in those municipalities without such development.

However, Table 2 illustrates the difficulty of monitoring property ownership and tax collection records by comparing the presence of cadastres in municipalities with records on slums and informal settlements. Local cadastres cover information on slums in 52.5 percent of the municipalities in which they are found, but only 39 percent of those cities have complete records on informality. By comparison, 50.5 percent of municipalities with irregular land developments have this information included in their cadastres, and 51 percent of the cases with records have complete information. Thus, one cannot reject the hypothesis that the larger, richer, and more developed municipalities are also the ones with better records on informal occupations.

Using the IBGE database, a model for multiple regression analysis was developed to test the relationship between informality and the property tax collected per inhabitant. The relationship was controlled with other attributes available in the database, including the average income per inhabitant, the size of the population, and a group of variables associated with the role of the local administration in promoting urban development. Based on this model, which explains approximately 72 percent of the variation in the property tax collected per inhabitant, the following factors have proven to be influential in determining the amount of property tax collected.

  • Urban regulations and minimum lot sizes. The findings support the argument that municipalities with a more complete regulatory framework are able to collect more property tax per inhabitant. Consistently, a decrease in the property tax collected per inhabitant is found in municipalities where no minimum lot size is established. Thus, stricter land use regulations have a positive effect on property tax performance, as much as their absence produces adverse effects.
  • Updated property cadastre and maps. As expected, municipalities in which the property cadastre and maps have been updated more recently tend to obtain a higher collection ratio. The model also indicates that municipalities that use more technology, as measured by the use of a digital cadastre, are able to collect more property tax per inhabitant than the others.
  • Occurrence of slums. Municipalities with slums collect more property tax per inhabitant than those without slums. A plausible explanation for this phenomenon may be that more industrialized and/or more economically dynamic cities have a higher incidence of informality. In this case, the loss of property tax revenue generated by informality is likely to be compensated by the revenue collected in high-income areas and from commercial and industrial properties.
  • Inclusion of informal property in the cadastre. The importance of a more universal tax base is also confirmed, as reflected in better property tax performance when informality is recorded at the local government level.
  • Collection ratio. Municipalities with less tax evasion, that is, a higher collection ratio, tend to collect more property taxes per inhabitant.
  • Average income per inhabitant. Finally, the average income per inhabitant is the most important factor in tax collection, accounting for about 42 percent of the variation in the property tax collected per inhabitant.

In addition to the level of income, the findings clearly indicate the importance of an effective administration of the property tax. In other words, even in the presence of informality municipalities achieve better results in comparative terms if they maintain updated cadastres and maps, include informal properties in the cadastre, and have a broad framework of urban legislation. In summary, when focusing strictly on the property tax performance, the major cause of concern is not the presence of informality itself, but the way public officials deal with it for property tax purposes.

The Property Tax as a Tool to Reverse Informality

A more vigorous property tax is likely to affect informality directly. For instance, the portion of the property tax levied on land value constitutes a strong antidote to force the existing stock of serviced land to the market. The property tax may also be important as a tool to influence the decision-making process for which areas should receive urban services. Indeed, communities without a property tax system are particularly vulnerable when it comes to seeking public attention.

The property tax can also be an educational mechanism for helping citizens realize their rights and duties, including the need to contribute to public expenses. The government’s commitment to allocate tax revenues fairly and equitably provides greater legitimacy to the tax. Furthermore, a property tax may be one mechanism to reduce land prices through the capitalization effect (Bahl and Linn 1992). Usually local government recognition of occupancy has no direct, legal effect on guaranteeing property titles at the public registry, but informal occupiers may perceive it as a kind of a green card to access the legal world.

Rabello de Castro (2000) has argued that there are solid legal grounds to use cadastres for property tax purposes to legitimize tenure rights, and that the courts would have no difficulty in admitting such records as trustworthy evidence. Finally, there is an advantage for the property tax to cover informal property because its application requires specific knowledge of the area, which has immensurable value to the city management.

Policy Recommendations

Informality poses particular challenges to property tax administration, including the need to design feasible and politically acceptable procedures. Following are some policy recommendations for consideration.

  • Extend tax liability to occupants in informal settlements. Limiting property tax liability to the landowner reduces the ability to collect taxes in countries with a substantial number of informal settlements. Legislation could establish the possessor or occupier as the taxpayer of record, so there should be no technical impediment to considering alternative forms of secured tenure to meet the challenge of enhancing the universality of the property tax.
  • Update urban cadastres. Conventional cadastral procedures and techniques are not able to keep up with the physical and legal idiosyncrasies of informal settlements. Low-cost, flexible initiatives to update cadastres and identify irregular land subdivisions and buildings might include the establishment of partnerships with companies that provide public services or institutions responsible for social programs.
  • Determine how to assess informal property. Assessing informal property is a challenge since there is little understanding of how informal markets operate. This may require taking into account atypical determinants of property values (e.g., the value of relaxed urbanistic norms and regulations) and creative sources of information (e.g., neighborhood association records on property transactions). However, a vibrant property market is generally observed in informal areas, and the analysis of the determinants of land prices is as feasible and amenable to standard techniques as the analysis undertaken in formal markets (Abramo 2003). Another alternative is to use self-assessment, as applied in Bogotá, Colombia, using simplified forms to make the process easier for low-income families.
  • Bypass assessment difficulties for progressive housing. Self-production of housing is common, and improvements may take place on a gradual, albeit permanent, basis in informal occupations. Consequently, proper taxation of informal properties would require inspecting the houses more frequently. These difficult circumstances suggest considering other alternatives, including the use of either the site value as the tax base or a self-reporting scheme. Neighborhood associations and community organizations could be involved in such programs. Initiatives to encourage self-reporting would be facilitated by the extent to which the revenue collected is earmarked to improve public services and equipment in the neighborhoods in which the property tax was collected.
  • Minimize tax evasion. Contrary to the view that higher rates of tax evasion prevail in low-valued properties, the general perception is that tax evasion is more likely to occur on high-valued properties. Local administrators and other sources confirm that poor families are quite willing to have their properties included in the fiscal cadastre, and to pay the property tax.
  • Adjust the tax burden on the poor. Current alternatives for either reducing or eliminating the tax burden on the poor in formal areas should be applied to informal areas. Such measures include either deductions or exemptions according to the property value, the family income, or both criteria, and the use of progressive rates starting at a symbolic value and moving up according to classes of assessed values.
  • Establish a fiscal culture. Symbolic tax payments may have no impact in terms of revenue, but are likely to contribute to the creation of a fiscal culture. A sustainable tax system for informal housing requires steps similar to those for formal property markets: adjust the tax burden according to the ability-to-pay; demonstrate to taxpayers the public benefits related to the collection of the property tax; promote educational programs explaining the rights and duties of citizens; and apply effective and reasonable penalties for cases of nonpayment.

Even though most informal property is excluded from the property rolls, the above requirements should be applied to informal properties if a higher level of efficiency in property tax collection is to be achieved. The argument about high collection costs to exclude low-valued properties (or low-income families for that matter) from the tax-rolls should be reckoned against the benefits of promoting broader fiscal citizenship.

A Longer View

The collection of property taxes in informal areas may be not only possible under certain circumstances, but also attractive for pursuing a more effective urban policy that is capable of mitigating informality and its negative effects for society in general and for individual occupants of these settlements in particular.

Despite the difficulty of providing empirical evidence on its theoretical impacts on the land market, the part of the property tax levied on the land value is likely to produce effects that are critical to mitigate the distortions and dysfunctions in land markets with a high degree of informality. These effects include stimulating land development; deterring land speculation; reducing land prices; increasing the supply of urbanized land; encouraging more compact cities; promoting more efficient provision of urban infrastructure and services; and encouraging a more rational pattern of development. Indirect benefits may include the relevance of the information generated to identify property, the use of paid property taxes as a paralegal means to legitimize tenure rights, and last but not least the opportunity for accessing citizenship and becoming integrated into society.

In summary, when focusing on the property tax performance, the major cause of concern is not so much informality itself, but the way public officials treat informality and how they administer a property tax system. In this context, the introduction of the property tax into an environment with rampant informality requires special caution. The challenges to operating the property tax in informal areas include the need to understand the informal market, curb intervening land ownership claims from previous or absent owners, improve administrative capability, and legitimize public actions that result in social benefits to the poor. In addition, public officials need to overcome prejudice and misconceptions regarding informality and introduce efficient property tax initiatives that may actually reduce informality.

About the Authors

Martim O. Smolka is senior fellow and director of the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Claudia M. De Cesare is a property tax advisor to the Secretariat of Finance in the municipality of Porto Alegre, Brazil. She is on the advisory board of the International Property Tax Institute (IPTI) and is a faculty member of the Lincoln Institute.


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