Claudia De Cesare is a property tax adviser to the Secretariat of Finance for the municipality of Porto Alegre, Brazil, and she teaches courses on valuation and property taxation in the postgraduate program of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre. She has been a course developer and instructor in the Lincoln Institute’s Latin America Program for more than five years. She is also a member of the advisory board of the International Property Tax Institute (IPTI) and is the former technical director of the Brazilian Appraisal Institute (IBAPE).
Land Lines: Porto Alegre is known internationally for its innovative and democratic local administration. What is unique about this city compared to others in Brazil or Latin America?
Claudia De Cesare: Indeed, Porto Alegre has initiated many pioneering actions in public administration, including the use of the property tax as an instrument for value capture; the sale of building rights (solo criado); the use of building rights in place of cash to pay for expropriations of real property; and the collection of rents in exchange for the use of public space by infrastructure networks, such as telecommunications, cable TV and gas. For instance, five years before the approval of the national City Statute legislation regulating the use of progressive rates for the property tax, Porto Alegre passed local legislation to address this matter. Although the Supreme Court later ruled against this local action and in favor of the need for national legislation, the city has played a leading role in promoting debate on many polemic issues, including private rights, property rights and the public interest.
I think the reasons for Porto Alegre’s innovations include a clear definition of the policies and goals to be achieved, as well as “guts” by local leaders to tackle issues even when conflict is likely to occur. Public officials have maintained an overriding vision that the city must be planned democratically for the community at large and a conviction that public assets must be taken seriously. Not all initiatives have succeeded, but citizens now have a better understanding of the local government’s responsibilities and its limitations. The fact that one political party, in this case the labor party (PT), was elected to lead the city government for more than 15 consecutive years also contributed to the continuity and coherence of these public actions. This kind of political legacy is quite unusual in Brazil and Latin America in general.
LL: How has this proactive atmosphere affected the administration of the property tax?
CD: We can identify two periods in terms of property tax performance in Porto Alegre. Before 1989, local revenue from the property tax followed the typical pattern in Latin America. It was mainly symbolic, characterized by a low level of effort in administration, negligence in local tax collection, and extreme dependence on revenue transfers from the national and state levels. Following major property tax reforms that revised exemption policies, introduced progressive rates and established a new assessment list, the property tax collection rate grew more than 300 percent over the first two years. A major public education campaign emphasized the arguments for regular property tax payments, the importance of the tax for the provision of public services, and the reasons why the local authorities would not tolerate tax evasion.
A change in attitude by the city administration also led to more effective enforcement of property tax payments and legal actions to address tax evasion or disputes over assessed values. It was made clear there would be no amnesty for property tax debts. The participatory budget process also contributed to the rehabilitation of the property tax in Porto Alegre, as overall confidence in public administration increased (see Goldsmith and Vanier 2001). Since the early 1990s, the annual revenue collected from the property tax has been stable, representing nearly 0.95 percent of local GDP. At the national level, by comparison, the property tax represents only about 0.5 percent of GDP. Subsequent improvements in the property tax have not taken place, basically because the legislature has rejected several proposals for either reforms or major revisions.
LL: How important is the property tax in Latin America?
CD: Although the simple answer to this question is “it depends on the country,” the property tax is not a significant revenue source in any Latin American country, even though most countries have long established property tax systems. Only in Argentina and Uruguay does the revenue collected from the property tax represent more than 1 percent of GDP. In Brazil the average performance is close to 0.5 percent, and in Mexico and Costa Rica it is around 0.3 percent of the GPD. Moreover, in relative terms, there is great variability in the importance of the property tax within countries and cities that is not directly explained by the local GDP or population size. Part of the performance depends on political will, which varies enormously among cities.
LL: In your opinion, what are the main controversies related to property tax collection?
CD: I would say that the controversies include the real goals to be achieved with the property tax; the degree of universality in its implementation; the changes needed to take into account social, economic and cultural concerns; and the distribution of the tax burden for regulating the tax according to ability to pay. Concerning ability to pay, principally in Brazil, there is much discussion about application of progressive rates that vary according to assessed values. The underlying issue might be how simple the system should be.
Other issues have to do with the lack of consensus about the transparency of the system, local autonomy versus a national system for tax collection, and general political and economic instability that affects property value maps and other data. Furthermore, the public disclosure of information on the property tax, such as individual property characteristics, assessed values and annual tax payments, is not always considered secure.
LL: What would it take to improve property tax collection?
CD: In my experience, the successful performance of the property tax depends on a combination of adequate fiscal policies, a consistent legal framework for tax collection and an efficient administrative structure. For instance, the application of confiscatory (high) rates to vacant sites to promote land development is likely to stimulate tax evasion instead. In addition, political will and the capacity for negotiation with stakeholders are essential for the introduction of reforms or revisions in tax administration. Making the connection between public services and revenue collected from the property tax more evident to taxpayers is likely to contribute to a better collection rate. In other words, the role of the property tax would be enhanced if the community is accustomed to paying the property tax and understands its effect on improving public services. Finally, a trend toward a participatory fiscal culture, in which the community takes part in the decisions about public revenue collection and expenditures, could increase the acceptability of the tax, making its collection easier.
LL: What is changing in the region to influence the prospects for tax reform?
CD: I believe tax administrators understand and care more today about the property tax. They are aware of the pressing need to increase revenues through better performance of the tax, in spite of challenges due to its high visibility and historically poor performance record. They also recognize the need to break this paradigm, in relation to both taxpayer expectations and the role of the property tax as a component of the national taxation system. Several isolated yet promising experiences have made it clear that property tax reform in Latin America is viable, but it requires political will, innovation and a commitment to overcome perceived barriers to its implementation.
LL: What are the main differences in the property tax environment of Latin America compared to North America?
CD: The U.S. and Canadian systems are certainly more mature and transparent than most Latin American systems, largely because information is available in the public domain and technology is easily accessible. Some of the important differences observed in Latin America are illegal occupation patterns, the lack of reliable information on land tenure, the large number of informal property transactions and the prevalence of progressive housing construction. All of these characteristics of Latin American land use present distinct challenges to developing procedures to assess property values and administer a fair and consistent tax policy. Concerning the use of technology in the administration of the property tax, last year I learned about a cadastral system in Mexico that is as effective as the best systems used in the U.S. However, this is unusual; there is great variation in the use of technology among different local authorities in Latin America.
LL: Based on your research, what are some of the positive and negative impacts of switching to a land value-based tax system for residential properties?
CD: The conclusion of my study was quite unexpected, since the hypothesis supported the opposite argument. Using a database from Porto Alegre, I found that the main result from using land value as the tax base was the tendency toward more regressivity in the distribution of the tax burden, with low-priced houses clearly identified as the potential losers. The fact that part of the tax burden would be transferred from high-priced to low-priced properties is a real cause of concern. However, further investigation is necessary to address imperfections in the valuation model used to estimate land values and to examine other databases. In any event, the lack of knowledge about the use of land value as the tax base and its perceived advantages was identified as a major obstacle for its application in Brazil.
LL: How do you use various assessment tools and techniques to determine land value?
CD: One of the main arguments against the use of land value as the tax base is the great difficulty in estimating the value of improved sites. In my study, the use of hedonic models (MRA) for estimating land values was found to be viable. To compensate for the lack of data on undeveloped sites in highly developed areas (central areas and business districts), I used a reasonable number of houses that were sold for new development. Their market value was determined entirely by the potential of the site for future development, as well as by the neighborhood characteristics. Therefore, the findings support the hypothesis that eventual difficulties in land assessment do not prevent the use of land value as the property tax base, at least, in the case of Porto Alegre. Nevertheless, a lower degree of assessment uniformity was observed in the valuation of undeveloped sites, since site prices tend to suffer strong random variations and are highly influenced by the particular characteristics of the buyer and seller involved in each transaction.
LL: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Latin America in the next five years?
CD: As discussed before, a major challenge is to pursue more effective property tax systems. I think the promotion and implementation of national programs for the improvement of the property tax is essential to reinforce the property tax at the local level. On a more personal note, my goal is to develop a web-based system for collecting and disseminating information on property taxes in Latin America, allowing comparative analyses among municipalities according to predefined criteria. The system would have property tax administrators fill out data on the performance of the property tax on a regular basis, allowing for evaluation over time. This would greatly advance the project, now being supported by the Lincoln Institute, which uses conventional questionnaires to survey property tax information in the region.
Goldsmith, William W. and Carlos B. Vainer. 2001. Participatory budgeting and power politics in Porto Alegre. Land Lines 13 (1): 7–9.