Using the Property Tax for Value Capture

A Case Study from Brazil
Claudia M. De Cesare, Janeiro 1, 1998

Public investment in urban areas often results in increased land value that benefits only a small group of private owners. In a pioneering initiative, the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, is using the property tax as an instrument for capturing land value increments, deterring land speculation and promoting rational urban development.

Economic and Social Context

Porto Alegre is the capital and largest city of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. With a population of 1.5 million inhabitants and approximately 450,000 real estate units in 1994, city officials estimated a shortfall of more than 50,000 residential properties. However, major economic and social problems limited the city’s ability to provide housing for low- and middle-income families.

As in many developing countries with unstable economic cycles, land is a major means of concentrating wealth in Brazilian cities. In Porto Alegre, the existence of large undeveloped sites near the city center contributes to urban sprawl on the periphery. The major factor responsible for this situation is land speculation by wealthy landowners who hold large vacant sites and wait for a favorable moment to undertake investments or to sell their sites at huge profits.

As low-income families are pushed to the periphery, their segregation leads to increased social exclusion and demands for public services. However, the provision of basic infrastructure, such as public transport services on the long routes between the periphery and the commercial, industrial and entertainment centers, requires large investments from the government.

City officals in Porto Alegre had set a primary goal to provide high quality urban services for the outlying community, including basic infrastructure, education, public transport, street cleaning and security services. However, a financial diagnosis of the city’s revenue alerted authorities to the scarcity of resources for such investment. In contrast, many districts in more central areas were well supplied with infrastructure, equipment and services, and they had lower population densities than were called for in the city’s urban development plan.

Speculation was clearly impeding land development, but officials believed the political atmosphere seemed favorable for change. After a period in which government authorities faced chronic inflation in Brazil, an economic stabilization program was introduced in July 1994. Before the economic plan, inflation was running at astonishing annual rates of 7,000 percent. Since the introduction of the plan, average rates of inflation ranged between 0.7 and 1.7 percent a month. When the economy was measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it showed annual positive growth rates since 1993. Local government was confident that the moment was ideal for recovering the investment and productive activities that had been paralyzed during the previous high-inflation period.

In summary, the following factors encouraged Porto Alegre’s initiative to use the property tax as an instrument for simultaneously capturing increased land value, deterring land speculation, and promoting social fairness and economic growth:

  • Stimulation of urban land occupation and development, since the private market was not responding positively to the demand from low- and middle-income residents.
  • Reduction of the housing shortfall.
  • Provision of assistance to low-income families, guaranteeing better living and working opportunities.
  • Recovery of land value generated by public investment, by encouraging individuals who had been favored by public investment to return those benefits to the community.
  • Avoidance of large additional investments in public infrastructure and services by applying financial resources rationally.

Government Actions

The Brazilian Constitution (1988) defines the property tax as a tax on urban land and buildings and specifies that it can be used as an instrument of urban policy to promote the rational use of land to generate social benefits to the community at large. This provision allowed Porto Alegre to undertake the following actions:

  • Define priority urban zones for development and occupation. The process involved the selection of five distinct areas characterized by high-quality urban infrastructure, equipment and services. These areas would support a larger population density without any additional public investment.
  • Identify 120 vacant sites ranging from 3,000 to 360,000 square metres (m2) in the priority zones.
  • Introduce local legislation requiring the development of the selected properties within given time periods. The law established that if the periods specified for developing the sites were not met the property tax on those sites would be made progressive. The tax rate would be raised by 20 percent increments on an annual basis up to a maximum rate of 30 percent. The basic rates for vacant land vary from 5 to 6 percent of the property market value.
  • Grant priority to construction projects on the designated sites. The City Council institutions responsible for planning permits would facilitate construction and occupation.

Effectiveness of the Initiative

The legislation was promulgated at the end of 1993 and the government started to implement it in 1994. The proposal was supported by both ruling and opposition party members of the City Council, which is responsible for approving decisions on matters of municipal legislation.

As of October 1997, the initiative has not yet achieved its desired results. Only five of the 120 vacant sites are being developed. The landowners of 50 properties are paying the property tax at the progressive rate. Three of the properties were removed from the list because they had been incorrectly included in the first place due to inaccurate records about their physical characteristics.

The development status of the remaining 62 properties has not been defined. Some are owned by wealthy and politically powerful landowners who appealed to the Supreme Court against the constitutionality of the measures undertaken by the city government. Indeed, two landowners (A and B) who hold nearly 44 percent of the vacant land are appealing, and other landowners seem to be waiting for the judiciary outcome to make their own decisions. (See chart.)

Evaluating the effectiveness of Porto Alegre’s property tax initiative will be possible only after the judiciary decisions on the matter are pronounced, but other crucial gains derived from the experience have already guaranteed its success. The legislation has generated intense debate at the national and local level regarding political and private rights, property rights and public interest. The experience has also been used as an example to make other government authorities aware of their responsibilities to promote the rational use of urban land.

In Brazil, cultural and economic factors still seem to encourage land speculation rather than productive activities, and the difficulty in establishing boundaries between public interest and private rights is, indeed, complex. However, the pioneering actions undertaken in Porto Alegre represent an important step towards controlling private speculation and promoting responsible urban development. Similar initiatives elsewhere now have a greater potential for becoming effective alternatives to achieve fairness in the distribution of public resources with favorable social benefits to the community.

Claudia M. De Cesare works for the Porto Alegre City Council and is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for the Built and Human Environment, University of Salford, England.