The Housing Tax Menace
By Gibson Kuria
The newly introduced Housing Levy by the Government is a classic example of hypothecated tax. What this means is that the tax is earmarked to achieve a specific purpose by the government and is not expected to be channeled to any other use other than the intended use. Hypothecation of tax is not a new thing in Kenya. Over time, levies have been introduced to raise funds for various key priority areas. Some of the levies include; Sugar Development Levy (SDL), Railway Development Levy (RDL), Road Maintenance Levy Fund , the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) , the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), Hotel and Catering Levy, Fuel Levy, Standards Levy, Export Levy among others some of which make sense only to the receiver of the revenue.
Housing in Kenya, especially the urban areas, has been one of the bottlenecks that successive governments have failed to address. According to Habitat for Humanity, the housing deficit in Kenya stood at 2 million in 2012 and it continues to increase at a rate of 200,000 units every year. It is clearly evident that this issue needs to be addressed with utmost urgency. However, is it the Government’s responsibility to provide housing for its citizens?
The role of government, in our understanding is to build roads, provide utilities like sewer, water and electricity services, build hospitals and schools and build any other necessary infrastructure which cannot be efficiently provided and managed by the private sector.
The government also has the responsibility of addressing issues that make housing affordable including controlling the prices of houses within the country. This happens when government breaks up cartels that make housing, and real estate in general, expensive. Further, government should encourage innovation in the real estate sector. Such innovation would mean building homes using cheaper technology and in this way, prices of homes would reduce significantly.
The cost of land is one of the greatest hindrances to affordable housing and government should have a radical policy approach towards managing this. For many first time home buyers, taking a mortgage is not an option as it is too expensive so the only viable option would be a short term loan which may not really suffice. It should be government’s work to ensure that mortgages are affordable and that there is more access to affordable long term credit.
Rather than having a housing tax, the government should focus on how to increase people’s income without the cost of life necessarily going up. This can ensure that individuals have more disposable income and housing is affordable.
Proponents of hypothecation argue that it is easy to justify to the public the core reason of collecting a particular revenue, it also enhances accountability and transparency within government as it is easy to follow the money which has been collected. This facilitates trust with government especially if revenue collected can be accounted for.
Hypothecation however, does have its fair share of challenges that make it an unattractive method of raising funds from the public. First, it is difficult to remove the tax when the task it was intended for has been achieved. The Government will always find other places to divert the money collected. Further, when such monies are collected they attract ‘tenderprenuers’ and thus increases the cases of graft. Case in point is how some private hospitals have colluded with corrupt NHIF officials in making fictitious claims and in some instances overpricing the medical services received by the members.
Hypothecation should not be encouraged since it removes free will and choice from the people who are the tax payers. Individuals should have a say on whether or not they want to be part of the housing scheme and if they want to pay the housing levy. Taxpayers should have a choice on whether to purchase their houses through bank mortgages or SACCO Societies which are very popular in Kenya. This policy also reduces the amount of disposable income. This means that more households will be constrained on their savings and spending will be reduced greatly which has a subsequent effect on the economy at large.
Hypothecation is a bad tax and economic policy as it reduces policy competition during allocation of funds. Taxation should be driven by need and as such various policies have to compete to get a certain share of the taxpayers’ money. Imagine a case where for every new government policy a new tax is introduced, this is not attainable and the more the reason why we should not encourage hypothecation. The ideal should be that various needs are identified then prioritising helps to determine the revenue share that each gets. This ensures that the proportion of revenue allocated is based on the priority.
The success of any government is based on having reliable structures with an element of flexibility at the same time. Hypothecation however removes that flexibility from parliament or the Cabinet Secretary of Finance to reallocate funding to priority sectors. Hypothecation essentially ties the hands of government as spending of hypothecated funds is constrained. Governments should be in a position to spend especially during difficult economic cycles without seeming like they are breaking the law.
William Wordsworth is quoted as having said “Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future”. In Kenya we have had the NSSF and NHIF which in all fairness have largely been mismanaged, and riddled with graft cases. Hypothecation in this case has not been successful yet the revenues are still collected. It is for such obvious reasons that the housing levy should be abolished and abandoned if we are to live better in the future as a country.
Gibson Kuria is a Tax Consultant at Andersen Tax, Kenya: Gibson.Kuria@AndersenTax.co.ke
Andersen Tax, Kenya is a member firm of Andersen Global. Andersen Global is an international association of legally separate, independent member firms comprised of tax and legal professionals around the world. Established in 2013 by U.S. member firm Andersen Tax LLC, Andersen Global now has nearly 4,000 professionals worldwide and a presence in over 126 locations through its member firms and collaborating firms.