Research Summary: Using Distributed Ledger Technologies to Improve and Maximise the Collection of Property Taxes

TLDR:

  • Developed countries collect six times the percentage of property taxes (PT) by GDP (2.2%) that developing countries do (0.38%).
  • These figures could be higher, but fraud, corruption and incapacity, among other challenges, cause leakages.
  • Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) could help maximize the collection of PT due to features like transparency, traceability, verification and automation.

Core Research Question

Can DLT be used to maximize the collection of property taxes? In what ways can they be used or have there been any case studies in which the technology was applied?

Citation

Nicolaou-Manias, Kathy and Wu, Yuchen, Using Distributed Ledger Technologies to Improve and Maximise the Collection of Property Taxes (August 4, 2021). Available at SSRN: SSRN Electronic Library or SSRN Electronic Library

Background

  • Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT): A database network where participants can read and write the state of a database from any location, at any time.
  • Tax: A major source of revenue for governments. Governments levy taxes, which are mandatory payments on individuals, businesses and goods and services.
  • Property Tax (PT): A tax levied by governments on properties, often landed properties, on their use or transfer.

Summary

  • Developing countries only collect a fraction of PT (0.38% of GDP) when compared with developed countries (2.2% of GDP).

    • Property taxes are generally seen as good taxes.
    • A good tax is equitable, fair, easily enforceable and involves low administrative costs. Bad taxes cause inequities, are largely unenforceable and involve high administrative costs.
    • Tax evasion resulting from inequity turns property taxes from a good tax to a bad tax. The use of real estate for money laundering contributes to this.
    • Price manipulation, undeclared transactions, and using corporate vehicles to conceal identities are ways governments can lose out on PT revenue.
    • At the centre of PT collection is the deeds registry.
    • The deeds registry is usually a government agency that serves as a single source of truth for recording a real estate transaction.
    • In many developing countries the deeds registry is an opaque system, which promotes tax evasion.
  • DLTs like blockchains can assist governments in achieving transparency.

    • Blockchain’s features, such as peer-to-peer networks, traceability, decentralization and automation make this transparency possible.
    • As property tax collections increase, “corporate income tax, personal income tax, capital gains and inheritance tax” collections will also increase.
  • PT collection uses sensitive personal and national data, making the selection of an appropriate type of blockchain crucial.

    • The authors emphasize a blockchain’s ability to securely record transactions, transfer value and validate ownership in a way that is traceable and equitable.
    • Blockchains come in different varieties: permissioned and permissionless; what distinguishes the two is whether access is restricted (the former) or open (the latter).
    • Due to the sensitive data involved in PT collection, permissioned blockchains are recommended.
    • The authors further describe the use of permissioned DLT for identification, citing benefits such as privacy, security, convenience and accurate tracing.
    • On the other hand, while permissionless DLTs could be cost-effective, low patronage makes adoption difficult.
    • The advantages of using a blockchain for PT collection includes privacy for Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), real-time information exchange, traceability of transactions, and cost reduction.
    • The disadvantages of using a blockchain for PT collection include difficulty in scalability and interoperability, the potential for crypto forensics to pierce the privacy veil; the more permissioned the blockchain, the less secure it is; governance challenges; and high transition costs.
    • Deeds registries are characterized by heavy dependence on paper, they are time-consuming to use, potentially corrupt, and thrive in informal sectors. Verification and traceability can be difficult and cause massive disputes.
    • The following intermediaries are involved in a traditional transfer of landed property.
  • The seller, who wants to sell the property.

  • The buyer, who wants to buy the property.

  • The agent who is a neutral third party who helps facilitate the transaction.

  • The conveyancer who is usually a lawyer who helps draft the relevant legal documents.

  • The buyer’s bank, which sends the consideration for the sale to the seller’s bank.

  • The seller’s bank, which receives the consideration for the sale from the buyer’s bank.

  • The deeds registry, which is usually a government agency that serves as the single source of truth for recording the transaction.

  • The authors describe the following process for using DLT for conveying property digitally:

    • The buyer and seller reach an agreement relating to a property transaction.
    • Transactions are sent to a peer-to-peer network.
    • The network validates all related information.
    • Upon validation, value transfers are made. Property ownership is transferred to the buyer, and the balance is transferred from the buyer’s wallet to the seller’s wallet.
    • The value transfers result in a transaction record on both wallets.
    • The transaction record serves as a digital certificate with cryptographic proof (hash).
  • The following needs to be housed in the DLT property wallet:

    • Ownership information.
    • A unique identification number.
    • Address and parcel or erf number.
    • Geo-spatial information.
    • Cadastral zoning classification.
    • Physical characteristics of the property (size linked with geo-spatial coordinates).
  • When all this information linked to the property, estimation and annual adjustment of PT becomes easy and transparent.

Method

  • The authors employ a qualitative approach using a literature review to identify the challenges associated with increasing the equitable collection of property taxes.
  • Literature reviews were also used to highlight the embedded features of blockchain and discuss how its application could increase PT collection.

Results

Blockchains offer security, privacy and transparency, which can be useful when there is a need to verify and trace beneficial ownership of assets.

  • 2016: Delaware’s Blockchain Initiative allows corporations to register and transfer shares on a blockchain.
  • 2016: Georgia transitioned to a blockchain-based registry, becoming the first country to register property on the blockchain.
  • 2016: BitLand, BenBen, IBM and Seso Global begin working with the Ghanian government in different capacities to register land on the blockchain.
  • 2016: After an initial test, the Swedish Land Registry, Lantmäteriet, begins using a private blockchain for land and property registration.
  • 2017: With a pilot in Pelotas and Morro Redondo, Brazil collaborates with Ubiquity for its blockchain property deeds.
  • 2017: Pilot trials of blockchain use in land registration are announced by the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia.
  • 2017: The Dubai Blockchain Strategy is released. The Dubai Land Department (DLD) conducts land-related transactions from start to finish using the blockchain.
  • 2017: The first pilot program to transition Ukraine’s State Land Cadastre onto a blockchain begins with a partnership with BitFury.
  • 2017: Chicago sees the successful pilot of a blockchain property record by velox.RE and Chicago’s Cook County Recorder of Deeds (CCRD).
  • 2018: The state of Andhra Pradesh partners with Zebi to digitize land records on a private blockchain. Earlier in 2017, the Telangana government sponsored a blockchain registration platform with a pilot in Hyderabad.
  • 2018: A MoU signed by Rwanda Land Management and Use Authority (RLMUA) and the Rwanda Information Society Authority (RISA) with MLG leads to Ubataka, a blockchain land transaction platform. Ubataka is paperless and uses Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) and biometrics for authentication and verification.
  • 2018: A successful pilot of blockchain property records in Zambia begins through an MoU with MLG and the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.
  • 2019: After free pilot programs based on an MoU between the Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and Medici Land Governance (MLG), the Liberia Land Authority (LLA) launches.
  • 2019: Malta moves all rental contracts onto a blockchain.
  • 2019: Working with the Nigeria Mortgage Refinance Company and the Nigerian Ministry of Finance, Seso Global creates a blockchain-powered marketplace for real estate transactions in Nigeria.
  • 2019: The Khayelitsha pilot in Cape Town for a blockchain property registry launches through a partnership amongst the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF), 71point4 and Seso Global.
  • 2019: MLG and the government of St. Kitts and Nevis sign an MoU to develop a blockchain-based “cadaster system”.
  • 2019: Her Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR) supported by R3 Corda and Instant Property Network (IPN) uses a blockchain prototype in a house sale.
  • 2020: In Afghanistan, the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) and the UN Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT) launch goLandRegistr that integrates with the Afghan Land Authority via an API.
  • Although not blockchain-based, Estonia has a fully functional and efficient e-Land registry. However, other sectors like health, justice and business are secured with blockchains.

Discussion and Key Takeaways

  • The main hurdles for African countries in the use of blockchains for PT are data collection and quality. The cost of data collection is quite high, but fortunately, it is a one-time expense with a high long-term return on investment.

  • Additional immediate benefits include:

    • Lower costs.
    • Fraud and corruption detection.
    • Seamless information sharing.
    • Auditability.
    • Security.
    • Sped up processes.
    • Minimized disputes.
    • Backup.
    • Transparency.
    • Fairness and accountability.
    • E-government readiness.
  • Generally, governments use blockchains for notarization, shared databases and workflow automation.

  • To better capture the benefits of blockchains beyond PT, the authors suggest African countries should do the following:

    • Create an environment with the right political will, awareness, organization, policy, regulatory oversight and procedural frameworks.
    • Facilitate technical capacity building, including digital infrastructure.
    • Reconstruct governance systems that promote stakeholder inclusion.
  • They consider two types of blockchains, public and private, for registries. A safer strategy is to first incorporate before considering replacement.

    • The diverse implications of public and private blockchain use for African countries makes a consortium blockchain a better choice.
  • Governments using blockchains can be categorized under the following standards:

    • Basic Standard: Contracts are housed electronically. Afghanistan, Liberia and South Africa follow a basic standard.
    • Silver Standard: Contracts are housed electronically and use automation and verification. Brazil, Estonia, India, and the Netherlands use a silver standard.
    • Gold Standard: Contracts are housed electronically in an automated and verifiable way and use tokenization. Nigeria, Rwanda, Ukraine and the United States are at a gold standard.
    • Platinum Standard: Contracts are housed electronically in an automated and verifiable way and use tokenization, in addition, there is further tokenization of property-related utilities and services like water and electricity. St. Kitts and Nevis, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Zambia are at a platinum standard.

Implications and Follow-ups

  • Considering the four phases of technology adoption listed above, the authors suggest African countries begin their blockchain adoption from the basic standard and gradually scale up to a platinum standard.
  • The main challenges with leveraging blockchain for PT include a steep learning curve, technical know-how, maintenance and interoperability.
  • User education can be a challenge.

Applicability

  • Taxation plays a huge role in nation-building.
  • Good taxes empower citizens to keep their government accountable and transparency allows them to keep their government’s spending in check.
  • Blockchains are ideal for minimizing tax evasion.
  • The authors recommend that African governments start from a basic standard and scale-up.
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@Fizzymidas have there been any comparisons between collection rates in developing countries that have adopted blockchain registries vs. those that haven’t? It would be interesting to see. @Astrid_CH what type of registry does Taiwan use for tracking property? What do you think of this idea?

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That’s an interesting question.

At the moment, I do not think there is sufficient data available from which to draw such insights. Reasons include, while some pilots were successful, for some countries, adoption was never fully implemented. For instance, in Nigeria and Ghana. Also, most countries lacked the digital infrastructure essential for successful full adoption.

Let’s have a few more years, and we could do comparisons.

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Thanks @Fizzymidas for a very interesting research summary.

I have no doubt that blockchains for recording property ownership could offer many benefits to developed as well as developing societies–assuming that the people involved are honest. But human beings have always brought great ingenuity to tax evasion in particular, and even the most watertight blockchains won’t be a magic bullet for collecting taxes if the (often very wealthy and powerful) property owners are determined to avoid it.

Your summary says that “blockchain’s features, such as peer-to-peer networks, traceability, decentralization and automation” can “assist governments in achieving transparency.” Among the “immediate benefits” that you cite for Distributed Ledger Technologies are “fraud and corruption detection.”

But you also state that “price manipulation, undeclared transactions, and using corporate vehicles to conceal identities are ways governments can lose out on PT revenue.” How will those sorts of deceptions be cured by DLT systems that in the end contain only data that people choose to reveal?

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Thank you for this question @rlombreglia, it highlights one of the major challenges with using technology, including blockchain. Because garbage in garbage out (GIGO).

One measure for mitigating this can be putting in place policies and measures for data quality management. For instance, requiring a certain percentage of network participants to verify data. In addition, people could also be incentivized to comply.

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@Fizzymidas Thank you for the wonderful summary, the list of use cases is very useful for doing related research.

@jmcgirk Thanks for your question. In Taiwan, we usually take papers such as contracts and land certificates to the deeds registry to process land transactions. Then the deeds registry records the information on the electronic system, so we can search for the latest information about the property state. I like the idea to leverage DLT in the process, but I also have concerns about the privacy issues. @Fizzymidas Are there any details about how it deals with privacy issues? Would it become a problem to fit GDPR requirements? On the other hand, I think NFT could be used as one type of certificate in the process. Does the paper mention anything about it?

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I have been trying to think about how to approach this post due to my experience with this issue and want to raise a few questions that you might be able to help answer:

If the problem with the current systems is a lack of transparency in general due to malicious government actors, how does the technology get implemented if those malicious actors are still present?

In other words; if this technology is meant to aid in fraud prevention by proxy of transparency, then what is the logical course of implementation if the malicious actors are still present and thus have the capacity to block implementation?

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@Fizzymidas did you see @Larry_Bates’s questions for you?

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@Fizzymidas I really appreciate this summary! FYI - I couldn’t access the paper through the citation link. It says it was removed.

From a political science perspective:

  • One of the main questions I had was, what are the other factors decreasing property tax collection in developing countries? I’m wondering what percentage of the outcome (low property tax collection) is tax evasion vs something else like economic conditions (do folks have cash on hand to pay taxes?), enforcement from the government (if no one comes to collect your taxes or there are no consequences, why pay your taxes at all?), or even private land ownership rates (private owners pay taxes, the government does not). There are some assumptions about governing in this study that I’m not sure were addressed.

From a technical perspective:

  • My concerns are with privacy and security of the system. I honestly wonder if paper becomes more secure in digitization. Can anyone address security at scale for blockchain systems that seek to become nation-level infrastructure? What really has to be considered here?
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@Fizzymidas, I found this summary highly helpful as it gives an overview of the solutions being provided in creating land registries with DLT. The challenge is that, as @rlombreglia and @Larry_Bates point out, a blockchain solution doesn’t solve the core administrative issues, and there is little incentive for the adoption of a more transparent system by the current administrators.

However, administrative challenges are only part of the problem. Another challenge is accessibility. Difficulties in accessing property records (high cost of due diligence) contribute to the prevalence of fraud and property-related litigation. An easily accessible property records database could solve a large part of the issue. Luckily, private companies/projects (like VerifyPro – a personal project) are pushing into this area and trying to build businesses around property validation. The goal, I suppose, is to make transparency profitable and incentivising.
A blockchain isn’t strictly required in implementing this. The company I know implementing a blockchain does it as an added feature to boost customer confidence in title documents they help validate.

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Brilliant Summary @Fizzymidas.

Reading the summary, I would love the answer to this

I am not sure if blockchain technology is really needed to improve and maximize the collection of property taxes at this time. Check @Tony_Siu’s Research Summary: Do you need a Blockchain? to confirm. My primary concerns with integrating blockchain for the collection of property taxes in Africa include the cost of integrating, the high barrier to educating actors, and blockchain’s scalability challenge.

I agree that your suggested takeaways are needed to improve the collection of property taxes in Africa. To add to it, Incentive mechanisms should be used to reward good actors and punish bad actors

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@Austin_jul what did you think about the idea of registering property on a blockchain specifically? (So it would replace a land registry) I couldn’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work, other than there being some complexity in inputting and updating the system, and the third party risk of a government didn’t do it themselves.

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Exactly @jmcgirk. The idea of registering property on a blockchain specifically could open up the economies of developing countries due to the transparent nature of blockchain and the reduction of the use of TTPs. I scanned through countries that are already using blockchain to register properties and I saw the immense potential of blockchain technology in the real estate sector.

However, the barrier of entry is rather high for developing economies - a massive education campaign is needed to kick this off the ground because writers are not educated to write on the blockchain platform. For now, the benefit of using TTPs in the real estate sector of developing economies is greater than the benefit of removing TTPs from the Mix. Nevertheless, This Benefit ratio could change in a few years.

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Having worked on this specific problem, it is WAY more complicated than it appears. There are many stakeholders, and even beyond that the notion of “Trustless” systems do not resonate well with people who have never had a functioning government that they can trust. I am starting to realize that the capacity to “trust” things will work is a luxury that many have taken for granted.

Even though Bitland was named one of Time Magazine’s “Genius Companies of 2018” the actual “cryptocurrency community’s” response was “why wasn’t it Ethereum?”

Many in the space either did not understand the potential for land registries years ago, or pretended not to understand to try and position maximalist frameworks as the only viable solutions. Many of these approaches were entirely disconnected from local cultures and treated all developing regions as “the same” for the barrier of entry. Effectively “why don’t we just slap a blockchain on a map and replace their registry?” has been a lot of the framing for approaching developing countries for almost a decade now.

I can tell you, it’s WAY more complex than even having the technical side solved. Assuming the “technical” aspects are perfect, actual implementation becomes another issue on its own that there haven’t really been any viable solutions to be presented from 100% private sector solutions (As far as I know). As @Austin_jul pointed out, the education on the ground might legitimately be the biggest barrier to entry into any market. Further, that education may need to take a dedicated form depending on the national or regional culture and whether that population is primed to accept a general digital framework or whether it needs a more region-specific framework.

As Nigeria is one of the countries in which I worked, I can say there were definitely Ethereum maximalists framing the conversations in ways that made the government hesitant and wary to adopt any blockchain technology at all. The education problem is most certainly one of the biggest hurdles to adoption, and a lot of that comes from maximalists presenting frameworks that put the government or local population on guard.

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That’s a vital question @Astrid_CH! And this applies not just to using blockchain for PT, but to the general blockchain ecosystem.

The only reference the authors make to privacy issues was recommending the use of a permissioned blockchain as opposed to a permissionless blockchain. This is because permissioned blockchains are a better fit for the GDPR in terms of compliance.

The question of GDPR-compliance for blockchains will depend on blockchain type and use case. GDPR compliance is technology-neutral, the focus is not on the technology but on its application.

With the use of permissioned blockchain for PT and with the aim of achieving GDPR-compliance, personal data can be stored off-chain. Data could also be programmed to delete in the off-chain storage after the blockchain achieves a certain block height.

More information in this IBM+IAPP research: https://iapp.org/media/pdf/resource_center/blockchain_and_gdpr.pdf

No, the paper did not mention anything about NFTs. That’s an interesting use case, which is supported by my next research summary still in the pipeline, should publish once editing is completed. The authors of that paper propose NFTs as patents. As NFTs are a good fit for uniqueness and authenticity, they could be considered for certificate issuance on the blockchain.

At the moment though, most people consider NFT as an add-on in property related transactions. More like getting an NFT after a property transaction for societal displays.

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The million-dollar question! :grinning:

I believe this is where a strong political will comes into place, and also the reason the authors mention a weak political will as a challenge to implementing these types of changes.

For instance, in the whole country, only the state of Lagos (and Abuja) in Nigeria has a partly digitized land registry. Even that is not open to the public and requires showing up physically at their office to access digital records. Lagos state is known for being innovative and past and current governors generally have a strong political will to implement change.

Another instance of a strong political will is the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) in Nigeria as recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). TSA received stiff opposition from its proposal until implementation because it meant drying up revenue streams for corrupt civil servants. Implementing TSA helped Nigeria recover over 2 trillion naira.

If more states (and countries) develop a strong political will, we will see more progress in implementing some of these corruption-curbing solutions, including blockchain. It might be slow, but we will eventually get there.

Also, citizens have a role to play here. And this is where sensitization and enlightenment are essential. When citizens are properly informed, they become empowered and can demand good governance from their leaders. A determined government with a strong political will can achieve anything.

I hope I haven’t turned this into a political discourse. :laughing:

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yes, finally got around to replying

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Thank you for the comment @valeriespina and apologies for only just responding.

I am not sure why the authors removed the paper from SSRN, This has motivated me to try reaching out to them again via email as I couldn’t find them on any social media platform while writing the summary.

You are right that the authors did not go in depth on the socio-economic issues you raised. In most developing countries, at least for Nigeria, often, property taxes are levied only in urban areas and on commercial properties. For instance, a landlord not living with the tenants pays lesser than a landlord living with tenants. Also, most landlords simply transfer the costs to tenants.

On your privacy question, I reference it in my answer to @Astrid_CH. As much as there is a need for transparency, personal data also needs to be protected. The authors suggest the use of a permissioned blockchain and anonymization of data to help preserve privacy.

Digitization is often aimed at portability, durability. ease of access and speedy retrieval. Whether it is secure will depend on the underlying infrastructure. As such, some considerations would include confirming that the infrastructure used meets the CIA triad standards: confidentiality, integrity and availability. Blockchain (permissioned) is able to satisfy the CIA triad.

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Thank you @tomideadeoye for engaging!

If we follow this rubric as explained in @Tony_Siu’s summary “Do you need a blokchain?”, the key point to determine is, “can you use an always online trusted third party?”. Using Nigeria as a case study, the answer to this is NO. The trusted party here (Land Registry) is mostly offline, and in states (Lagos and Abuja) where they are partly digitized, access is still restricted.

As further explained in the summary, the Land Registry can function as a certificate granting authority that also verifies blockchain writers, in this case, local government authorities. This is important because, as you rightly identified, one huge challenge is high cost of due diligence. This high cost could greatly reduce by involving local government authorities and in turn making them blockchain writers.

Often companies implement blockchain when involving tokenization.

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Thank you for enaging @Austin_jul

I have responded to Chris here.

As mentioned in my response to @tomideadeoye above, I am of the opinion that blockchain is needed. This does not mean that blockchain must be used.

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