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Municipal governments provide many of our most visible services: water, snow removal, garbage collection, policing, and fire protection. The mix of services varies somewhat from province to province, since the framework for municipal services and financing is the domain of provincial governments. 1 Furthermore, the level and mix of services may vary within provinces because of the autonomous authority granted to municipalities.
Regardless of the services provided, property taxes are the major source of revenue for local governments across the country. 2 Municipal governments levy such taxes annually on residential, commercial and industrial properties. Other sources of income include grants or subsidies from the province.
Homeowners pay property tax directly to their local government whereas renters pay through their rent. The tax due is typically calculated by multiplying the assessed value of the property by the tax rate—commonly referred to as 'mill rate' and expressed as dollars of tax per $1,000 of assessed value. Residential properties are usually taxed at lower rates than non-residential properties. 3 For example, in Ontario the residential rate is 85% of the non-residential rate (Slack 2000; OFTS 1993).
Property tax is one of the three main taxes paid by households. The other two are income tax and sales tax. Property tax differs in that it is a tax on an asset rather than a financial flow. Property tax is levied on the full value of the property, not the owner's equity.
Since property taxes are not directly related to the ability to pay, they may be a particular burden for some homeowners. How is this burden distributed across families with different levels of income? Does the burden vary among the provinces? Do property taxes contribute to after-tax income inequality in Canada? These questions are addressed using information on assets, liabilities and income. Because renters generally do not know the portion of their rent attributable to property taxes, the analysis is limited to homeowning families (see Data source and definitions).
Property taxes highest in Central Canada
In 1998, the average homeowner paid $1,830 in property taxes (Table 1), ranging from $640 in Newfoundland and Labrador to $2,230 in Ontario. Quebec was the only other province higher than the Canadian average, at $2,030. In general, property taxes were lower in the Atlantic provinces and higher in Ontario and Quebec, with the Western provinces in the middle.
Property taxes are based on two factors: assessed value and mill rate. The assessed value was not available, but homeowners did estimate the current value of their homes. According to these estimates, average property values were highest in British Columbia ($219,000) and Ontario ($183,000), followed by Alberta ($137,000) and Quebec ($109,000). In the remainder of the country, the average home was valued between $71,000 and $92,000.
Dividing the property tax by the estimated property value yields an estimate of the effective property tax rate. Using this approximation, homeowners in Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the most heavily taxed in 1998—1.8% to 1.9% of the estimated property value. At the opposite end of the scale, British Columbian homeowners paid just 0.7%. The effective property tax rates of other provinces were in a tight band between 0.9% (Newfoundland and Labrador) and 1.2% (Ontario).
On average, income taxes far exceed property taxes
Property taxes constitute a fairly small proportion of the overall family tax burden. The average family income tax bill of $13,600 was more than seven times the average property tax bill. As a proportion of total income, 21.3% went for income taxes compared with 2.9% for property taxes.
Quebec had the highest rate of both income taxes (24.5%) and property taxes (3.4%). Income taxes ate up 20% to 21% of family income west of the Quebec-Ontario border, and 17% to 18% in the Atlantic provinces. In relation to income, property taxes were highest in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, falling off towards the east and west coasts.
Looking only at averages can understate the property tax burden for some families. Although more than three-quarters of families spent less than 5% of their income on property taxes in 1998, 1 in 15 spent more than 10%. Quebecers again felt the sting disproportionately, with 9.1% spending at least a tenth of their income on municipal taxes. Ontario (8.0%) and Manitoba (7.3%) also showed relatively high numbers.
Income tax is progressive
A tax set at a fixed percentage of income or expenditure is termed a proportionate or flat-rate tax. For example, the GST is 7% on something that costs $1 or $10,000. In contrast, the income tax system is designed to be progressive—the tax rate increases at higher levels of income (see Tax terminology). A regressive tax has the opposite relationship with income—the tax rate falls as income increases.
The progressivity of income tax is evident (Table 2). Families with less than $20,000 of pre-tax income in 1998 paid income tax equalling 4.0% of their income. The income tax rate rises for each successive income class, reaching 28.6% for families that brought in $100,000 or more—the mark of a progressive rate structure.
Families tend to live in increasingly expensive homes as their income increases, although the gradient is much less steep for home values than for income. Families with incomes less than $20,000 lived in houses with an average value of $112,000. Those with incomes of $100,000 and over occupied homes averaging $227,000. So while average income increased more than tenfold (from $14,000 to $151,000), the average home value only doubled.
At the local level, property taxes are generally set up as proportional taxes—the final tax is determined by multiplying the assessed property value times a constant mill rate. The Survey of Financial Security shows that effective property tax rates remain remarkably flat across the country. Homeowners in both the lowest and highest income groups paid 1.2%—also the overall average—of the value of their homes in municipal taxes. No other group varied by more than 0.1 percentage points from the average. Thus, despite the great variation in home values and effective mill rates across the country, property taxes, on average, were proportionate to the value of the property being taxed.
Property taxes are regressive with respect to income
Although property taxes are proportionate with respect to property values, they are regressive with respect to family income. In 1998, families with incomes under $20,000 paid 10.0% of their income in property taxes whereas those with incomes of $100,000 and over paid just 1.8% (Chart A). Between these two extremes, the proportion of income consumed by property taxes declined with each step up in family income.
But the burden of property taxes was not the same for everyone within income classes. Property tax share of income varied considerably within groups, particularly at the lower end of the income scale. At the top end, almost all families with incomes of $100,000 and over paid less than 5% of their income in property taxes. For families bringing in less than $20,000, a considerable portion (29.2%) also paid less than 5%, but 44.6% paid more than 10%. Furthermore, 1 in 11 families in the lowest income category had tax bills in excess of 25% of their income, a situation that was virtually non-existent among families with incomes greater than $20,000.
Quantifying progressivity and regressivity
Comparing the rate of change in tax rates with the rate of change of the income being taxed yields a measure of progressivity termed the 'elasticity' of taxes with respect to income. 4 A positive elasticity indicates a progressive tax structure, zero elasticity a perfectly flat structure, and negative elasticity a regressive structure. While income taxes are clearly progressive across all adjacent income groups, property taxes are consistently regressive (Chart B). The pattern of elasticities across income groups shows that most of the action occurs at the lower end of the income distribution.
The greatest relative increases in income tax rates occur from the lowest to the lower-middle income groups. These spikes are related to several features of the income tax system. First is the basic progressive structure of income tax rates—they increase across designated income thresholds. Second, some personal deductions at fixed rates provide proportionately greater tax relief to low-income individuals. Finally, some means-tested tax credits are clawed back as income increases. These features combine to create large proportionate increases in tax rates in the lower-income range since the starting base is effectively zero.
Similarly, property tax elasticity is most regressive at the bottom end of the distribution. This is related to the similarity in home values (and property taxes) across the three lowest income groups combined with large proportionate changes in income from one group to the next.
Property taxes and family income inequality
One premise underlying the progressive income tax system is that it reduces inequality in the distribution of income among families. Thus high-income families pay a greater proportion of income in taxes, and the after-tax income distribution is more equal than the pre-tax distribution. For example, families with incomes of $100,000 and over accounted for 13.9% of all homeowning families but received 33.0% of total income and paid 44.3% of total federal and provincial income tax in 1998. At the other extreme, families with incomes under $20,000 constituted 9.8% of homeowning families, received 2.1% of total income, and paid 0.4% of income tax.
The Gini coefficient is a standard measure of inequality. Higher coefficients indicate more inequality, lower coefficients signal more equal distributions. The measure varies from 0 (everyone has the same income) to 1 (one family has all the income). Among homeowning families, the Gini dropped from a pre-tax 0.362 to a post-tax 0.321, indicating that income taxes reduced inequality in family incomes by about 11% (Table 3).
Since property taxes are regressive, they have the opposite effect on the Gini coefficient—they raise inequality. Considering the effect of property taxes alone, the Gini coefficient rose from 0.362 pre-tax to 0.369 after. Similarly, with property taxes netted out after income taxes, the 0.321 post-income tax Gini rose to 0.329. The effect of property taxes somewhat negates the effect of income taxes in reducing the income inequality. 5 The reduction of 11% in income inequality by income taxes reversed to 9% after property taxes were taken out of post-income-tax family incomes. However, not all families are equally affected.
Property taxes among low-income and elderly families
The elderly and those in low income are the groups most frequently cited as burdened by property taxes. Homeowning families below the low-income cutoff (LICO), both elderly and non-elderly, paid property taxes that were, on average, higher than their income tax bills (Table 4). Property taxes equalled 12% of the income of elderly low-income families and 11% of the income of other low-income families. The average property tax bills of both differed little (maximum of $350) from those of homeowning families above the LICO. In contrast, families above the LICO paid income tax at rates four to five times higher than below-LICO families (with the absolute differences in dollar amounts higher by a factor of at least 17).
On average, homeowning families—even those below the LICO—had significant assets in 1999 compared with the size of their property tax bill. Regardless of income, elderly homeowners held similar equity in their houses ($132,000 to $134,000). Moreover, elderly families above the LICO held an average $149,000 in financial assets, 6 while those below averaged $79,000. 7
Property taxes make up a relatively small component of the tax bills of most Canadian families. On average, homeowners paid 2.9% of their family income for property taxes in 1998, compared with 21.3% in income taxes.
Quebec homeowners faced the highest tax burden, paying 24.5% of income for income taxes and 3.4% for property taxes. Along with Manitoba, Quebec had the highest tax rate with respect to the estimated value of the home, at 1.9%. Saskatchewan followed closely at 1.8%, while all other provinces had rates of 1.2% or lower.
Although property taxes are generally manageable for most families, about 1 in 15 paid 10% or more of their income in property taxes. This figure rose to 1 in 11 in Quebec, and was also relatively high in Ontario and Manitoba.
Income taxes and property taxes differ in their relationship to family income. Under Canada's income tax system, higher-income families pay higher rates of income tax—a progressive tax structure. Although property taxes are proportionate with respect to property values across income classes, low-income families spend a higher proportion of their income on property taxes than do higher-income families. Property taxes are therefore regressive with respect to family income.
The progressive nature of income taxes and regressive nature of property taxes are evident throughout the income distribution, but the steepest gradient for both types of taxes is at the lower end of the income distribution.
The redistributive nature of income taxes lowers a standard measure of inequality (the Gini coefficient) by about 11%. However, property taxes work in the opposite direction, increasing the post-income tax measure by almost 2%.
Although discussions about property tax effects frequently focus on the elderly, data show that low-income families—young or old—pay relatively high proportions of their incomes in property taxes. However, elderly homeowners have relatively high levels of home equity and financial resources, particularly compared with elderly renters.
Raj K. Chawla and Ted Wannell are with the Labour and Household Surveys Analysis Division. Raj Chawla can be reached at (613) 951-6901, Ted Wannell at (613) 951-3546, or both at email@example.com.