Millions of tenants in Freetown run the risk of facing a high rent owing to an increased property rate by Freetown City Council (FCC).
As early as May this year, just after the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, FCC announced a 5% increase in property rate for all houses in the municipality, a move the central government was not pleased with.
FCC’s decision, no doubt, forced tenants in Freetown to raise concern considering the dire economic situation in the country.
Momodu Kargbo is a tenant residing at Leicester Road in Freetown with a family of five.
He puts up in a bungalow, and now worried over the great likelihood of facing an increased rent by his landlord.
Already, some homeowners in Freetown have alerted their tenants about the hike by announcing new rent for their houses.
One of the landlords, Pa Mohamed Kamara at Leicester told this medium that he had been served with a letter of the property rate.
‘’You see the letter city council gave me. They have added the house rate for us says,” Pa Kamara says.
Pa Kamara has also shown the document to the tenants to get them braced up for the new rent.
One of the tenants says it could be difficult to adjust to the new price.
‘’It’s not easy for us as well. I don’t have a job and things are getting tougher each day,’’ he says.
Momodu Kargbo, a petty trader, sells ‘cotton buds’ on a wooden box to eke a living. His entire business is approximately valued at Le 300,000, a sum insufficient to pay half of his rent.
Kargbo pays Le 960,000 per year for the narrow room-and-parlour he occupies.
He complains about the said sum daily saying it is too much talk less of an increase.
Price hikes for basic goods worsen an already polarised situation as Kargbo gets to keep the home going.
His wife has just delivered another child three weeks ago causing another expenditure for him.
“Back then, somebody can start the business with Le 150,000, but now one needs to get Le 400,000 or above for a start and I have to feed my family,’’ he explains
Momodu like many other residents in Freetown face challenges of poor toilet facilities, congestion, low environmental hygiene and intermittent waves of quarrels and sometime scuffles with other tenants.
Scarcity of houses to rent and threats of eviction have forced a great many tenants to seek refuge at the outskirts of Freetown.
The problem is still half-way solved considering transportation difficulties that have hallmarked Freetown owing to an exploded population.
Population and Housing Census of 2015 indicates that about 2 million people inhabit Freetown with an unemployment rate of 15.3%.
But, the figure may have dropped as many mining companies shut down operations owing to a government ban in 2018.
High inflation has had an adverse effect on prices of commodities as thousands and millions of Leones chase few dollars.
US$100, for instance, absorbs over a million of Leones, a situation that is shocking for a weak and sickly Sierra Leone economy.
The weakness and vulnerability of the country’s economy is seen in a statement made by the Vice President, Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh who was recently quoted as saying Sierra Leone spends US$400M on import particularly foodstuff.
Kargbo, like many poor Sierra Leoneans, could not afford to buy a bag or half bag of rice.
He buys on retail, and at times cannot buy if fortune does not smile on him.
The price currently stands Le 5,000 for three cups.
He wished he had benefitted from Covid-19 National Emergency Recovery Fund, which each beneficiary is bound to receive Le 1,309, 000.
He was left out as his business was not considered for the aid for failing to meet a basic criterion of owning or maintaining a stall.
Geo-mapping on houses
FCC has undertaken a geo-mapping otherwise a survey of properties within the municipality. The mapping exercise is done to determine the value of the houses which provide the basis of how much owners pay annually.
It is estimated that about 600 houses were marked as having met housing criteria.
“We look at the house if it does not have any basement, it cannot be featured. The corrugated iron sheet houses (‘panbodi ose’) are exempt from paying property rate,’’ FCC Mayor, Yvonne Aki Sawyer explains.
The reviewed property tax is divided into three categories of payment: low valued, high valued and commercial valued property.
The payment of such taxes is done through a ‘point based system,’ a computerised digital method that captures records of property rates paid.
To develop this hi-tech payment system, FCC was provided with technical assistance with two major internationally recognised research firms: International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) and International Growth Centre (IGC).
ICT and IGC aim at promoting sustainable growth on taxation policy measures for the development of nations.
Politics stalls progress
Despite being the oldest municipal government in Sub-Saharan Africa, FCC faces huge administrative and political challenges.
Observers have said subsides allocated to local councils in Sierra Leone are not enough to run their affairs.
Quite recently, FCC workers staged an industrial action for their unpaid salaries, a situation that has run for moths.
The ‘point-based payment’ system on properties is supposed to come into effect at the end of September this year.
But, government through ministry of local government has put a hold on the process, but FCC declines to comment.
Minister of Local Government, Tamba Lamina says the Mayor failed to follow due process in her move to institute the tax reforms. Although a concessional reduction of payment from 15 per cent to 5 per cent is being made, some senior government officials maintain that the rate is still too high for property ‘tax payers’ amidst the economic hardship brought by corona virus pandemic.
But a group of civil society organisations notably, Consortium for Good Governance, Human Rights and Democracy (CGHRD), have backed the mayor’s push for the new tax.
A letter dated 7th September, 2020 this year, addressed to the minister suggested that FCC raise its own funds to strengthen areas of waste management, flood mitigation and urban planning as provided by the Local Government Act of 2004.
“Your action has stripped FCC of sourcing her own resources. Property tax, if collected has the proclivity to stimulate exponential economic growth for the FCC to affix the structural transformation of Freetown…’’ the document reads in part.
The property tax reform is part of FCC’s ‘Three-Year Transform Freetown Project,’ 2022.
In June this year, IMF and World Bank approved the mayor’s point-based system reforms on property payment.
They say it will bring more development and accelerate more revenue collection for government.
Meanwhile, as local government’s ban on implementation of FCC’s point-based system on property rates remain in force, some landlords have increased their rent bringing more hardship to tenants.
The landlords justify the rent by making reference to FCC’s purported property rate notification letter.