Officials’ property holdings raise questions

By Hsu Yi-ping and Stacy Hsu  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Wed, Dec 11, 2013 - Page 3

The commitment of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to curbing rampant property speculation has come into question following a report showing that a majority of Cabinet members and the heads of the five branches of government own more than one house.

According to information published recently on the Control Yuan’s Sunshine Act Web site, Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) owns the most properties, with nine houses, eight of which are placed in trust.

Most of Lee’s properties are in Hsinchu City and the Greater Taipei area, the information showed.

Next is Examination Yuan President John Kuan (關中), who owns seven properties in Taipei, Shanghai and California.

Third place is shared by four officials who own four houses each: Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien, Judicial Yuan President Rai Hau-min (賴浩敏), Minister of Finance Chang Sheng-ford (張盛和) and Department of Health Minister Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達).

As for Ma, who pledged to uphold housing justice when running for re-election in 2011, he and his wife, Chow Mei-ching (周美青), hold three properties in the Greater Taipei area.

Lee and Chiu on Monday denied that they were “hoarding properties,” saying that most of the houses under their names were inherited.

The home-ownership data was released amid talks among finance ministry officials of the feasibility of introducing a tax on non-primary residences or second residential properties, which some media outlets have termed the “property-hoarding tax” (囤屋稅).

The tax proposal was initiated by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Sun Ta-chien (孫大千) in October.

A real-estate agent who requested anonymity said it was ironic that the finance ministry was mulling the levy of a “property-hoarding tax” when most Cabinet members possess multiple residences and have tried to avert public criticism by putting them in a trust.

“They [Cabinet members] may be legally entitled to do so ... but it is just morally wrong,” the agent said, adding that most of the officials’ properties could have been bequeathed to them.

With so many high-ranking officials owning two or more houses, it is not surprising that the finance ministry has been reluctant to introduce the tax, the agent said.

Instead, the ministry is trying to shift the responsibility to local governments, urging them to rein in speculation by widening the property tax base or raising the housing tax.

The agent was referring to Chang’s statement at a legislative session on Oct. 28, in which he urged local governments to tax second residences at a higher rate than the minimum 1.2 percent, since it was within their power to determine housing tax rates.

According to the House Tax Act (房屋稅條例), residential properties are taxed at an annual rate of 1.2 percent to 2 percent of their current assessed value.

The rate is determined by city or county governments with the approval of the local people’s assembly.

Chuang Meng-han (莊孟翰), professor of industrial economics at Tamkang University, said that the finance ministry was only paying lip service to curbing property speculation and that discussions on the proposed “property-hoarding tax” would likely end up with “much crying and little wool.”