The Syrian state has continuously refused to recognise the existence of housing in informal settlements. Instead, it insists on considering them uninhabited land, which may include private agricultural land on which construction is prohibited or public property. At the same time, state institutions have provided essential public services to informal housing areas, such as water, electricity, telephone services, built schools, and paved roads.
Meanwhile, residents in informal settlements pay some fees, such as sanitation, electricity, and water bills, in addition to being charged a rooftop tax, which is a tax on every existing roof. All real estate properties, regardless of the type, including residential buildings, shops, and facilities, are subject to the tax. However, the law does not provide a specific definition for the rooftop tax; it is generally defined as any fee or tax the state imposes on all properties. Taxpayers pay the governorate financial departments, with the most prominent example being the real estate and building plots income taxes.
The Real Estate and Building Plots Income Tax Law, issued by Decree No. 53 in 2006, imposed an annual tax on all rooftops, regardless of their type, such as residential buildings, shops and facilities, in both zoned and informal areas alike. According to the real estate register records, the government mainly applies the tax on the property owner. However, Decree No. 53 allowed financial departments in governorates to charge the property occupant for this tax, even if Land Registry documents do not establish their ownership. It is sufficient for the owner to submit documents accepted by the financial departments to charge the tax, such as water and electricity bill payments or a standard property sales contract. Charging the people who build unlicensed construction over extorted public property is also permissible. Decree No. 53 explicitly stated that this tax does not constitute a formal document for transferring or proving ownership.
Essentially, the principle of the rooftop tax is to impose it on those whose ownership is established in the Land Registry, as this is the legal indication that they are benefiting from the property in question. However, financial departments can impose the tax on the property beneficiary, as is the case with a property buyer under a court ruling. The tax can be imposed on them if they possess and benefit from the property. This actual owner can submit any document that the financial department can rely on to justify collecting the tax from them. Financial departments are only concerned with collecting the tax, especially since the law considers paying the tax and any documents issued by the financial department regarding its payment as not constituting proof of ownership.
A judicial ruling of the Court of Cassation, issued in Decision No. 50, Basis 385 by the General Authority of the Court of Cassation in 2018, in the context of investigating the tax liability on the right of a furough shop, stipulated that the tax liability cannot be relied upon to determine the shop owner for furough, especially amid any legal dispute over ownership. Furough refers to lease contracts for shops with an indefinite duration, signed before the enactment of Rent Law No. 10 of 2006, and subject to the system of compulsory extension, regardless of the landlord’s wishes and intentions.
Paying the rooftop tax in informal housing areas does not grant the properties legal recognition. Since informal settlements and all the housing they contain are not recorded in the Land Registry, property owners in these areas are partners in common ownership, with their shares being non-subdivided. Planning Law No. 46 of 2004 allowed shareholders in informal settlements to license existing unlicensed buildings. This was in exchange for a financial guarantee to cover the expenses of servicing such areas, as estimated by the administrative authorities. This could have been a possible entry point for legal recognition of rooftops within informal housing areas. Law No. 46 did not specify any particular tax that must be paid for building licensing, and thus any tax imposed on the property can be considered a rooftop tax.
However, Law No. 46 went unimplemented until it was repealed by the Planning and Urban Development Law No. 23 of 2015. Law No. 23 allowed owners of land outside a zoned area to apply for converting the land into plots slated for construction, provided that they pay the necessary expenses for connecting public utilities such as roads, sidewalks, water and electricity. The law thus eliminated the possibility of licensing existing unlicensed buildings in zoned areas.