Few things ever possessed by man have escaped the unquenchable appetite of the tax collector. At one time or another, in one place or another, homeowners have been assessed for possession of fence posts, windows, hearths, beds, bathrooms, linens, parchment, pictures, whale fins, cows, pigs, horses, sturgeon, herring, sugar, spices, whiskey, vinegar, candles, cards, dice, buckles, and almanacs. And for not keeping frogs quiet. The silence de grenouilles was a tax paid by peasants on French estates in lieu of their feudal duty to beat the marsh ponds with sticks, hushing the frogs so that the seigneur’s lady would not be kept awake.
But as the gatherers of such imposts can attest, every new tax contains the seeds of its own evasion. There is no sales tax under the counter or on the black market. Not all profits are on the books. Customs inspectors rifle the luggage while the weary traveler, 20 watches under each rumpled sleeve, bides his time. Income goes unreported. Tea sinks in Boston Harbor.
So the only failsafe taxes are on land and buildings. Gold can be hung up the chimney or buried under the house. But how to hide the chimney? How to camouflage the house?
In 1697, windows became a tax liability. Earlier, it had been hearths, subjected to a much-resented tax first in England and then in the colonies. An illustration of the period shows a householder chasing off a tax assessor with a broom.
If the revenuers couldn’t get in to count the hearths, they could still count the chimneys; but therein lay the loophole. By locating fireplaces in the corners of rooms, next to the center wall, resourceful builders could place two hearths on the first floor and two more on the second, all vented through the same chimney.
So the window tax set its sights on more visible assets, levying two shillings per year on any house with more than six windows, 10 shillings for 20 windows, and 20 shillings for 30 windows or more.
Soon, thousands of windows in London were being bricked in or boarded up to keep their owners within the 6-window exemption. In the countryside, windows were a status symbol and great estates such as Longleat already glistened with hundreds of them.
Loophole: it was the number of windows, not their size, that counted for tax purposes. So it may be more than coincidence that manor houses built since enactment of the tax tend to have fewer—but larger—windows.
Until the 20th century, property taxes were largely two-dimensional. With the advent of the highrise building, the vertical component asserted, and tax assessors graduated from plane geometry to solid geometry. The higher the building, the higher the tax.
Before the rise, it was often possible to gerrymander the shape of a building to get more space per tax dollar. For example, in Europe’s medieval towns—whose only highrise buildings were untaxable cathedrals—the “size” of a building simply referred to the space it occupied. So taxes were levied according to the area of the ground floor.
In towns like Rouen and Evreux in France, a slender foundation might support a second floor longer than the first, a third floor longer than the second, and a fourth floor even longer than that. The result—buildings that swelled as they rose, sometimes coming close to meeting in mid-air with the expanding upper stories of buildings across the street.
No wonder the pyramids were built in Egypt rather than France.
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, England and Scotland blossomed with new castles, and the feudal system took root. Within a few years, at least 85 Norman castles were built in England by knights who had been awarded fiefdoms in return for service to William the Conqueror but who were obliged to defend their new domains from hostile Saxons.
In this self-contained system, the overlord levied local taxes in the form of goods and services rather than money. Later, some of the same castles would serve to thwart the King’s national tax collectors by main force. But in feudal days, the principal levy placed by a noble on his vassals was one of manpower.
The basic taxable unit of land was the “hundred” (also called “wapentakes”), a group of farms and villages (“tunscipes” —hence, township) large enough to furnish 100 armed men in time of strife.
As for the main castle protecting these lands, its keep-and-bailey system placed the overlord with his close kin and aides in the main tower—the strongly fortified keep—while his soldiers-on-loan and others under his protection were quartered in the bailey—the larger castle enclosure within the main walls and moat.
As tax collector, governor, and general, the lord needed some protection from his own troops.
Historical Note: Duncan of Scotland was indeed murdered by Macbeth, who then became king, just as Shakespeare reported. The year: 1040. Probably April 15.
What better way to escape land and building taxes than to live in a house that doesn’t occupy any land and isn’t even a building?
Until very recent times, houseboat dwellers led the same tax-sheltered life in this country as they did in Hong Kong Harbor. And a few entrepreneurs operated offices, restaurants, nightclubs, and casinos on the same privileged basis. At one of the early world fairs—the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition following the Alaskan gold rush—visitors to Seattle frequented dozens of floating “teahouses” for entertainment. By World War I, there were 2,500 houseboats in Seattle and flourishing “ark colonies” in the San Francisco Bay area. One neighborhood is still afloat off Sausalito, but the original tax break has been compromised with docking fees in lieu of real estate levies.
Elsewhere, there are others—buoyant houses, restaurants, boutiques, casinos, even offices—but officialdom is closing in: tax collectors, building inspectors, sanitary and fire code enforcers, and the pressures of shoreline developers who feel that boats should float quietly into view and then move on.
In the first decades of the 18th century, the now-familiar profile of the New England salt-box house began to proliferate, first in Connecticut and then throughout the northern colonies. It was a practical design from several standpoints: easy to build; steeply pitched to shed the snow load; and, properly oriented, the longer rear slope of roof could deflect the northwest winds.
The original builders, however, had a more timely objective.
Queen Anne had ascended the British throne in 1702 for a relatively short but very expensive reign. There were battles at Blenheim and elsewhere in the War of the Spanish Succession, including the taking of Gibraltar and two invasions of France. Back home, the Queen was handing out money to the poor on an unprecedented scale (“Queen Anne’s Bounty”) and insisting on 50 new churches for London.
For the American colonies, the inevitable result was a new tax. Aiming not for humble cottagers but for the affluent, the tax act applied to all houses of two stories or more.
With salt-box design, colonial builders managed to fit two and three stories under the roof, yet qualify as tax-exempt since the roof came down to meet a one-story wall facing the street.
Tight-fisted, fearsome, wearing an ominous eye patch, Gian Girolamo was known as the One Eye. About 1640, he became the Count of Conversano in the Murgia district of Italy along the Adriatic coast; and from then on, he kept his good eye on his taxes.
At that time, the territory was under the rule of Philip IV of Spain, who insisted on a steady cash flow from all his barons. To this purpose, royal permission was required for any new building so that the King’s tax collectors would know immediately of any new taxable properties.
The One Eye had a better idea. He issued an edict that all new buildings in the Murgia be made of stone, but without mortar. No royal permissions were requested. No new buildings were reported. No new tax payments left for Spain. But throughout the district, new houses were rising.
These were trulli structures—essentially stone igloos—which could be built by fitting and stacking field stones in corbeled rings, rising to form dark but cozy single-family dwellings. When word spread that the King’s inspector was coming, trullo occupants quickly pulled down their homes, leaving nothing but apparent rubble.
Finding nothing new to tax, the inspector would leave, and all the houses would be reassembled the next day.
Was the trullo invented for tax evasion? Similar huts of stone and wood have also been found in Greece, the Mideast, and north Africa. The trullo would seem to be one of those universal notions that tend to be introduced wherever men appear. But then, so are taxes.
Since tax assessments must be based on construction cost or replacement cost, the simplest way to avoid the tax base is to evade the costs.
In the recent back-to-nature movement, country cabins, solar dwellings, and greenhouses use on-site fieldstone, stumps, timbers, driftwood, old crossties, discarded wine tanks, and all manner of recycled and salvaged materials. Careful records must be kept, to convince the board of assessors that a house can actually be so cheaply built.
Appealing their assessments, hand-builders of home-made houses have claimed as little as $200 in material costs, and many have documented costs under $1,000. The record, however, may belong to that noted tax protester Henry David Thoreau, who once spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. Here are the costs he listed for his $22.57½ cabin at the edge of Walden Pond:
Boards........................................................ $8.03½, mostly shanty boards
Refuse shingles for roof and sides............... 4.00
Two second-hand windows with glass.......... 2.43
One thousand old brick................................ 4.00
Two casks of lime......................................... 2.40 that was high
Hair............................................................... 0.31 more than I needed
Some homes are prefabricated, like cars. At the other extreme, some campers, trailers, and motor homes are lovingly carpentered with wood siding, cedar shakes, gables, exposed beams, or redwood decks.
Are they buildings on wheels? Or vehicles with odd fenders?
In their bafflement over this paradox, taxing bodies in several states have tacked together a crazyquilt of tax assessing and licensing methods.
For tax purposes, a mobile home is real estate in Maine, Louisiana, Idaho, and South Caroline. Move it to Rhode Island, Connecticut, or Arkansas, and it becomes a vehicle, subject to personal property tax. Think twice about stopping for long in Virginia or Ohio, where all the vehicular fees and real estate taxes apply. In Hawaii, it’s a vehicle until you hook it up to utility lines. In some states, your mobile home is a vehicle if it’s parked on someone else’s land but a house if it’s parked on your own. In most states, the vehicle becomes real estate when it’s attached to a permanent foundation. *
For a well appointed motor home, the choice might come down to a $60 or $80 vehicle registration fee or a $3,000 or $4,000 real estate tax; so keep some air in those tires.
* Careful. Some state laws have no doubt changed since this was written.
As a logical extension of the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller foresaw floating cities, enclosed in geodesic spheres. If the air inside were kept a degree or two warmer than outside, the city would be buoyant.
Current thinking sets the scene further out—at a point in space known as L5, in the moon’s orbital path and equidistant from earth and moon, for gravitational stability.
The construction shack, as envisioned by NASA, would be assembled in modules, then set in rotation to provide artificial gravity for the building trades.
Using construction metals shot by mass-driver from the moon, the crew would build twin cylinders, each 19 miles by 4 miles, containing 100 square miles of surface area for a million people and their houses, offices, factories, schools, hospitals, and farmlands.
How long it will take before the first tax assessor shows up with his clipboard—or how the concepts of land and buildings will be redefined—is anybody’s guess. But with a million settlers per colony, it’s a safe bet that all who remain in earth’s gravity will remain in her tax base.