International Forum on Regularization and Land Markets

Peter M. Ward, Julho 1, 1998

Scholars and practitioners involved with the regularization of low-income settlements in Latin America shared their experiences in a forum sponsored by the Lincoln Institute last March and hosted by the City of Medellín and its regularization office, PRIMED (Integrated Program for the Improvement of Subnormal Barrios in Medellín). Participants included representatives from PRIMED, Medellín city officials, and observers from multilateral institutions including the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, AID and GTZ (Germany).

Twelve major presentations reported on the most significant case studies from eight countries: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Perú and Venezuela. The forum proved to be a landmark meeting whose findings, summarized below, are expected to have important implications for Latin American policymakers.

Comparative Perspectives on Regularization

Several different approaches to regularization are illustrated in the country case studies. The two primary approaches are juridical regularization, i.e., legal land entitlement procedures to convert from de facto to de jure property ownership, as in Perú, Ecuador and Mexico; and physical regularization (urbanization), including the extension of infrastructure into irregular settlements, as in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and other countries. A third approach, which has been emphasized only recently, puts priority on the social and civic integration of low-income settlements and their populations into the urban fabric by a combination of measures.

While most countries have elements of all three forms of regularization, they usually focus on one direction or another. In Mexico all three approaches are used simultaneously. In most other countries the emphasis depends on the relative strengths of the actors, organizations and politics on the one hand, and on the way the regularization problem is conceived (“constructed”) by federal and local authorities on the other.

Juridical Regularization: Land Title Programs

The regularization of land titles has become accepted practice by governments, international agencies and NGOs alike. (see Figure 1.) In fact, the question “Why Regularize?” that was raised at the beginning of the forum seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Yet, posing this question goes to the heart of the matter about who defines the problems regarding land tenure and who establishes policies in favor of regularization. Most of the legal titling programs examined in the case studies were lengthy and expensive, and, by the time they came on-line, did little to significantly affect the level of security or to systematically provide services in the settlements.

Figure 1 Common Arguments in Favor of Land Regularization

  • Provide security against evictions
  • Provide incentives to stimulate investments in home improvements and consolidation
  • Facilitate and provide for the introduction of services such as electricity and water
  • Generate access to credit using the home as collateral
  • Incorporate residents into the property-owning citizenry and the democratic process
  • Integrate settlements and property into the tax and regulatory base of the city

As far as the poor are concerned, however, several of the arguments in favor of regularization would appear to be spurious. Established households generally have de facto security and rarely prioritize the need for full legal title, the latter being a need more associated with middle-classes value systems. Moreover, once settlements are well-established, home improvements and consolidation occur at a rate that is closely tied to available resources, not to title security. As for the introduction of services, most providers follow their own internal rules for timing and procedures; rarely is legal title an important criterion.

Furthermore, low-income households do not like falling into debt and are uneasy about entering formal credit systems, even though NGOs and governments are moving towards micro-credit support. In short, where low-income groups want regularization of tenure it appears to be because the state wants them to want it and then constructs demand accordingly.

One may conceive of tenure regularization as both an end in itself and a means to an end. Regularization as an “end” emerged clearly in the Lima case, where access to land and land titling programs substitute for a systematic housing policy. The most recent round of land titling (since 1996) even includes a retitling of previously regularized lots as an arena of political patronage serving the central government at the expense of the city’s political leaders. (1) A similar situation prevailed in Mexico with the multiplex regularization agencies created during the 1970s. In both countries the commitment to tenurial regularization is clearly indicated by active programs, usually providing a large number of titles each year at low cost.

Elsewhere, regularization may also be an “end,” but it is of secondary importance. In Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador and Ecuador, for example, titling is at best only a minor part of the physical regularization package. Even so, the absence of legal tenure and the need for regularization may be used to good political effect by regulating the flow and order of infrastructure provision.

Regularization of titles as a means to an end is promoted widely by international agencies as part of the World Bank’s New Urban Management Program. Mexico is a good example of the process whereby land titling is a prerequisite to urban land management, planning and public administration. Regularization incorporates the population into the system of land registry, tax base, planning controls, construction permissions, consumption charges, and recovery of services and infrastructure. Regularization becomes the means to urban sustainability and management, and this more than any other reason explains its widespread espousal and adoption today.

One notable feature in several case studies was the apparent reluctance to regularize on private lands unless the initiative had the support of the original landowner. As a result, the settlements most likely to be regularized are those occupying public land or land whose ownership is unchallenged. With the exception of Mexico, governments are reluctant to expropriate in the social interest. Several countries have a system of land occupancy rights that permits transfer of ownership after a certain number of years of proven and appropriate use. In Brazil this usucapión system has been extended recently to allow for title transfer on privately owned urban lots of less than 250m2 that have been occupied continuously for five years.

Issues in juridical regularization programs:

  • Extent of resident demand and priority for full land title: A high priority for titling emerges only when there is high insecurity associated with illegal lot holding (Costa Rica), or where the state promotes the association of insecurity with lack of titling (Mexico).
  • Procedures and administration in the titling programs: Examples range from very rapid, efficient and lost-cost practices (Peru and Mexico) to interminable and inefficient procedures. Most of the case studies fell at the latter end of the spectrum (Brazil and Colombia especially), in large part because this arena of regularization is not a high priority.
  • The nature and functioning of property registry and cadastre offices: Almost all case studies pointed to major shortcomings in land registry and land valuation assessment institutions. Even where satisfactory institutional arrangements existed, relations and liaison between the two offices were invariably poor.
  • The form and “weight” of land titles: The power and importance of titles ranged from “hard” titles, such as registered titles and full property titles that could only be challenged through eminent domain or expropriation procedures, to “soft” titles, which represented little more than certificates of possession, registration of occupancy or contracts of purchase. Somewhere in the middle, and parallel to this legal dimension, are the customary titles of social property rights, such as use rights, common rights, usos y costumbres, etc. The latter will hold force only to the extent that they are supported by the state.

Physical Regularization: Urbanization and Infrastructure Provision

The second principal arena of regularization reported by many of the case studies at the forum focused on the physical regularization process in different forms of irregular settlements. In Medellín, for example, approximately 12 percent of the total population is estimated to live in fast-growing barrios, which are often built on steep slopes like their hillside counterparts in Rio or Caracas. There are undoubted problems and dangers in these areas, but most of the participants who visited the PRIMED settlements were more encouraged by their level and rate of consolidation than the local officials appeared to be. (The discussion did not address upgrades and interventions in inner-city tenements-conventillos, vecindades, cortiços.)

It is impossible to do justice to the many innovative programs that were described at the forum, but one major success story is the Favela/Bairro program in Rio de Janeiro. This project is predicated on close collaboration with local residents to open up favela streets to vehicular access in combination with service installation. However, it is important to recognize that its success has only been possible at considerable cost: the total expenditure between 1994 and 1997 has been US$300 million, in large part provided by the IDB. This raises important questions about the replicability of such programs.

Issues in physical regularization programs:

  • Legal instruments: In many cases legal instruments are not required to effect urban regularization projects and public intervention. Moreover, expropriation in the public interest is not attractive to most local authorities. The creation of special social interest zones (ZEIS and PREZEIS in Brazil) is one mechanism to help neighborhoods by providing greater flexibility of intervention outside of city codes and norms. Many other legal instruments were found to be rather weak, especially those with a large degree of discretion in their application (Ley novena in Colombia, for example).
  • The costs of regularization and population displacement: Physical intervention brings additional costs associated with installation and consumption of services, and may also introduce higher tax contributions. In order to meet these costs, families may be obliged to find savings elsewhere (by slowing the rate of home consolidation, for example) or engage in rent-seeking behaviors such as renting or sharing lots or dwellings. Inevitably some will choose or be forced to sell and move out. Little is known about displacement levels, but generally low-income owner households remain settled; population stability, not mobility, is the norm.
  • Financial mechanisms for regularization: Several of the most notable and successful projects rely on external funding, and many projects appear to carry explicit and implicit subsidies. In order for projects to be replicable, more agile financial methods are required, such as fiscal resources (land/property taxes, as in Mexico) or user charges (as in Medellín, for example). Another mechanism captures capital gains taxes on improvements (plusvalia and valorization charges, as in Colombia), but generally does not apply to low-income housing. (See page 5.)
  • Administrative and governmental responsibilities for regularization: Almost without exception the trend has been towards decentralization with a lessening of power at the central government level and a strengthening at the municipal level. The role of the state/department/province level has weakened greatly. This trend means that an increasing responsibility for regularization falls on city authorities, and in turn raises other important issues: institutional capacity; learning and dissemination of best practices; the development of fiscal capacity and responsibility; program continuity across administrations; program coordination and implementation in metropolitan jurisdictions (where cities overlap more than one municipality); and the role of unelected NGOs.
  • Popular (public) participation in regularization: While popular participation in neighborhood development projects is widely espoused and desired, it is often non-existent or purely nominal (Ecuador). Elsewhere, it was seen to be genuine and quite intensive (Costa Rica and Brazil). Popular participation involves residents instrumentally in project implementation and offers opportunities to take account of so-called plural (parallel) justice systems (Venezuela), customary laws, usos y costumbres (Mexico), etc.
  • Regularization and citizens’ rights: The rising public awareness of citizens’ rights was apparent in many of the case studies. These include rights to housing (Mexico, but unfulfilled); rights of access to housing (Peru and El Salvador); and rights to infrastructure and urbanization benefits. It is also important to recognize that citizens’ rights also carry citizens’ obligations, particularly as taxpayers and consumers.


Regularization as a Means of Social Integration

It became apparent in the deliberations that an increasingly explicit goal of regularization is to achieve social integration by bringing low-income populations into the societal mainstream and into the urban fabric. This is most frequently observed in reference to the “rescue” of low-income populations and other marginal groups and their incorporation into the urban citizenry. This was one of the important goals in Brazil’s favela/bairro program, which, in part at least, aimed to break up the drug and delinquent youth gangs and to rescue the local population from their influence.

A potential problem with this approach is that concepts of “good citizen” and the societal mainstream are social constructions that are often highly value-laden and may derive from within a particular class and dominant power group. Regularization to achieve integration into the wider set of social opportunities such as public education and health care is one thing; regularization for social convergence and conformity is another. However, this theme remains incipient in the literature, and the whole notion of citizenship with its bundles of rights and responsibilities is part of an agenda still largely unconsidered.


This international forum emphasized the need to be aware of the different underlying rationales for juridical and physical regularization in individual countries, and to be aware that they are closely tied to the political and planning process. In order for regularization to work well there has to be genuine political commitment such that all departments and officials who intervene do so with greater integration, cooperation and empowerment. Policymakers should also think imaginatively about alternative, “parallel” ownership systems and opportunities for genuine public participation in decisionmaking at all stages in the regularization process.

Important, too, are financial commitment and sustainability. Unless regularization is tied to medium- and long-term cost recovery through taxes, user charges and deferred assessments, programs will continue to depend on major external funding and subsidies, which will severely limit the extent and scale of their application.

An exciting last session of the forum allowed participants to reflect on future directions for research and policy analysis on land market regularization. Five major areas emerged. First, we recognized the need to identify the various actors and interest groups involved in promoting irregular or illegal land development in the first place, and to make explicit the differences between land invasions, owner subdivisions, company subdivisions and other actions. The point here is that irregularity is produced by various actors and interests groups as a for-profit business, and is not just a result of dysfunctional urbanization.

Second, we discussed moving away from dualist thinking and breaking with the idea of conceptualizing the land market in terms of the formal and informal city, the parallel city, or normal and subnormal barrios, all of which implicitly assume that the poor are locked into a separate land market. In fact, there is a single land market that is segmented, not separated, along a continuum in terms of access and affordability.

Third, we need to confront the issue of financial replicability and the ways in which finance might be leveraged through cross-subsidies, plusvalia, valorization charges, tax-and-spend, progressive consumption charges, and other mechanisms. Fourth, we need to be less gender-blind. It is important to think more imaginatively about regularization priorities with respect to gender and to explore innovative titling schemes that address the need for women’s settlement and housing rights.

Finally, we need to be much more precise in our terminology, and, more importantly, to recognize that there is a “social construction” embedded within language. The terms adopted in any society are revealing about how that society views and diagnoses housing and related social issues. Terminology may lead to punitive or patronizing policy solutions; it may even “criminalize” local populations. Most of the differences and variations in the case studies stem from the way each society constructs its understanding of the housing problem and how it presents that vision to its people-through its terminology, through its laws, procedures and policies, and through the bureaucratic and administrative organization of the state itself.

1. Julio Calderon, “Regularization of Urban Land in Peru,” Land Lines, May 1998.

Peter M. Ward is professor of sociology and of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a faculty associate of the Lincoln Institute. Among his many books is Methodology for Land and Housing Market Analysis, coedited with Gareth Jones and published by the Lincoln Institute in 1994.