The Social Urbanizer

Porto Alegre's Land Policy Experiment
Martim O. Smolka and Cláudia P. Damasio, Abril 1, 2005

The Lincoln Institute has been cosponsoring research and training programs with public officials in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for several years. The land policy experiment described in this article represents an innovation with much pedagogical potential because it brings attention to the importance of procedural factors (e.g., management, negotiation, transparency, public legitimacy) in the provision of serviced land for the poor, over and above the conventional attention given to funding and other resources.

Approximately one billion people around the world currently live in slums with precarious infrastructure and without basic services or secure land title, and this situation is expected to worsen in the future (UN-HABITAT 2003). From the perspectives of both the urban order and the environment, irregular land occupations often cause irreversible damage and impose high urbanization costs for the local government and the society as a whole.

Irregularity is a multidimensional phenomenon involving tenure issues (e.g., legal rights of occupation, title registration); compliance with urban norms and regulations (e.g., lot sizes, allowance for public spaces, street layouts); the number and quality of services provided; the type of area where settlement occurs (e.g., ecologically risky areas, hillsides, contaminated brownfields); and above all the occupation process itself, which is usually the opposite of formal development, whereby occupation is the culmination of a legal and regulated sequence from titling to planning to servicing.

Basic infrastructure is frequently available in irregular areas, but it is installed either by unregulated subdividers or after occupation by public agencies, often as an emergency measure. For example, sometimes the main trunk networks for water and sewer systems exist close to areas where irregular settlements are forming, so the subdivider or occupants simply improvise clandestine connections to tap into the main line. For small settlements this kind of intervention is not disastrous, yet it implies that services may be extended into areas that are unsuitable for occupation. Private or public utility companies also extend their services to new settlements irrespective of their legal status and often without consulting the local authorities.

Typical Occupation Processes

The most common current practice for creating irregular settlements involves the occupation of a parcel of land through a complex series of commercial transactions involving the landowner, the developer or land subdivider, and often the future occupants. Landowners seek a way to extract profits from the land; subdividers ignore the need to comply with municipal codes and produce a low-cost, high-profit subdivision; and the poor occupants purchase these illegal plots because they have no other option and may be unaware of the legal status. They usually lack a regular income source and savings to apply for credit and meet the stringent building codes and other conditions required for formal purchase and occupation.

Prospective occupants buy the “right to occupy” through a plot acquisition contract and proceed to organize plot boundaries, street layouts and the construction of simple houses. When an official inspection is made it’s already too late; houses have been built and the community is organized to resist. Public authorities cannot keep up with this cycle of complicity, and thus restrict their role to minimal inspection activities that both conceal a management model tolerant of informality and expose the absence of other housing options for that segment of the population.

High-cost curative actions to introduce urban improvements and title regularization programs are being established in many cities, but their effectiveness to date has been limited (Smolka 2003). More seriously and paradoxically, the expectation created by these programs has tended to increase the number of people resorting to irregularity. In sum, the typical process by which the urban poor access serviced land is inefficient and unfair, and ultimately feeds into a vicious cycle of irregularity by contributing to poverty rather than mitigating it. The problem is not so much what services are provided, by whom and at what scale, but how, when and where the process operates to provide those services in the first place.

The Case of Porto Alegre

Porto Alegre (population 1,360,590 in 2000) is the capital of the southernmost state in Brazil and the center of a metropolitan area of 31 municipalities (see Figure 1, page 12). The city’s quality of life improvements have gained worldwide recognition, largely as a result of its poverty reduction and social inclusion programs and its widely acclaimed participatory administration processes (Getúlio Vargas Foundation 2004; Jones Lang Lasalle 2003; UNDP 2003; UN/UMP 2003). For example, the level of infrastructure services is very high: 84 percent of the city’s houses are connected to the sewerage system; 99.5 percent receive treated water; 98 percent receive electricity; and 100 percent of suburbs are serviced by selective waste collection (Municipality of Porto Alegre 2003).

In spite of these impressive figures, 25.5 percent of the population lives in the city’s 727 irregular settlements (Green 2004). It is estimated that the annual population growth in these areas is 4 percent compared to 1.35 percent for the city as a whole. These facts present an apparent paradox and conundrum: How to reconcile widespread provision of basic services with the increase of irregularity in a period of successful, popular and participatory administration?

Since the introduction of decentralized participatory budgeting in 1989, public investment decision making in Porto Alegre has improved, but the process remains economically ineffective, technically inappropriate, environmentally disastrous, fiscally unfair (because land subdividers pocket monies that should benefit the public) and politically unsustainable. Many areas still have serious problems: poor quality streets without drainage or paving; geological instability and susceptibility to flooding; and a lack of legal titling, which means, for example, no address for postal delivery. Nevertheless, the Porto Alegre case is interesting because it vividly demonstrates that the problem of confronting irregularity is less one of providing services than of changing the process by which the services are provided. It’s a procedural process, a change in the rules of the game.

An Innovative Urban Policy Instrument

The Social Urbanizer concept was developed in Porto Alegre as an instrument, and more generally a program, to overcome the existing unsustainable process of providing urban services in spite of a long history of regulatory legislation (see Figure 2). Enacted in July 2003 shortly after approval of Brazil’s innovative City Statute Act, the Social Urbanizer Act was the result of significant dialogue involving the building industry unions, small land subdividers, housing cooperatives, financial agents and the City Council.

A Social Urbanizer is a real estate developer registered with the municipality who is interested in developing in areas identified by the government as suitable for low-income housing, and who agrees to operate according to certain negotiated terms, including the affordability of the serviced plots. The process contemplates a public-private partnership through which the municipality commits to make certain urban norms and regulations more flexible, to speed up the licensing process, reduce the legal requirements, and recognize progressive, step-by-step urbanization. It also anticipates using the transfer of development rights as a stimulating mechanism for private developers. Other incentives may take the form of access to specific lines of credit or certain direct public investments in urban infrastructure so the costs are not passed on to the final buyer. Eligible Social Urbanizer applicants include duly registered real estate developers, contractors already working in the informal market, landowners and self-managed cooperatives.

Porto Alegre’s Social Urbanizer program incorporates lessons learned from both real challenges and untapped opportunities for public action, and it is inspired by several specific ideas. First, land subdividers operating to provide access to urban land by the low-income sector (albeit through illegal activities) have an expertise and familiarity with that sector that public authorities do not have. Thus, rather than demonize or punish these agents, the Social Urbanizer approach takes a new attitude toward attracting them with appropriate incentives (and sanctions) so they can operate legally. Furthermore, while it is common knowledge that a subdivider can usually operate more profitably at the margin of the law, because of lower overhead costs, avoidance of legal approvals, and so forth, it is less well known that, given the option, many of these subdividers would rather operate legally, even if it means a lower profit margin.

Second, the land value increments generated by land transactions could be converted into a source of revenue for the development. In practice this share of value should be distributed both directly by the landowner (as an in-kind contribution of land beyond what is legally required in land subdivisions for low-income occupations) and indirectly by the subdivider through negotiated lower land prices for the low-income buyers. In most cases of irregular development the public is not able to capture and benefit from this increase in land value.

Third, by giving public transparency to the terms of direct negotiations and the resulting win-win agreement among all the interested parties (i.e., landowners, developers, public authorities, prospective buyers), the Social Urbanizer process creates adequate sanctions for compliance with the norms established for the development. Another component of the negotiation process has to do with the agreed investment schedule and its effect in diffusing speculative pricing.

Fourth, to have any chance of success this new mode of urbanization should be able to provide an adequate supply of serviced plots to meet social needs under competitive market conditions (i.e., more affordable than the conditions of otherwise informal subdividers). In effect an essential ingredient of the program’s rationale is that it establishes new rules for social urbanization in general. The signal should be clear to private agents that the Social Urbanizer process is the only way for the government to participate in the development of socially approved and affordable settlements.

The Social Urbanizer as a Third Path

For the public interest, the primary goal of this strategy is to establish the basis for development before occupation takes place, or at least according to a schedule allowing for significant reduction or control of urbanization costs (see Figure 3).

Public administrations in third-world cities typically respond to the inability of the poor to access formal land markets through two models or paradigms. Under the subsidy model the public intervenes to provide serviced land either directly through publicly developed settlements on an emergency basis, or indirectly through below-market interest for developers operating in that segment of the market. At the other extreme, the 100-percent tolerance model recognizes that the government does not have the capacity to provide all the serviced land needed, and thus tolerates irregular and informal arrangements that may eventually be improved with various regularization programs.

Both approaches keep land market conditions untouched and feed into the vicious cycle of informality. In the first case the subsidies are capitalized into higher land prices, and in the second case they allow land subdividers to charge a premium based on the expectation of future regularization: the higher the expectation, the higher the premium.

The Social Urbanizer represents a third path that recognizes both the role and expertise of informal land subdividers who operate in the low-income segment of the market and the indispensable role of public agents in supporting the poor to participate in otherwise inaccessible market conditions. In other words, this program represents an effort to “formalize the informal” and “informalize the formal” by facilitating and providing incentives for developers to operate with more flexibility in the normally unprofitable low-income market. It is an instrument designed to encourage both entrepreneurs operating in the clandestine real estate market and those operating in the formal, higher-income market segment to develop land under the existing regular standards.

The Social Urbanizer Act represents an attempt to change the rules on how low-income housing needs are to be addressed. It gives a clear signal to the private agents operating in the land market and protects the public from arbitrariness in private development actions. The Social Urbanizer has proven to be an indispensable tool for public management. As a break with current practices, however, the program still faces many challenges in implementation.

  1. From an institutional point of view, it must overcome the city’s traditional model of urban development, which has been limited to regulation and inspection. This tradition can interfere with the public authorities’ roles as a manager, a leader of urbanization processes and a regulator of relations normally left to the market.
  2. From the municipal administration’s view, the goal is to coordinate its many agencies, branches and entities to encourage activities that are economically viable and attractive for developers, but that goal may be at odds with typical public-sector concerns.
  3. To attract large development companies that will be better partners for the public authorities, the instrument will have to be highly attractive, since this type of developer already has sufficiently profitable opportunities at the top end of the market.
  4. The program also must be able to increase the viability of partnerships with small developers, which usually do not possess the internal infrastructure and financial resources to operate in this kind of market.
  5. The Social Urbanizer must ensure its stability and role as a structural element of urban policy in accordance with the principle of democratic access to land. Porto Alegre is currently experiencing political changes that are generating uncertainty and caution after 16 years with the same progressive political group in power. Ultimately the Social Urbanizer will not create significant results unless the municipal government incorporates its principles in a strategic manner over the long term.

Early Stages of Implementation

Porto Alegre has five Social Urbanizer pilot projects at different stages of development. They involve different types of developers so they can function as true experiments: small developers, developers already established in the market, and housing cooperatives. One of these pilot areas has demonstrated that 125 square metres (m2) of fully serviced land can be produced at a price ranging from US$25 to US$28 per m2 in contrast with the formal market price of US$42 to US$57 per m2 for the same amount of land. The first price range represents how much a developer is actually willing to contract with the local administration to operate under the Social Urbanizer framework.

The municipality also attempted to gain financial support for social urbanization activities from Caixa Econômica Federal (CEF), the federal organization responsible for financing housing and urban development. The agency is creating a new financial line within its partnership program in which credit is given to the buyer, who will knowingly use it to purchase a plot of land. Until now this financial option was only available for the acquisition of a housing unit before construction. Thus the idea of a credit line to ultimately finance the development of serviced land is a novelty. Another related improvement is the willingness of the local administration to void requirements on developers’ risk analysis, an essential ingredient to open the field to small developers.

The innovation of the Social Urbanizer instrument, as compared to traditional public methods of dealing with urban irregularity, has attracted the attention of many organizations and other municipalities. At a federal level the Social Urbanizer is considered fully integrated with the principles of the City Statute, which has brought support from Brazil’s Ministry for Cities. Another federal law that deals with the subdivision of urban land is now being discussed in the Brazilian National Congress, and the Social Urbanizer is part of that debate as well. If adopted, this subdivision legislation will be an important step toward changing the traditional and perverse process of providing access to land for the urban poor in other Brazilian cities.

Chronology of Urban Policies in Porto Alegre

1979 – Approval of the Federal Subdivision Law (6766/1979) and the First Development Master Plan for Porto Alegre

1990 – Establishment of the Urban Regularization Program

1996 – Creation of the Urban Regularization Center

1998 – Announcement of Land Title Regularization Year

1999 – Approval of the Environmental Development Master Plan

2001 – Implementation of a pilot plan of a differentiated taxation model, based on preventive action, operating in the region of the city that suffers the highest number of irregular settlements

2001 – Enactment of Brazil’s City Statute Act on Urban Development (Law 10.257/2001)

2003 – Enactment of the Social Urbanizer Act (Law 9162/2003)

2005 – Implementation of the Social Urbanizer pilot projects

2005 – Implementation of the Social Urbanizer pilot projects

Martim O. Smolka is senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute, director of the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean, and co-chairman of the Department of International Studies. Cláudia Damasio is an architect and former under-secretary of planning for the Municipality of Porto Alegre. She now serves as coordinator of the Social Urbanizer project. .


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