Challenges in Implementing Colombia’s Participación en Plusvalías

Carolina Barco de Botero and Martim Smolka, March 1, 2000

Value capture instruments are widely considered to be beneficial fiscal planning mechanisms, even though they are difficult to implement. Colombia is notable in Latin America for its unique and long-standing experience with institutionalizing value capture through collecting the Contribución de Valorización, a kind of special assessment, and the Contribución de Desarrollo Municipal (Law 9 of 1989), which preceded the current instrument, Participación en Plusvalías.

Since 1921 when the first such legislation was introduced, Colombia has developed a fiscal culture in which people are aware of and accept value capture instruments as a legitimate revenue-raising mechanism. For example, in 1968, at the height of its use, the Contribución de Valorización accounted for 16 percent of local revenues in Bogotá and about 45 percent in Medellín; in the early 1980s it raised about 30 percent of total revenues in Cali. Nevertheless, because land still plays an important role as a hedge against inflation in places like Colombia, where capital markets are not highly developed, the implementation of such devices still meets with strong political resistance from many constituencies, ranging from powerful landowners and developers to low- and moderate-income families for whom land is an important source of personal savings.

Building on this experience, Law 388 of 1997 creating Participación en Plusvalías decrees that all municipalities must design and approve a ten-year master plan (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial-POT) and adopt plusvalías as one of the plan’s main sources of income. The revenues raised through plusvalías are to be used primarily for the provision of social housing and infrastructure in under-served neighborhoods, as well as for public works of general interest. The law establishes three administrative conditions for applying the plusvalías instrument as part of the POT:

1. when land changes from one category to another, especially when rural land with low development potential is included within the master plan’s growth boundary and therefore becomes designated as land for urban expansion or as suburban land;

2. when additional development (density) rights are authorized in an area; or

3. when an area changes use, especially from residential to commercial use.

The Participación en Plusvalías is grounded in the legitimate public right to participate in capturing land value increments resulting from administrative actions such as changes in zoning or density that may generate substantial windfalls for the landowner. It is important to note that this instrument is not a tax, a contribution or a fee, but rather a mandated right of the public to ‘participate’ in the value generated by government functions aimed at enhancing urban development. Law 388 and its accompanying decrees define the general parameters for using plusvalías, but the municipalities are required to determine its specific procedures. However, many mayors and other public officials are concerned about the law’s ambiguities and are struggling with the process of applying both the law and the plusvalías instrument.

To address the need for a forum in which public officials and other experts could discuss this problem, the Lincoln Institute and the Bogotá Planning Department held a seminar in December 1999, before the deadline for approval of the legal master plan (POT) on December 31. The seminar convened practitioners actively involved in the implementation process, including planning directors from major cities, representatives of national public agencies and ministries, representatives of institutions in charge of property assessments, lawyers, and scholars involved in the design of the instrument. One immediate outcome of the seminar was a successful lobbying effort to change the deadline to June 30, 2000, to allow more time to review and revise the problematic POT provisions.

Key Implementation Issues

Application of plusvalías to different situations. Most municipal representatives at the seminar agreed that plusvalías should be used only in those situations that result in a clear and substantial windfall, in order to generate greater citizen approval and a simpler administrative process during the first phase of implementation. The general consensus is that Contribución de Valorización has been accepted because the increase in the value of land that benefited from public investment was clearly understood by the owners, so they have been willing to pay the fee. In Bogotá, for example, Contribución de Valorización has been one of the major means for building new streets since 1969.

By comparison, plusvalías are applied only to situations in which a higher land value is specifically associated with a public land use decision defined in the POT, such as changing the land category, its density or its use. Extending the growth boundary to include rural land that can be developed in subsequent years is an explicit situation in which the change in land price is evident. Most representatives of municipalities felt this was the most obvious scenario for application and should be the main focus of the instrument in its first phase.

Accuracy of land value assessments.

Law 388 suggests that the date for the base land price against which the gain is measured is to be July 1997, the date when Congress approved the law. However, it is not clear whether and how the municipalities can determine that land price in subsequent years. The problem is that the initial base value to be compared to the current value may already be influenced by ‘rumors’ circulating about land designations in the master plans. Should the value be calculated before the rumors of urbanistic changes begin to circulate, or just before the actual decision is made? How should cities treat land value increments generated by actions occurring between that base date and the approval of the POT? For how long is the assessment valid? What happens after, say, 15 or 20 years?

These questions are all the more relevant considering that land use norms established recently in some cities have already been capitalized in land prices, thus reducing substantially the current margins for the application of Participación en Plusvalías.

Furthermore, there are different legal implications about which relevant values should be considered (i.e., current use vs. highest and best use). Should the land value increment be based on the potential or the actual value? Should the legally defined formula for assessments apply to the potential buildable area even if the builder is not requesting a license to develop the site to its full allowable density? What happens when a property that has been assessed on a certain date is not completed? Although the law defines the concept of zones with similar geo-economic characteristics, it is not clear whether the landowner may legally request the assessment to be done on a property-by-property basis or on the basis of homogeneous zones.

The short deadlines established by the law for calculating both commercial prices before the master plan and new reference prices after adoption of the plan also cause serious concerns. For example, the law states that the mayor has only five days after the new POT is approved to determine new prices in the affected areas, and that all calculations must be accomplished within the next 60 days. The legal structure for adopting simplified cost procedures to allow assessments for homogeneous areas of the city rather than for individual plots is not clear on this point.

Definition of land categories.

Differences in land categories between Law 9 of 1989 and Law 388 of 1997 have led to questions of applicability. Law 9 included a suburban land category that could be developed at moderate densities on the outskirts of cities. For example, all of the developable land to the north of Bogotá is now in that suburban category, which permits residential densities of 160 inhabitants per hectare. The zoning proposed by the new master plan permits an increase to between 180 and 220 inhabitants per hectare. Law 388 states that the change from rural to urban use may be taxed, but does not address the suburban category, even though suburban land already has strong development rights. Because of these difficulties, many cities prefer to treat suburban land as similar to urban land in order to avoid further implementation problems.

Exemptions and special cases.

Land for low-income housing is exempted from plusvalías, but the law states that the land value increments must be calculated anyway. This may constitute an unnecessary additional cost, considering that 80 percent of all housing to be built in Bogotá within the next ten years will be low-income housing. How does this affect the fairness of this instrument on the remaining 20 percent of housing? How effective will plusvalías be as a planning instrument seeking to decrease speculation on land designated for social housing?

Another issue deals with wipeouts resulting from master plan designation of conservation zones or areas set aside for environmental protection through transfer of development rights (TDRs). Complaints from private agents of ‘takings’ against their full rights of ownership raise important questions of compensation. Areas that already have been designated for high-density development but are not yet fully built also raise questions about the expectation component of land values.

Political and operational obstacles.

A continuing source of confusion and misunderstanding concerns the technical issues associated with the effective calculation of the land value increment. Can it or should it be implemented in cases when, due to general economic recession, all land values are allegedly declining? If landowners are either selling land at a loss or not initiating development on their properties at all, then, quite simply, no plusvalías would be available to the local administration. Theoretically, all that is needed is to distinguish generating effects (administrative actions) from trends in land markets. In practice, however, it is easy to understand that instruments of value capture are more robust, and more palatable politically, during the upswing of land price cycles than the downswing, as is currently the case in Colombia.

The political overtones of this issue become clearer when considering the substantial land portfolios that developers normally hold for strategic planning motives, including for speculation. In effect, urban planners are hard pressed to be more flexible, if not magnanimous, in relaxing urbanistic norms and regulations in order to motivate developers during times of recession. However, this kind of pressure from developers may be simply an attempt to gain compensation for poor investment decisions in the past.

Sometimes developers complain that the municipality is setting the plusvalías fee too high in times of declining prices when recession may create disincentives for future investments in building improvements. However, a counter-argument based on the experience with Contribución de Valorización suggests that if the amount of plusvalías on the changing land use is considered to be overvalued, it follows that the change is probably not cost-effective and should not be proposed. It is also possible that a mistake was made in the feasibility study or the calculations.

Over and above these practical difficulties are certain implementation requirements in the law that affect its operation, such as the need to directly notify the landowner that the property is ‘liable’ for plusvalías. Should the burden reside with the public administration or with the owner? Similarly, there are legal difficulties surrounding the moment when plusvalías should be charged to the property owner, as in the liquidation of properties or in the request for a license to change the use of land. Some grounds for complaints of double taxation could also be raised if an area to be densified (or receive any change in zoning) has received additional infrastructure on which the Contribuición de Valorización provision was charged. The independence of this instrument from plusvalías, as stated by the new law, is important because of the existing option of calculating and charging the plusvalías for public works designated by the POT.

Adjustments Proposed by Municipal Officials

Public officials at the December seminar in Bogotá suggested a few ways to simplify the implementation of Law 388 by sacrificing precision in the calculation of the plusvalías in favor of expediency, transparency and compliance. This perspective is based on the belief that political will may be more important than technical consistency, at least in the early, transitional stages of implementation, in order to improve the chances of long-term success. A very telling and useful example was given by officials from the city of Cartagena (500,000 inhabitants), which has been applying the Contribución de Desarrollo Municipal effectively since 1992. Their experience shows that the effect of density changes to a new lot should be similar with regard to the generation of plusvalías to the rate generated by the same kind of density change already observed in a different but comparable area of the city.

Participants also proposed restricting the application of plusvalías to the more strategic and dynamic areas of the city where the windfall potential is most apparent and expressive, rather than in areas where the land value increments are small. Furthermore, assessment of plusvalías should be based on homogeneous zones, not on individual plots. The plusvalías instrument also needs to be developed and phased in over time as the municipalities gain greater knowledge and sophistication in valuation and assessment techniques. The established nine-year period for the validation of the assessments of land value increments, therefore, should be subject to more frequent periodic review. Some practical transition rules, absent in the original formulation of the law, also will help facilitate the introduction of a new fiscal system.

Other suggestions were made regarding the adoption of master plans (POTs). Municipalities should use these plans, rather than some other valuation mechanism external to the POT, to identify areas where there will be a change in land use in order to determine whether, in fact, it is a higher use and thus subject to an increase in plusvalías. Before adopting the POT, the municipalities should identify such areas so the valuation and assessment techniques could be worked out ahead of time and the sense of uncertainty could be mitigated. Some participants even suggested using the POT to define the relevant ex-ante situation (or prior value) to determine the net land value increment.

In general, the participants agreed that the concept and aims of the master plan and plusvalías instruments are both acceptable and desirable. Many of the problems and issues discussed at the seminar and throughout the country pertain to the implementation of any value capture scheme, or any new fiscal or normative legislation for that matter. In this case there is certainly substantial room for improving the design of the implementation procedures, since changes to operational aspects are always easier to achieve than changes to the law itself. But, over and above the remaining formal difficulties, it has been clearly demonstrated that political will, accumulated technical expertise and the ethical commitment of the participants are all critical to perfecting this land policy instrument and implementing the highly commendable principles that inspire it.

Carolina Barco de Botero is the planning director for the city of Bogotá. She is also a managing consultant with Ciudades, Ltda. in Bogotá and a member of the Lincoln Institute Board of Directors. Martim Smolka is senior fellow and director of the Institute’s Latin America and Caribbean Program.

Fernanda Furtado, a fellow of the Lincoln Institute, also contributed to this article. She recently completed her Ph.D. thesis (in Portuguese) on value capture in Latin America, at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo, Brazil. One of her thesis chapters describes the situation in Colombia.

Pros and Cons of Participación en Plusvalías


  • reduces corruption insofar as it exposes benefits that used to be negotiated under the table;
  • reduces speculation;
  • generates public revenues that are designated for redistributive purposes;
  • reduces distortions in the distribution of urban land value increments;
  • contributes to a better understanding of fiscal culture, thereby improving the collection of other assessments and taxes.


  • introduces more red tape into the implementation of master plans and the process of licensing development of the built environment;
  • legitimizes private appropriation of land value increments, since it leaves 50 to 70 percent of the plusvalías with the owner;
  • incurs high administrative costs compared to the revenues it generates.