Comparative Policy Perspectives on Urban Land Market Reform

Gareth A. Jones, November 1, 1998

Numerous convergent trends motivated 40 academics and practitioners from 15 countries to meet at the Lincoln Institute in July 1998 to discuss recent land market reforms. First, the recognition that the world’s population is becoming increasingly urban and so the quantity of land converted to urban use is expected to rise significantly. Second, evidence that a major proportion of the world’s poorest households now lives in urban areas (e.g., 80 percent in Latin America). Third, the perceived sea change in the role of government shifting away from intervention and regulation toward more selective urban management. During the three-day workshop, participants presented papers and discussed the rationale behind recent legal and institutional reforms, the nature of the transition from customary or informal to formal markets, evidence for improved land market efficiency, and access to land for the poor.

Legal and Institutional Reform

Several participants made the case for institutional reform of land markets in different ways. Steve Mayo (Lincoln Institute) drew conceptual and empirical links between the performance of property markets and the macro economy. He noted that poorly functioning land markets influence wealth creation and mobility rates which, coupled with particular finance conditions, could aggravate macro-economic instability. Drawing data from the Housing Indicators Program he showed that the prices of raw and serviced land tended to converge with higher land prices, indicating larger land development multipliers at lower prices. He also noted a relationship between the price elasticity of the housing supply and the policy environment.

Although there is a perception that reforms toward ‘enabling’ policy environments are now widespread in developing and transition economies, Alain Durand-Lasserve (National Center for Scientific Research, France) observed the rarity of explicit reference to ‘land market reform’ in political statements in Africa. Indeed, he argued that the ideological underpinning for freer land markets was more advanced than the practice of establishing the prerequisites for effective and unitary markets. In practice, a number of papers indicated competing political agendas, legal ambiguity and diversity of progress in the reform process.

“The law can be reformed, history cannot,” said Patrick McAuslan (Birkbeck College, London) in discussing the role of the law as a necessary basis for effective land market reform. He described the evolution of the recent Land Act of Uganda, which seeks to establish a land market based on individual ownership. He commended the government for dovetailing the reform process with extensive public debate, but noted that drafts of the Act set up new contradictions in a century-long history of competing land relations between freehold, customary tenure and nationalized public lands. His paper outlined a series of ‘time-bombs’ left by colonial administrations and aggravated by post-independence governments, only some of which are addressed by the new legislation.

The inconsistent nature of reform appears to be particularly acute for the transition economies of Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. In Eastern Europe, the legacies of communism have led to inappropriate land uses and the assignment of non-monetary values to property. Legal changes toward land privatization, however, have been slow. Tom Reiner (University of Pennsylvania) argued that despite a strong normative case for privatization and latent demand in the Ukraine, current laws make no provision for freehold sale. He presented data to show that privatization would yield considerable macro-economic and fiscal benefits: direct sales revenue alone would amount to $13 billion, plus increased taxes and more efficient resource allocation.

In Russia, according to Jan Brzeski (Crakow Real Estate Institute), the emergence of land markets has been inhibited by a different understanding of the social role of property and turf politics. In Poland, where privatization is more advanced, he argued that reforms have been insufficient to overcome extensive resource misallocation. Assignation has taken place at symbolic prices without reforms to ground rents or property taxes, and with high transaction costs. Nevertheless, land market turnover is increasing faster than economic growth and re-sales represent about 25 percent of capital investment.

The1991 privatization program in Albania appears to have stimulated an active property and land market. Research by David Stanfield (University of Wisconsin-Madison) indicates substantial increases in turnover rates and increasing prices, but also extensive conflicts between pre-collectivization and post-privatization holders, contradictions in the many laws and errors in the new documentation. The research points to the relative ease of establishing frameworks for privatization but greater difficulties in allowing markets to function thereafter.

Lusugga Kironde (University College of Lands and Architectural Studies) described how shortcomings in the ‘planned’ allocation system in Tanzania meant that 60 percent of people acquired land through informal methods. This in turn denied revenue to the government since transactions were outside official sanction and in some cases well-off households received plots with a substantial subsidy. Michael Roth (University of Wisconsin-Madison) described a similar situation in Mozambique, where the legacy of state socialism is still felt in the level of government intervention and under-representation of freehold tenure.

In both countries, the assessment of reform was mixed. Tanzania’s New Land Policy (1995), while a useful step in accepting the existence of a land market and providing security to plots with customary tenure, has fallen short of removing the barriers to an effective land market. In particular, Kironde noted that the new measures concentrated decisions in a Land Commissioner despite a national policy of administrative decentralization. The policy offers no incentive to encourage the formalization of informal practices and no stake to ensure the compliance of important middlemen. In Mozambique, since the late 1980s, market-oriented reforms have produced unclear administrative responsibilities and uncertain land rights. One feature has been land disputes with households calling upon newly empowered producer associations to defend claims. The 1997 reforms attempt to guarantee tenure security, provide incentives for investment, and incorporate innovative ideas for community land rights.

In Latin America, reform has been less concerned with establishing markets per se and more with improving their function, especially land reforms motivated by largely rural concerns but which have important urban impacts. Rosaria Pisa (University of Wales) indicated that reforms in Mexico have created the necessary conditions for the privatization of community (ejido) land, but progress has been slow. Less than one percent of land has been privatized in five years due to other government interests and legal ambiguities that have established a second informal land market.

Carlos Guanziroli (INCRA – the National Institute on Colonization and Agrarian Reform, Brazil) argued that rural reform was producing land use diversity, especially through the survival of small family farms. Reform was also affecting Brazil’s urban land markets as capital switched from rural to urban areas, probably raising urban land prices. Francisco Sabatini (Catholic University) argued that the liberalization in Chile had not reduced land prices because landowners’ and developers’ decisions are influenced less by regulations and more by demand.

Overall, the consensus on whether reforms were producing unitary and less diverse land markets was unclear. Agents and institutions are proving to be very adaptable to new conditions, a point made for all three regions. Ayse Pamuk (University of Virginia) argued that, based on her analysis of informal institutions in Trinidad, researchers should look away from formal regulations as a barrier to land market operation. Instead, they should consider how social institutions such as trust and reciprocity were producing flexible solutions to tenure insecurity and dispute resolution.

Clarissa Fourie (University of Natal) described how user-friendly local land records could be merged with registries on marriage, inheritance, women’s rights and debt to produce a useful tool for land administration in Namibia. Nevertheless, she noted that the incorporation of customary practices into land administration to provide security of tenure would mean some adaptation of social land tenure systems. Pointing to research in Senegal and South Africa, Babette Wehrmann (GTZ, Germany) argued that customary and informal agents were flourishing and providing high-quality sources of market information.

The Formalization and Regularization of Land Tenure

Peter Ward (University of Texas at Austin) described the diversity of regularization programs across Latin America, where some countries consider it to be a juridical procedure and others regard it as physical upgrading. Regularization may be an end in itself (mass titling programs), or a means to an end (to develop credit systems). Ward argued that the differences among programs stem from how each government ‘constructs’ its urbanization process and represents this vision back to society through laws and language.

Edesio Fernandes (University of London) explained how Brazil’s Civil Code dating from the beginning of the century created a system of individual property rights that restricted the ability of government to regularize favela communities. The 1988 Constitution attempted to reform this situation by acknowledging private property rights when accomplishing a social function. Nevertheless, legal tensions within regularization programs have failed to integrate the favelas into the ‘official city,’ leading to some politically dangerous situations.

Under different circumstances, South Africa produced a regulatory regime that denied freehold tenure to black households or offered only complicated non-collateral permits to the few. Lauren Royston (Development Planning Alternatives, Johannesburg) outlined how the country’s Land Policy White Paper contemplates legally enforceable and non-racial rights, a wider range of tenure options and opportunities for communal property acquisition.

The two developing countries with the most extensive mass titling programs, Mexico and Peru, were scrutinized by Ann Varley (University College, London) and Gustavo Riofrio (Center for the Study and Promotion of Development – DESCO, Lima). Varley assessed two prevailing assumptions that run through the contemporary policy literature: that decentralization produces more effective land management, and that the regularization of customary tenure is more complicated than the regularization of private property. In Mexico, despite the rhetoric of decentralization, a highly centralized system has been increasingly effective in providing land regularization to settlements on ejido land. On the other hand, the regularization of private property is tortuously long and frequently produces poor results. She commented with some concern on the current trends in Mexico to convert ejido land to private ownership and to move toward greater decentralization.

Riofrio questioned the validity of the claims made for land regularization in Peru. He noted that in reality household interest in property title was quite low, not least because records are inaccurate and therefore offer less security than promised. Moreover, only an incipient housing finance market has emerged, based on the regularized properties. Households are wary of debt but are willing to borrow small sums for micro-enterprises and consumption secured on their housing.

New Social Patterns and Forms of Land Delivery

Would liberalization produce more segregated land markets? Brzeski noted that state planning in Eastern Europe has left a legacy of spatial equity and few informal land holdings, but that it would not last forever and planners need to take this into account in instigating reform. In countries with notable levels of social segregation, such as Chile, Colombia and South Africa, less predictable trends are emerging. Sabatini’s data indicated less spatial segregation in Santiago despite liberalization as intermediate spaces are developed, around malls for example, and as new lifestyles are reflected in ‘leisure home’ developments outside the metropolitan area.

Carolina Barco (University of the Andes) argued that new measures in Colombia, specifically the 1997 Ley de Ordenamiento Territorial, will allow the government of Bogota to capture land value increments and transfer these revenues to public housing and other projects. This process is still problematic, however, even in a city with considerable experience in the use of valorization taxes.

In South Africa, strategies to cope with the ‘land hunger’ of the post-apartheid city, especially the Development Facilitation Act nationally and the Rapid Land Development Program in the province of Gauteng, have offered fast-track land release but have performed less well against the principles of equity and integration. Royston explained that the result has been a large number of invasions and the speeding up of land delivery through local government on the urban periphery that does not challenge the ‘spatial quo.’

Changing the method of land delivery and government stakeholding has the potential to affect segregation and access to land. Geoff Payne (Geoff Payne and Associates, London) outlined the principles and practices of public/private partnerships in developing countries. Although much heralded in international policy, research in South Africa, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Eastern Europe has shown that such partnerships had undersold their potential.

Crispus Kiamba (University of Nairobi) outlined a transition in Kenya from government-sponsored schemes, which left the informal and formal circuits separate, to new approaches with greater NGO involvement, ‘group ranches’ and partnerships. In Mexico, too, partnerships are seen as one method to eliminate the cycle of illegality and regularization. Federico Seyde and Abelardo Figueroa (Mexican government) outlined a new program called PISO, which, despite numerous bottlenecks when compared to previous interventions (e.g. land reserves), was proving more effective.

Land Markets and Poverty Reduction

In my opening remarks I argued that most research on markets considered poverty as a legitimate context, but thereafter seemed more concerned with market operations than with how these operations might affect poverty. In the final session, Omar Razzaz (World Bank) outlined a proposal for linking land market operation to poverty reduction. The ‘Land and Real Estate Initiative’ aims to investigate ways to improve the liquidity of land assets and access to the poor through re-engineering land registries (improved business processes), developing regulatory infrastructure (the exchange-mortgage-securitization continuum), and accessing and mobilizing land and real estate by the poor. The appropriateness of this initiative generated considerable debate, which may help in refining ideas that could benefit the 500 million people living in urban poverty in developing countries.

Gareth A. Jones was the program developer and chair of the workshop.