Housing Finance Policy in Chile

The Last 30 Years
Mario Navarro, July 1, 2005

As a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University Graduate School of Design during the 2004–2005 academic year, Mario Navarro has undertaken a critical analysis of the innovative housing finance policy developed in Chile over the last 30 years. The objective of the study, summarized here, is to help housing policy designers in developing countries understand the Chilean model as an alternative to provide housing to people from low- and moderate-income sectors.

Until the beginning of the 1970s, housing programs in developing countries consisted of government-sponsored initiatives to design, build and sell houses using loans with subsidized interest rates. These policies were generally limited in scale, not affordable by or clearly focused on poor families, and often inefficient (Mayo 1999). Cognizant of these problems, international development organizations in the mid-1970s started to direct their loans and advice to developing countries based on the new “basic needs” strategy, which consisted of providing sites and services, slum upgrading and core housing (Kimm 1986).

At the same time and independently from these development organizations, Chile started several reforms in the financial sector and in social housing programs, among which was the creation of the first program in the world to subsidize the demand to buy housing (Gilbert 2004). This Chilean model was established ten years before the “enabling markets housing approach” promoted by international organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (Kimm 1986), the Inter-American Development Bank (Rojas, Jacobs and Savedoff 1999) and the World Bank (World Bank 1993). Under this enabling policy governments generate incentives and act as a facilitator so the private sector will produce and finance the housing that the country needs.

The Chilean model has influenced housing policy in many countries of Latin American, and even those of other continents (Gilbert 2004; Gonzáles Arrieta 1997). Nevertheless, it has not been widely recognized as the first program in which the government plays the role of enabling the market. Gilbert (2002), an important scholar of the Chilean model and its influence on other countries, mentions that Chile “fits into” the enabling model, but my study shows that, more than only fitting in, the Chilean housing model was the precursor of the policy. The main characteristics of this program (one-time cash payments of a fixed amount) correspond “unquestionably to the type of subsidy [for housing] that is less problematic than others” (Angel 2000).

The Chilean government, through the Ministry of Housing and Planning (in Spanish, Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo, MINVU), was the key actor in the success of the Chilean model. During the first 27 years of implementing this policy (until 2001), MINVU not only funded and managed the subsidy programs, but it also was the largest real estate firm and the second largest mortgage bank in the country, in terms of the number of houses built and the number of mortgage loans issued.

Three Periods of Housing Policy

What have been the instruments and the amounts of public and private resources that were allocated to the construction and improvement of social housing in the Chile? My study is divided into six parts; the first three review distinct periods of housing policy over the past 30 years, and the next three parts describe the most relevant events in the evolution of this policy.

The first period, from 1974 to 1984, established the foundations of the enabling markets housing policy. During those 11 years, profound reforms were made in the banking system. The programs to subsidize housing were created and then significantly adjusted over time. However, few resources were devoted to housing programs, and the private sector participated only in providing housing for the upper-middle class. The public resources did not reach the poorest groups, so the housing deficit continued to growth.

The second period extended over 17 years, from 1985 to 2001, during which time the policy was consolidated with significant state intervention. The earthquake that shook the central zone of Chile in March 1985 marked the historic peak of the housing deficit, reaching more than one million units. This event precipitated increased attention to the design of housing and subsidy programs, as well as an increase in the level of resources allocated to these programs. These two factors were decisive in attracting the private sector to the social housing market. The continuity of housing policies implemented by democratic governments that started in 1990 was a strategic effort to consolidate the trust and knowledge required by the private sector to increase its participation in the market. The government continued its role in the construction and funding of housing for broad sectors of the population, and the focus of the resources improved with respect to the previous period. Although the commitment was still inadequate, the great accomplishment of this period was the reduction of the housing deficit to half of what it had been in the mid-1980s.

The third period, from 2002 to 2004, corresponds to the implementation of the enabling markets housing policy. Although Chile’s housing policy received international recognition before 2001, only 25 percent of its resources were allocated to families below the poverty line. At that rate of performance, it would have taken 24 years to close the housing deficit (Focus 2001). MINVU was spending more than half of its resources on direct housing construction programs and was still working as a bank, providing mortgage loans, although more than 70 percent of payments were in arrears (División Técnica 2001).

Current Housing Policy

To improve the focus of its resource allocation, MINVU in 2002 started the most important transformation of its housing policy since 1974. At the same time, MINVU stopped giving mortgage loans and gave up the direct construction of houses. In 2004, 96 percent of resources were targeted to subsidy programs and only 4 percent to building programs. The most important housing programs for urban families under this new housing policy are described here.

For the poorest residents, MINVU created a subsidy program called Fondo Solidario de Vivienda (Funding for Cooperative Housing) with an up-front subsidy of US$8,400 per household. Applicants need US$300 of savings and have to present a specific housing proposal. The subsidy covers the cost of land, infrastructure and a 350-square-foot unit containing a bathroom, kitchen, multipurpose space and bedroom. This is considered to be the first stage of a house to be built progressively over time. The municipal building permit is pre-approved assuming the unit’s expansion to a minimum of 550 square feet.

Families must apply in organized groups of at least 10 households and with the support of a managing organization, which can be a municipality, a nongovernmental organization or a consulting firm registered with MINVU. The ministry no longer decides where and what to construct, since the family groups present their projects and MINVU selects the best ones from a social, design and urban development point of view. The managing organization receives the funds to develop the project, implement a social action plan, and assist the families with technical support to expand their units.

Families do not receive another subsidy for the expansion, but since they do not have to pay a mortgage they can save to finance the materials and labor required. The new program is flexible and also accepts projects that involve the purchase of existing houses or construction on existing open space within a lot to increase housing density.

The selection mechanism benefits people who buy used houses over those who build new houses. The goal was to open a new market for the very low-income sector by making it possible for them to purchase the houses that had been constructed by the government over the previous 30 years. This policy is also viewed as a solution to the traditional problems associated with moving families to new housing projects on the periphery of cities, far from social and employment networks and more expensive for commuting to work. This program is focused on people living below the poverty line (approximately 632,000 households in Chile, equivalent to 19 percent of the population). Nearly 30,000 such subsidies have been given each year since 2002.

The second subsidy program was designed for low-income people above the poverty line who were the main consumers of the former housing projects developed by MINVU until 2001. The subsidies can be used to buy new or existing housing or to construct a house on one’s own land. The subsidy is US$4,500 for houses that cost US$9,000 or less and it decreases linearly to US$2,700 for houses up a price limit of US$18,000. Nearly 40,000 units have been granted annually under this program.

Because of credit enhancements offered by MINVU, six private banks signed agreements to deliver mortgage loans for housing valued under US$18,000. This policy was able to reduce the rent requirements and allow informal workers to qualify for mortgage loans. To reduce delinquency rates, the loans needed to be insured against fire and unemployment or the death of the principal. Three credit enhancements are included in MINVU’s agreements with the banks.

  1. Subsidy for closing costs: A fixed amount between US$300 (if the housing cost is US$9,000 or less) and US$120 (for housing values up to US$18,000) is given to the bank for each loan issued to finance a subsidized house.
  2. Implicit subsidy: MINVU guarantees that the loan is sold in the secondary market at 100 percent of its face value. If that does not happen, MINVU pays the difference to the bank.
  3. Default insurance: In case of foreclosure, MINVU guarantees that the bank will recover the debt balance and the cost of legal proceedings. Contrary to FHA loans in the U.S., the foreclosure is done by the issuer of the loan, not by MINVU.

Some constituencies were afraid that the subsidies would go only to the upper limit of the price allowed and that the market would provide neither housing nor credit for houses of less than US$15,000. The results showed that the progressiveness of the subsidies was sufficient to promote the market at all of the price levels targeted by the subsidy.

The third type of subsidy is for houses between US$18,000 and US$30,000, to promote mixed-income units in private housing projects. Only 6,500 of these subsidies have been given each year. The subsidy offers up-front capital of US$2,700, but the credit enhancements were eliminated because many private banks were already originating mortgage loans in this price range.

The last three parts of the study analyze (1) key issues to generate an enabling markets housing policy, including transaction costs, access to bank financing, savings for housing, and support to families so they can take advantage of the subsidies; (2) the impact of the housing programs on family income and the distribution of national income; and (3) lessons on housing finance learned from the Chile’s experience over the last 30 years.


My study analyzes the Chilean housing policy since 1974, to better understand how it became possible to incorporate the participation of the private sector and improve the focus in allocating resources to the poorest sector. The study explores both good and bad decisions that were made over the past 30 years, and particularly in the past three years, and it identifies the roles of different social and economic actors in the process. The early results are encouraging. Using the same budget for subsidies in each of the last four years, MINVU increased by 57 percent the number of families from the poorest three income deciles who have benefited from government housing subsidies.

Despite the great breakthrough in social housing in Chile, many tasks remain. A report by MINVU estimates a housing deficit of 543,000 units in 2000 and suggests that 96,000 new units of housing are needed each year just to accommodate new family demand (Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo de Chile 2004).

The effects in terms of land use are also remarkable. Until 2001 all the housing units built for low-income families in the Greater Santiago area were developed by MINVU in new infill projects on the periphery of the city. The Funding for Cooperative Housing program established in 2003 encouraged acquisition of existing houses and increased density of housing within already urbanized areas. As a result, the percentage of these types of housing began to shift dramatically, from zero in 2001 to 23 percent in 2003 and up to 63 percent in 2004, with a corresponding decrease in the percentage of new infill units being developed on the periphery.

It took Chile more than 28 years to fully implement the enabling markets housing policy. I hope this study can help other countries to formulate their housing policies so that all citizens, without regard to their socioeconomic condition, can have access to opportunities to own a decent home.


Angel, S. 2000. Housing policy matters: A global analysis. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

División Técnica de Estudio y Fomento Habitacional. 2001. Informe de gestión: Diciembre de 2000. Santiago, Chile: Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo.

Gilbert, A. 2002. Power, ideology and the Washington consensus: The development and spread of the Chilean housing policy. Housing Studies 17(2): 305–324.

———. 2004. Helping the poor through housing subsidies: Lessons from Chile, Colombia and South Africa. Habitat International 28(1): 13.

Gonzáles Arrieta, G. 1997. Acceso a la vivienda y subsidios directos a la demanda: Análisis y lecciones de las experiencias latinoamericanas. Serie Financiamiento del Desarrollo (63).

Kimm, P. 1986. Evolving shelter policies for developing countries. Second International Shelter Conference, Vienna, Austria.

Mayo, S. 1999. Subsidies in housing. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.

Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo de Chile. 2004. El déficit habitacional en Chile: Medición de los requerimientos de vivienda y su distribución espacial. Santiago, Chile: Política Habitacional y Planificación (321).

Rojas, E., Jacobs, M., and Savedoff, W. 1999. Operational guidelines for housing: Urban development and housing policy. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.

World Bank. 1993. Housing: Enabling markets to work. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Mario Navarro was director of housing policy in Chile’s Ministry of Housing and Planning (MINVU) from 2000 to 2004, when he was named Loeb Fellow at Harvard and visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute.