Mobilizing Land Value Increments to Provide Serviced Land for the Poor

Martim O. Smolka and Alfonso Iracheta Cenecorta, July 1, 1999

The lack of affordable serviced land for the urban poor is one of the most important issues on the Latin American land policy agenda.1 This shortage of serviced land and the subsequent illegal occupation of unserviced land are characteristic features of Latin American cities, especially in the urban peripheries and in areas unsuited to or restricted from the formal property market by topographic and environmental conditions.

An immediate consequence of this shortage is the overvaluation of land that is serviced. In effect, the provision of services usually increases the price of land by more than the cost of the services. Typically, raw land at the fringe, when designated as urban, is valued at US$5-10 per square meter. The provision of all services costs about US$20-30 per square meter, but the market price may be as much as US$50-100 per square meter. At this price, a 150-square-meter lot of serviced land is equivalent to at least three times the annual income of the majority of poor urban families. In most Latin American cities at least 25 percent of the population falling below the poverty line can barely survive, let alone pay for overpriced land.

Poor people in illegal settlements thus pay a higher price for land than residents in other parts of the city, and they pay more for services such as water, which they have to acquire from private vendors, as well as food, building materials and other consumer goods. Furthermore, their risk for disease is higher due to poor sanitation and limited access to medical facilities.

The Problem of Irregular Occupancy

It should be no surprise that 60 to 70 percent of land in Latin American cities is occupied irregularly, illegally or even clandestinely, with most housing stock being self-built incrementally over decades. In Mexico, the phenomenon of irregularity in land tenure can be seen as a way of life, given its important political and even cultural context. Low-income families find that the only way they can settle in the cities is by acquiring or invading illegal or irregular land.

The message transmitted to younger generations and others who seek housing has been clear: settle wherever you can, and don’t worry because some day the state will regularize your lot.2 This cultural attitude reinforces the perversity of the vicious cycle: the higher the expectation regarding the eventual regularization of irregular settlements, the higher the price that land sub-dividers may charge to sell unserviced or partially serviced land. The mere act of parceling the land raises the price two or three times, so again the poor pay more for land than buyers in the formal market.

Two important policy corollaries relate to this anticipation of land appreciation resulting from future regularization. First, public actions to regularize land have not solved the problem of access to land for the urban poor; rather, regularization is part of the problem because it feeds into the “industry of irregularization.” We must consider a serious restructuring or even the termination of this perverse policy and create other ways to offer serviced land to those who need it.

Second, this process also exposes a fallacy regarding the (in)capacity of the poor to pay for some urban services. They are already paying for at least part of their services, albeit to the landowner/sub-divider as a private “land tax” that could otherwise be collected publicly. The focus of the discussion is therefore misplaced. The issue is not so much whether the poor should pay or not, but rather how they should pay and the limits of such payments. For example, should low-income families benefiting from regularization programs pay for services directly, or should the land value increment generated by the improvements be captured from the landowners through taxation and other fiscal policies? The latter point sheds new light on the problems with some conventional subsidy schemes.

Challenging Current Regularization Programs

The traditional frameworks for studying the phenomenon of irregularity-regularization of land tenure in low-income urban colonies in Mexico (as for the rest of Latin America) need to be reevaluated. This was the motivation behind the March 1999 Lincoln Institute seminar cosponsored with the Colegio Mexiquense AC in Toluca, State of Mexico. Although the seminar could not resolve the conundrum indicated above, or even provide the means to break the vicious cycle, it generated some important conclusions.

First, it is important to recognize that the problem of how to supply land to the poor in Latin American countries cannot be resolved within the prevailing regularization programs. Besides the perverse feedback effects of these programs, there are serious questions regarding their financial sustainability. Regularization programs tend to be more curative than preventive, and they often depend on extra-budgetary government allocations unless the funds are provided by multilateral agencies, NGOs or other organizations.

In Mexico, CORETT, a federal commission for land tenure regularization of “ejidal” land, and CRESEM, a state commission for land tenure regulation and regularization of private land, have worked mainly on the legal side of the problem. Neither commission has achieved its program objectives of providing serviced land for the poor or creating land reserves. They have not focused on the basic problem of land irregularity but rather on one of its manifestations or consequences: illegal tenure.

Second, the problem with current regularization programs exposes the weakness of dissociating such programs from a broad-based fiscal policy, particularly property taxation, with its obvious implications for a healthier land market. As noted in the seminar, successful urban land management cannot be achieved solely through regulatory means. Greater fiscal discipline of land markets is needed, principally at the local level. This should be a pre-condition for an effective mobilization of land value increments to generate urbanized land, rather than a surrogate for the absence of a more comprehensive tax on land values. The same difficulties in obtaining adequate land value assessments, updated land records and other information usually attributed to the implementation of land value taxes also apply, sometimes even more dramatically, to most value capture instruments.

Third, existing fiscal instruments governing land in Mexico, although quite diverse and rigorous, are quite sensitive politically and thus, in reality, very weak. For example, land property taxes (mainly “impuesto predial”) face serious practical limitations in being able to capture land value increments because they were not designed for that purpose. However, fiscal reform may not be as insurmountable an obstacle as once thought when one considers that changes in other sensitive areas, such as privatization of state-owned assets or of ejido lands, have been accomplished.

Over and above these technical and political constraints, one should not neglect the importance of cultural and managerial obstacles. Planners must work with the fiscal administrators to overcome the lack of communication that has long characterized these two groups. Some promising steps have already been taken, and many public employees are aware of the urgent need to integrate fiscal policies and urban planning within the framework of a global strategy.

Finally, there is the broader context in which the issue must be placed. The government and the private sector have to understand that land has become the strategic issue in the dynamic process of urbanization. The main concern is the need to regulate land markets to meet the huge demand for serviced land in new ways and to make significant changes in the priority of this issue within Mexican politics and urban policy.

In sum, the seminar exposed the multifaceted need for a more effective policy to provide serviced land for the poor, including better coordination of existing policies relating to finance, territorial reserves, regularization and land market dynamics. We have also learned that many fiscal and regulatory instruments are sufficient in theory but not in practice. The problem is not so much a lack of resources as the capacity to mobilize the resources that do exist into a comprehensive program that links regularization with fiscal policy, including the exploration of value capture mechanisms.

While we studied various proposals and offered alternatives for future working agendas on the topic, several issues must be addressed before we can begin to understand the phenomenon in a different way. One key question is, If servicing the land adds so much value, why is it so hard to find private agents or developers in the formal market who are willing to invest in the informal market? Why is it deemed unprofitable in spite of such handsome mark-ups?

There is no easy answer, other than imprecise indications regarding risks due to complicated judicial and legal problems, unclear rules of the game, the high cost of approval licenses, lack of information about procedures, and concerns about low profitability over time. Because of the complex institutional issues involved in this dilemma, it will continue to be the focus of attention in collaborative efforts by the Lincoln Institute and its cosponsors in Mexico and other countries of Latin America.

Martim O. Smolka is senior fellow and director of the Latin American Program at the Lincoln Institute.

Alfonso Iracheta Cenecorta is president of El Colegio Mexiquense AC, an institution of research and postgraduate education in social sciences and the humanities, in the State of Mexico.


1. Serviced land is land designated for urban use and provided with basic public services (water, sewerage, paved roads, electric and telephone utilities, and the like), and with access to municipal functions such as employment, education and public transport.

2. Regularization means not only the provision of legal title but, more importantly, the provision of the urban infrastructure, services and other changes needed to integrate the “informal/illegal yet real” settlement into the fabric of the “legal” city.

Some Definitions

Illegal – land occupation that expressly contradicts existing norms, civil codes and public authorization

Informal – economic activity that does not adhere to and is not protected by institutional rules, as opposed to formal activity that operates within established procedures

Irregular – subdivisions that are officially approved but are not executed in accordance with the law

Clandestine – subdivisions that are established without any official recognition