The Recovery of ‘Socially Created’ Land Values in Colombia

William A. Doebele, July 1, 1998

On July 18, 1997, the Congress of the Republic of Colombia passed an innovative new Law of Land Development with ambitious goals for permitting municipalities to recover socially created land values, known in Spanish as plusvalía. Specifically, Law 388 declares that the public has a right “to participate” in increases in land values created when land use regulations increase the potential for development. Three categories of public actions are covered:

(1) changing a designation of rural land (in which development is extremely limited) into land for urban or suburban development;

(2) modification of zoning or other land use regulations;

(3) modification of regulations that permit greater building density.

Briefly stated, the legislation provides that the square-meter value of the land shall be determined before any public action and then after the action. Any municipality, at the initiative of its mayor, may demand that it “participate” by being able to recapture 30 to 50 percent (as it chooses) of the increase in value. The value is determined by multiplying the two square-meter values by the area of the parcel concerned and subtracting the pre-action value from the post-action value. A maximum of 50 percent was established to ensure that developers would still be financially motivated.

With this legislation, Colombia has enacted into national policy the basic premise of Henry George’s writings: that the public has a moral right to recover socially created values, as manifested in this case by increases in land values released by the three categories of public decisions mentioned above. With the possible exception of Taiwan, few if any other countries have attempted to so directly incorporate Georgian principles into actual legislation at the national level.

Implementation Procedures

The current legislation is only the first step. Under Colombian practice, acts of Congress set general policies, but implementation depends on follow-up at the national executive level and at the municipal level. To make the critical before and after square meter evaluations as objective as possible, an independent organization known as the Agustín Codazzi Geographical Institute will carry out assessments according to guidelines established in the law for each of the three categories.

Fees (called participaciones in the law) must be paid when a landowner applies for permission to subdivide or to construct on the property, when the use of the property is changed, when the property is transferred, or when development rights (representing rights for additional construction) are acquired. These fees are to be recorded in the registry of titles to assure compliance, and land cannot be transferred in the registry until the fees are paid in one of various forms:

(1) by paying cash;

(2) by transferring to a public body a portion of the property that is of equivalent value;

(3) by exchanging urban land of equivalent value at other locations;

(4) by making the public body a partner in the execution of the project with an interest of equivalent value;

(5) by providing needed infrastructure or open space of equivalent value; or

(6) by giving back a portion of the development rights created by the public action that is equivalent in value.

It may be anticipated that most developers will prefer to partner with municipalities instead of paying cash. Indeed, the legislation provides an incentive to use method (6) since it carries a 10 percent discount on the fees, or methods (2) or (4), which have a 5 percent discount.

Municipalities must earmark the revenues produced from participation in socially created land values for specific purposes:

  • buying land for “social interest” housing;
  • providing infrastructure in areas where it is currently inadequate;
  • expanding the network of open spaces;
  • financing mass transit;
  • carrying out large urban projects or urban renewal;
  • covering costs of land expropriation for urban renewal; or
  • undertaking historic preservation.

Potential Implications of the Law

This legislation touches on many land policy issues that have long been of concern to the Lincoln Institute. Martim Smolka, director of the Institute’s Latin America and Caribbean Program, and other Institute associates are holding seminars and training programs to share experiences in working out implementation procedures, possibly assist in pilot projects, and carefully monitor the Colombian experiment as it unfolds.

One such program was a three-day workshop cosponsored in March with the National University of Colombia and the Advanced School of Public Administration in Bogotá. The workshop consisted of both formal and informal commentaries from a broad range of interested parties from Colombia and other countries. Since Colombia has obviously taken a bold step and there are few precedents for guidance, the appropriate officials must be innovative as they proceed toward actual implementation. The workshop identified a number of potential issues that will have to be faced as further steps are taken.

Constitutional Issues: The new law is squarely based on Article 82 of the Colombian Constitution of 1991, itself a remarkably innovative document on many aspects of urban land reform. Article 82, in simplified terms, states that when public actions increase the development potential of land, the public has a right to participate in the increased value (plusvalía) produced by such actions, so that the costs of urban development will be defrayed and distributed equitably.

The legal/constitutional debate is twofold: 1) Can the municipalities act on the sole basis of the law, or should they wait until the national government issues “regulations” and remain subject to these regulations? and 2) Should the law be limited to establishing the common, general principles, since the 1991 Constitution attributes the responsibility of land taxation exclusively to municipalities?

Practical Effects of Municipal Discretion: The workshop also pointed out that the voluntary nature of the law may have negative and possibly unintended consequences. Since it is the mayor of each municipality who initiates the imposition of the “participation,” he or she may well come under considerable pressure, financial or otherwise. In rapidly developing areas, a 30 to 50 percent share of increasing property values might be a very large sum. One speaker, for example, asserted that in Cali 60 percent of the increases in land values caused by planning decisions would be equal to the entire municipal budget. On the other hand, the law may facilitate mutually useful negotiations and partnerships between municipalities and developers that do not occur now.

Maintaining a Political Constituency: The political environment that made this bold legislation possible included scandalous cases of overnight fortunes being made from a zoning change in Bogotá and a decision to expand the urban perimeter in Cali. In the latter case, land prices were said to have multiplied by more than one thousand times!

Beyond initial implementation there is the long-range question of maintaining a political constituency for the effective implementation of such a law in the face of powerful and well-financed resistance by landowners and developers. On the other hand, the ability of any national government to have passed such a law in the first place is an achievement of exceptional interest to those concerned about “value recapture” as an essential element in urban land policy.

Maintaining Objectivity in Assessments: In spite of very specific procedures in the law designed to make it as objective and transparent as possible, it will not be easy for the Codazzi Institute to make the required before and after assessments accurately under the time constraints defined in the statute. Moreover, the various transfer alternatives to cash payment of the fees, which are sure to be popular, are dependent on a local determination as to what constitutes “equivalent value.” A number of speakers pointed out that this process might be an invitation to corruption.

Technical Issues: Speakers also pointed out a number of technical assessment problems with the guidelines as set forth in the law. For example, if restrictive zoning causes one owner to lose value, which in turn increases value for an adjoining owner, what provision can be made for compensating the former while recovering the increased value from the latter? Moreover, since the market anticipates public action, will the “before” assessment already reflect increased values arising from the probability of the action? Or, if land use or building regulations increase values of low-income, small property owners, they may not have the cash to pay for development fees, nor would the other forms of payment be feasible at a very small scale. Forced sales or displacement of the poor could result. These matters raise the policy calculation: Is it better to stride ahead and work things out over time or attempt legislative correction of technical problems before proceeding further?

Economic Effects: Although legally described as public participation in the increased values that public actions have created, the legislation may also be seen as a form of capital gains tax. How often will it be used? Will implementation tend to push down the price of the land affected, or will changes in value be passed on to the ultimate consumer? If it is the latter, the law could have a negative effect on affordable housing. For this reason Article 83(4) exempts land to be used for “housing of social interest,” as defined by the national government. Will this become a loophole for widespread evasion? There is little international experience to answer such questions.

Master Planning: Law 388 of 1997 also requires all municipalities to prepare master plans (Planes de Ordenamiento) and contains fairly detailed descriptions of them in Articles 9 through 35. Obviously, planning alters expectations of owners, and therefore of land values. The administrative and economic interaction of the city’s planning process and its recapture of increased land values will surely be a complex one.

Conflicts in Objectives: As is often the case with fiscal tools, the new changes seek several objectives that are not always compatible: financing better urban development; reducing land speculation; introducing increased equity and progessivity into taxation; and closing some of the favorite avenues for corruption of municipal officials.

Learning from Innovation

In spite of these concerns, Colombia continues its tradition as one of the world’s most innovative nations in urban land planning, law and finance. Bogota was the first major city in the world to create a special zoning district that recognized the realities of low-income housing practices. Stimulated by the ideas and influence of the late Lachlin Currie, an economic advisor to the national government for some 30 years, the city used special assessment districts (contribuciones de valorización) to carry out a major physical transformation during the 1960s. Colombia’s laws on territorial development of 1989 and 1991, to which this 1997 law is a modification and supplement, are among the most comprehensive approaches to land planning since the British Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Furthermore, the Colombian constitution is virtually alone in specifically mentioning the moral claim of the public to increases in land values caused by public action.

As might be expected, some of these innovations eventually fell short of initial expectations. Indeed, some participants at the workshop argued that the energies going into the recovery of plusvalía might be more usefully spent on increasing the efficiency of conventional property taxes. On the other hand, the new law is addressing and resolving some problems of earlier legislation and policies, and the country is learning from its experience. The conclusion of the workshop participants was that the process has been worthwhile, and that the new law must be understood and evaluated in its relationship to previously established instruments of value capture and fiscal policy in general.

William A. Doebele is professor of urban planning and design, emeritus, at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and a faculty associate of the Lincoln Institute. This article was prepared with important contributions by Martim Smolka, senior fellow for Latin America Programs, Fernando Rojas, visiting fellow of the Institute, and Fernanda Furtado, faculty and research associate of the Institute.

See also Fernando Rojas and Martim Smolka, “New Colombian Law Implements Value Capture,” Land Lines, March 1998.