Rethinking Value Capture Policies for Latin America

Fernanda Furtado, May 1, 2000

Scholars and public officials concerned with social justice consider redistribution of land values to be an especially important objective of urban policy in Latin American countries, where great differences in access to scarce urban infrastructure and services result in an unfair distribution of land values. However, value capture policies and instruments used in principle to “redistribute the valorization gain” or “promote redistribution of land value increments” are rejected by some progressive sectors because they believe that, in spite of the redistributive connotation, those instruments are not really aimed at redistribution in practice.1 This article explores a number of questions that must be addressed to achieve a better understanding of the value capture concept and its potential to play a truly redistributive role in Latin America.

The Distributive Principle and the Redistributive Goal

The basic principle of value capture 2 is to return to the community the land value increments resulting from community action. The most usual way to define those increments is to focus on particular increases in land value that result from specific and dated public actions. The corresponding value capture instruments could, therefore, be thought of as devices to recover for the public the increase in land value associated with public actions that otherwise would be captured by private entities. The aim of this distributive policy is to restore a previous state of distribution that, in essence, is taken as a proper or given one.

An alternative interpretation is based on the principle stated by Henry George that all land value, irrespective of its origin, is the product of community effort. In this view, only when all of the land value is taken into consideration and the goal of altering the current state of land value distribution is introduced can the value capture idea acquire a truly redistributive perspective.

Redistributing land values is but one of the possible goals of urban land policy. Other goals are raising public revenues to finance urban services, regulating and managing urban land uses, and controlling undesirable outcomes of the functioning of urban land markets. That is, redistribution may be a guide to more progressive distributive policies, but it is not necessarily the basic principle of value capture.

Thus, we can distinguish between the distributive principle of value capture policies-to restore a certain state of distribution-and a redistributive goal of urban land policies-to alter a certain state of distribution. This distinction allows us to address the confusion about distribution and redistribution applied to land values and to the value capture idea.

The Practice of Value Capture in Latin America

In its generic sense, the value capture idea applies to any levy or planning tool intended to distribute land value increments. Almost all Latin American countries have experience with the property tax, and many have other planning tools such as the compulsory donation of land for public purposes in land parceling or subdivision projects. Historically, the development of the value capture idea has been associated with a specific instrument known as Contribución de Valorización/Mejoras. This special assessment or valorization charge, incorporated into the legislation of most Latin American countries, aims at capturing a portion of special benefits (land valorization) that arise from public investments in infrastructure and services, to finance such investments.

Even with this narrow definition, the implementation of value capture has been limited and controversial. Both the political influence of landowners and the technical (but also often legal) shortcomings of adequately assessing land values have been identified as restraints to its use in many countries. Colombia is perhaps the only country with an established tradition of using the instrument, but even there its implementation is subject to serious limitations. Some observers acknowledge its incapacity for redistribution and others claim it frequently loses the link with the distributive principle and becomes simply a practical way to pay the community for the costs of a public action that generates benefits for only some individuals.

A closer look at concrete Latin America experiences with the implementation of value capture instruments leads to a disturbing conclusion. Rather than evolving from the ethical principle of fairness, whereby the increment of land value resulting from community action returns to the community, the value capture idea seems to have been adopted in Latin America as a pragmatic cost-recovery mechanism to overcome the chronic shortage of public revenues to finance urban infrastructure. The major goal of such value capture instruments has been ultimately to raise public revenues, whether based on a distributive principle or not.

Linking Value Capture and Redistribution

Even when the distributive principle is secured, the goal of raising public revenues can differ from or even contradict other goals of urban land policy, including the important redistributive goal. For instance, when a public investment in urban infrastructure generates land value increments in a highly valued area, and then associated income from the use of a value capture instrument is reinvested in the same area, the result is not redistributive and can even be regressive.

To understand the contradictions that arise between the traditional use of value capture instruments to raise general revenues and the necessity of incorporating the redistribution goal into those policies, we need to consider value capture as a more comprehensive concept. Even when limited to its usual definition centered on specific land value increments, at least three non-autonomous public actions or decisions must be associated with the distributive principle of value capture:

1. an original public action (regulation, investment, etc.) that results in land value increments;

2. a second action to capture (some of) this value; and

3. a third action related to the destination or use of collected resources.

While the second action implies the use of a general or specific value capture instrument, the first and third actions, though related to specific decisions, cannot be separated from two basic questions concerning public decisions as a whole: How are public works allocated in space, and how is the general revenue distributed?

Allocation of public works

When raising revenues and promoting redistribution are concurrent goals, the second does not necessarily follow the first. In Latin America these goals are often contradictory. Under conditions of highly uneven distribution of wealth and scarce funds to finance public works, it is usually easier to guarantee the raising of revenues through the allocation of public works (original action) in areas where more absolute revenues can be collected. Even with the use of a value capture instrument, when the subsequent decision (destination of resources) maintains the same state of wealth distribution, the whole public action becomes regressive.

On the other hand, rejection of value capture instruments does not prevent the misallocation of public works. In fact, it just contributes to the status quo. For example, the facelift of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, which replaced old trees and modernized sidewalks, was financed by the general revenue, not by a specific value capture device. However, many of the poor areas of the city have neither sidewalks nor a single tree on their streets. Recognizing this irony reinforces the need for a new framework for value capture policies that can allocate public works more equitably.

Distribution of general revenue

Latin America presents extreme relative and absolute differences in public infrastructure provision, calling for equity criteria to evaluate distributive policies. Yet, equity criteria are subjective and there are distinct visions on what is fair. Given the disparities in wealth and in access to serviced land, it is important to consider not only relative differences but also the absolute differences between highest and lowest levels.

To illustrate this point we can apply the classic redistributive argument to the distribution of land values in a society with 10 units of wealth (i.e., land value) distributed between two groups: the higher group has 8 units or 80 percent of the wealth and the lower group has 2 units (see Table 1). This example can represent the typical differences between serviced areas occupied by the rich and unserviced areas occupied by the poor in Latin American cities. An increase of 50 percent in this wealth (5 total units), if distributed in the same ratio, does not change relative differences, but the absolute difference between the two groups is increased by 50 percent, from 6 to 9 units.

TABLE 1: Distributive Value Capture Policies Total Wealth Lower Group Higher Group Relative Differences Absolute Difference original: 10 units 2 units 8 units 1:4 6 units increased: 15 units 3 units (2+1) 12 units (8+4) 1:4 9 units

Another important consideration is the level of the group in the lowest position. Value capture instruments are justified as distributive tools to return to the community special benefits resulting from a public action that only some individuals receive. But that justification in turn raises the need to clearly separate special benefits from basic needs. If we consider access to urban infrastructure as a basic need, the society must decide on the minimum level of access for the lower group. Priority should be given to actions that achieve those minimum levels before other benefits accrue to the higher group. If this society decides that the minimum level of wealth should be 6 units for the lower group, then an increment of 5 units of land value would be distributed in such a way as to decrease both relative differences and absolute differences (see Table 2).

TABLE 2: Linking Value Capture and Redistribution Total Wealth Lower Group Higher Group Relative Differences Absolute Differences original: 10 units 2 units 8 units 1:4 6 units increased: 15 units 6 units (2+4) 9 units (8+1) 2:3 3 units

Value Capture and Socio-spatial Equity

Urban planning decisions, such as the norms and regulations on land use and development rights, also affect the distribution of urban land values and must be integrated into value capture policies. In Latin America, where the differences in access to public infrastructure and urban services are marked by severe social segregation and exclusion, this integration implies the inclusion of a socio-spatial dimension that can deal with the disparities between serviced rich center cities (for the few) and unserviced poor peripheries (for the majority). Therefore, land value redistribution policies acquire a particular political context in which the generation of land value increments and the destination of corresponding funds are fixed in distinct socio-economic areas of the city.

However, even when this socio-spatial dimension is incorporated, most redistributive value capture instruments provide necessary but not sufficient conditions for a better distribution of land values. While redistribution from rich areas to all areas involves altering the distribution of general revenue to achieve its equity objective, redistribution from all areas to poor areas involves altering the allocation of public works and/or development rights on land to arrive at a better distribution of land values.

Since these approaches involve greater institutional changes, a third option seeks to stimulate the generation of land value increments in rich areas in order to raise revenues that can be redistributed to poor areas. These so-called “Robin Hood” policies are being considered to deal with urgent needs in poor areas, combined with specific opportunities and demands in rich areas. One example is the “linkage operation” recently popularized in many large Brazilian cities, where the negotiation of legal exceptions for development generates payments earmarked for social housing. However, a careful examination of this transfer tool shows that stimulation of land value increments in rich areas actually increases intra-urban differentiation and as a result may exacerbate the gap between rich and poor areas.

This and other largely unanticipated perverse outcomes show that the development of value capture policies and instruments for Latin American countries cannot be considered independently from an urban land policy oriented to the reduction of socio-spatial inequalities. The latter can be attained only by direct actions geared to altering the current distribution pattern of land values. This means that redistribution, although not necessarily implied in the value capture idea, must be incorporated deliberately into the development of distributive value capture policies.

Guidelines for Implementing Value Capture Policies

This discussion reinforces the argument that value capture policies in Latin America must be preceded by changes in the process of distributing land values in the broadest sense, especially where redistribution is pursued as a major goal of urban policy. This perspective would help to consider in an integrated manner, in each public decision concerning a specific way of distributing urban land values, several other ways in which the public sector contributes to this distribution, including:

  • the way taxes on land are designed and collected;
  • the way public revenue is allocated for public works;
  • the way specific value capture instruments are applied (or not);
  • the way the collected resources are apportioned; and
  • the way land uses and development rights are defined.

The potential and limits of specific value capture instruments are conditioned by those distributional public actions and decisions. When specific value capture instruments are used independently from this consideration, the whole process may be undermined. Collection of land taxes is usually neglected; public investments tend to be allocated unjustly; political impediments to the use of value capture instruments abound; revenues are not distributed in a socially equitable manner; development rights are incorporated in ownership rights, etc. As a consequence, redistribution cannot be attained and the distributive principle is imperiled.

The challenge in Latin America, then, is to work out the preconditions for improved use of the value capture idea, rather than simply to focus on overcoming procedural difficulties in applying existing instruments or to reject those instruments in favor of replacement tools usually subject to similar shortcomings. To have a chance of being truly redistributive, these distributional decisions should account for all components of land value, including accumulated, potential and specific increments, not only land value increments in the strictest sense. Efforts in this direction may contribute to a redistributive perspective on value capture policies.

How much value capture is “enough” will vary among countries, but the balance of policies should include these basic guidelines:

  • improvement and strengthening of the property tax, especially its land component based on all of the land value as opposed to specific land value increments;
  • universalization of the provision of public infrastructure and urban services (i.e., basic needs as opposed to special benefits); and
  • socially responsible approach to the definition and regulation of ownership rights and development rights on land.

These guidelines are strongly associated with urban land value increments in the broadest sense, and they can be used to reduce absolute and relative socio-spatial differences. If they continue to be neglected, and value capture policies are confined to specific land value increments, attempts at redistribution in Latin American countries are bound to fail. Furthermore, the implementation of value capture instruments will continue to serve as an anti-social mechanism that only exacerbates the already great differences between rich and poor.

Fernanda Furtado is a fellow of the Lincoln Institute. She received a dissertation fellowship from the Institute to help complete her Ph.D. thesis on “Urban Land Value Recapture in Latin America” at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

See the Latin American Program and Land Lines sections of this website for additional articles and reports on this topic in both English and Spanish.


1 See Donald Shoup, “Is under-investment in public infrastructure an anomly?” in Gareth A. Jones and Peter Ward, eds. 1994. Methodology for Land and Housing Market Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Shoup’s piece includes the debate held during the 1991 Fitzwilliam Workshop on Land Values and Land Valorization in Developing Countries at the University of Cambridge on whether value capture instruments are intended to redistribute the valorization gain or are just a device to strengthen government finance.

2 It would be more precise to speak of value recapture, because besides better representing public interventions in order to return to the community the unearned land value captured by private entities, the term alludes to redistribution as a specific way of developing such policies. However, the more generic term value capture is used in this article.