Using Value Capture to Benefit the Poor

The Usme Project in Colombia
María Mercedes Maldonado Copello and Martim O. Smolka, July 1, 2003

Public policies and actions regarding social housing in Colombia, as in other Latin American countries, have concentrated on regularization and upgrading programs, which in many cases are linked to the need for infrastructure funding. These programs also are seen as the only palliative instrument for addressing an apparently insoluble problem—illegal (pirate) urban development—although they have been found to be quite limited and even counterproductive. Here we present an alternative policy: the application of principles and instruments for land management and participación en plusvalías (public participation in land value increments resulting from administrative actions). This policy was established in the Colombian Constitution and in Law 388 of 1997, which prescribes that the revenues generated from land value increments are to be used for social investments.

Operación Urbanística Nuevo Usme is one of the strategic projects promoted by Bogotá Mayor Antanas Mockus to solve the problem of illegal developments. Located in the southeastern sector of the city, Usme is one of the areas most vulnerable to the pressures of illegal urbanization; powerful pirate subdividers have developed more than half of the 1,000 hectares already set aside for urban use. The predominant mechanism for this kind of extra-legal development, besides invasions or squatter settlements, has been the sale of plots by subdividers who buy large areas of land at rural prices and sell them without providing any services or infrastructure and without approval from the public administration. The negative consequences of this kind of development include relatively high land prices and inequitable land occupation patterns.

Usme is expected to expand into another 600 hectares of steeply sloped, ecologically fragile and still predominantly rural land, according to the city’s master plan (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial or POT), which was approved in June 2000. Bogotá’s administration already has invested in water and sewage systems for the area and is executing other projects, including the extension of the Transmilenio public transport system and construction of 6,200 low-income housing units. In addition, under the initiative of citizens organizations, two large areas, the Parque entre Nubes and the Agroparque los Soches, have been designated by the POT as both meaningful and symbolic local landmarks. The first is a large park marking the transition area between urban and rural, which is constantly threatened with illegal development and exploitation. The second area, a type of agricultural buffer zone, was created by a peasant organization that consciously assumed an important reduction of its land price by changing the land classification from suburban to rural, in order to preserve its agrarian character. This organization is now developing innovative alternative means of land management through ecological conservation projects to benefit the city as a whole and to block the threat of illegal urban growth.

How can this diversity of elements, ranging from social housing to public transportation and agricultural land conservation, create an opportunity for sustainable living conditions for the poorest people of the city? How does one reconcile the objectives of urban policy with social justice? How can the city prevent pirate subdividers from taking undeserved advantage of Usme’s new development area? This is the challenge for the city’s administration, for popular housing organizations and for the residents living south of the city.

Alternative Mechanisms for Value Capture

One of the topics under debate with regard to Law 388 is the precedent of recovering land value increments for areas designated for social housing. Housing organizations have sought to exempt such lands from participation in plusvalías, based on a common misunderstanding about the nature of the instrument, which views the value captured as being transferred to the final price of housing (see Smolka and Furtado, page 12). Taking a different approach, the Usme project is structured around several alternative mechanisms for value capture that go beyond its restricted and misconceived role as a tax.

The first mechanism is simply the announcement of the Usme project, since Law 388 provides that in the case of public land acquisition the land’s commercial value (for compensatory purposes) cannot include the amount corresponding to the plusvalías generated by the project. This provision freezes the land price to its level prior to the announcement of the project, and therefore is an expedient instrument to reduce the cost that the local administration would otherwise pay for land for its own urban development projects.

The second mechanism is the Plan Parcial, a plan for local development parcels, which applies the principle of equitable distribution of costs and benefits that Colombian law has adopted from the Spanish law. This mode of reparcelación (or equitable land readjustment) includes the distribution of infrastructure costs as well as development rights, and allows the public administration to obtain a portion of the developed lands as a return payment for its investment in the development. Through this mechanism, the Municipality of Bogotá can obtain free or low-cost land for infrastructure or public facilities, or for social housing.

A third mechanism is the recovery of plusvalías as established by Law 388, which requires the prior approval of a specific agreement by the City Council. If the recovery plan is approved, the municipality could regain between 30 and 50 percent of the land’s price increment derived from the land’s change in classification from rural to urban, the authorization for more profitable uses, or the increment of development rights. The plusvalías could be paid in land, as a percentage of participation in the project, in infrastructure or in cash. Again, the effect is to reduce the price of land obtained by the local administration for the fulfillment of its social objectives.

A more innovative alternative is for the local administration or municipality to assign land development rights directly to the low-income beneficiaries of the housing program. This ingenious mechanism, based on the separation of building rights from ownership rights, in effect shifts the balance of power from the land subdividers to the low-income families who move to the area and subsequently share in the land value increment generated by the development. These new residents now hold the land rights that would otherwise have been sold to them by pirate subdividers who no longer have a captive market for selling irregular plots at high prices in anticipation of future upgrading programs

Taking an active role in regulating the occupation of the area through the distribution of such building rights, the municipality finds itself in a better position to negotiate directly with pirate subdividers, and to emulate in some way their actions by providing serviced land (“sites and services”) at affordable prices. This legal approach by the municipality ensures the provision of roads, public services networks, green spaces and recreational and public facilities that usually are not provided by pirate subdividers or that the original rural landowners are unable to support. In sum, the procedure assigns the building rights to the low-income inhabitants who will construct housing by their own efforts over time. Once the original owner’s development rights are reduced through the Plan Parcial, the land price is also reduced.

Broadening the Participation in Plusvalías

The plusvalías policy of capturing private land value increments for public benefit has been accepted in high-income areas, where revenues are used to subsidize social investments elsewhere. However, pirate subdividers often find ways to expropriate these investments in low-income areas through the prevailing illegal and clandestine activities used to access and occupy land. The Usme project represents an attempt to shift the bargaining power of the public vis-a-vis pirate subdividers by designing alternative urbanization processes.

The mayor’s office has already made a de facto commitment to apply value capture instruments, but they are still being explained and discussed within the broader debate over the policy of participation in plusvalías. As we have seen, the practical principle on which this policy is based is the separation of property rights from building rights. However, the policy faces enormous resistance because of the civil law tradition that unitary and absolute rights are associated with private land ownership.

The novelty of the program is its potential to directly address the challenges of low-income urbanization. Expectations have driven up the price of illegally subdivided lands in Usme and have stimulated pirate developers to “produce commercial land” by destroying peasant communities, degrading areas with environmental importance, and occupying risky zones. The tolerance of such practices reached such an extreme level that the prevailing inflated prices in these mostly informal market arrangements have been used by the local administration as the benchmark to determine just compensation for land acquisition.

In the absence of public mechanisms to intervene in the land market, such as through participation in plusvalías, landowners, particularly pirate subdividers, not only have captured all the price increments generated by the urban development but actually have taken control of the process. The resulting illegal urbanization is costly to the individual occupants of such settlements and to society as a whole, as it raises the cost of subsequent upgrading programs three to five times the cost of urbanizing unoccupied land.

Through the alternative mechanisms listed above, it is expected that more land use conversions, such as in the urbanization of Usme, will be managed in an alternative political economic environment whereby the municipality participates as an active and socially responsible regulator of the process. These projects will establish close ties between regulatory land policies and the rules under which land is publicly purchased or auctioned, the costs of infrastructure and public facilities provision are distributed, and development rights are exercised. The return to the community of the plusvalías derived from these changes in development regulations and public investments constitutes the most efficient way to construct more democratic relations based on the exercise of a renewed demand for urban reform and the right to access the city.

María Mercedes Maldonado Copello is professor and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Regional Studies (Centro Interdisciplinario de Estudios Regionales, CIDER) at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Martim O. Smolka is a senior fellow and director of the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean.