Vacant Land in Latin American Cities

Nora Clichevsky, January 1, 1999

Vacant land and its integration into the urban land market are topics rarely investigated in Latin America. The existing literature tends to focus only on descriptive aspects (i.e., number and size of lots). In the current context of profound economic and social transformations and changing supply and demand patterns of land in cities, the perception of vacant land is beginning to change from being a problem to offering an opportunity.

A comparative study of vacant land in six Latin American cities (Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; Quito, Ecuador; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; San Salvador, El Salvador; and Santiago, Chile) was recently completed as part of an ongoing Lincoln Institute-sponsored research project. The participating researchers examined different categories of vacant land, the problems they generate and their potential uses, as well as the changing roles of both private and public agents, including governments, in the management of vacant land. They concluded that vacant land is an integral element of the complex land markets in these cities, affecting fiscal policies on land and housing. Thus, vacant land has great potential for large-scale developments that could result in improved conditions for urban areas, as well as reduced social polarization and greater equity for their populations.

The six cities in the study vary in size but share the common attributes of rapid population growth and territorial expansion. They also have comparable social indicators (high rates of poverty, unemployment and underemployment), significant deficits in housing and provision of services, and high levels of geographical social stratification and segregation. The land markets in each of the cities also have similar characteristics, although they exhibit their own dynamics in each sub-market.

Characteristics of Vacant Land

The four primary characteristics of vacant land considered in this research project are ownership, quantity, location and length of vacancy. In general, vacant land in Latin America is held by one or more of the following agents, each with their respective policies: real estate developers or sub-dividers (both legal and illegal); low-income people who have acquired land, but cannot afford to develop it; real estate speculators; farmers; state enterprises; and other institutions such as the church, the military, social security, etc.

Determining how much vacant land exists in each city depends on the definition given to the term in the respective country . Quantifying vacant land is further complicated by the numerous obstacles that exist to obtaining accurate information, thus limiting the possibility of comparing data and percentages across metropolitan areas. Finally, in several of these cities (San Salvador, Santiago and Buenos Aires) there are significant “latent” vacant areas. These are unused or marginally used buildings, often previously occupied by former state-owned companies, waiting for new investments in order to be demolished or redeveloped.

In these six cities, the percentage of vacant land ranges from under 5 percent in San Salvador to nearly 44 percent in Rio de Janeiro. If all of San Salvador’s “latent” vacant areas were included, the percentage of vacant land could increase to 40 percent of the total metropolitan area. On the whole, vacant land in the cities accounts for a significant percentage of serviced areas that could potentially house considerable numbers of people who currently have no access to serviced urban land.

The location of vacant land is relatively uniform throughout the region. Whereas in the United States vacant land tends to be centrally located (such as abandoned areas or industrial brownfield sites), in Latin America the majority of vacant sites lie in the outskirts of the cities. These areas are frequently associated with speculation and retention strategies for occupation based on the provision of services. In contrast, the length of time land has been vacant differs considerably: in Lima and Quito, vacant urban lots are relatively “new,” whereas in Buenos Aires some urban lots have remained vacant for several decades.

Policy Issues and Development Potential

An evaluation of the urban-environmental conditions of vacant land concludes that a significant number of sites could tolerate residential or productive activities. These areas currently constitute an underutilized resource and should be considered for investments in urban infrastructure to improve land use efficiency. An equally significant segment, however, has important risk factors: inadequate basic infrastructure; water polluted by industrial waste; risk of flood, erosion or earthquake; and poor accessibility. Such land is inappropriate for occupation unless significant investments are made to safeguard against these environmental problems. Some land in this category could have great potential for environmental protection, although consciousness about land conservation remains a low priority in Latin America.

The study asserts that, in general, the urban poor have little access to vacant land due to high land values, despite the fact that values do vary according to sub-market. Prices are high in areas of dynamic urban expansion that offer better accessibility and services. A large amount of vacant land in several of the cities studied is not on the market and will likely remain vacant for an indefinite period of time. It is in these areas, the researchers contend, that policies should be implemented to reduce the price of serviced vacant land to make it more accessible to the poor.

The majority of Latin American cities have no explicit policies or legal framework regarding vacant land. In those cities where some legislation does exist, such as Rio de Janeiro, it is basically limited to recommendations and lacks real initiatives. In Santiago, recent legislation has promoted increased density in urban areas, yet it is too soon to know the implications of these measures. References to the environment are also generally lacking in “urban” legislation. Vacant land could play an important role in urban sustainability. However, reaching this potential would depend on better articulation between environmental and planning actions, especially at the local level.

Another characteristic common to the areas studied, with the exception of Santiago, is that urban development policy and specific land market policies have been disconnected from tax policy. Even in those cities where there is a distinction in taxation on vacant versus built land-such as Buenos Aires or Quito-it has not translated into any real changes. Sanctions and higher taxes on vacant areas have largely been avoided through a series of loopholes and “exceptions.”

Proposals and Criteria for Implementation

Arguing for an increased government role in land markets in combination with institution-building and capacity-building among other involved actors, the study formulates a number of proposals for the use and reuse of vacant land in Latin America. An overriding proposal is that vacant land should be incorporated into the city’s overall policy framework, taking into account the diversity of vacant land situations. Land use policies to increase the number of green areas, build low-income housing and provide needed infrastructure should be implemented as part of a framework of urban planning objectives. Furthermore, vacant land should be used to promote “urban rationality” by stimulating the occupation of vacant lots in areas with existing infrastructure and repressing urban growth in areas without appropriate infrastructure.

Urban policy objectives on vacant land should also be pursued through tax policy. Some suggestions formulated in this regard are the broadening of the tax base and tax instruments; incorporating mechanisms for value capture in urban public investment; application of a progressive property tax policy (to discourage land retention by high-income owners); and greater flexibility in the municipal tax apparatus.

These policies should be linked to other mechanisms designed to deter the expansion of vacant land and the dynamic of geographical social stratification and segregation. Such related mechanisms might include the granting of low-interest credits or subsidies for the purchase of building materials; technical assistance for construction of housing; provision of infrastructure networks to reduce costs; and credits or grace periods for payment of closing costs, taxes and service fees on property.

Other proposals address the development of pilot programs for land transfers using public-private partnerships to build on government-owned land in order to promote social housing at affordable rates; reuse of some land for agricultural production; and greater attention to environmental issues, with the goal of assuring urban sustainability in the future.

The 1994 Regulatory Plan for the Santiago metropolitan area defined a goal of elevating the city’s average density by 50 percent, while 1995 reforms to the Ley de Rentas introduced a fee on non-edified land and a disincentive to land speculation.

Nora Clichevsky is a researcher with CONICET, the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is the coordinator of the six-city study of vacant land in Latin America, which met to discuss these findings in August 1998. Laura Mullahy, a research assistant with the Lincoln Institute’s Latin American Program, contributed to this article.

Other members of the research team are Julio Calderón of Lima, Peru; Diego Carrión and Andrea Carrión of CIUDAD in Quito, Ecuador; Fernanda Furtado and Fabrizio Leal de Oliveira of the University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Mario Lungo and Francisco Oporto of the Central American University in El Salvador; and Patricio Larraín of the Chilean Ministry of Housing and Urbanism.

In the next phase of this project, the Lincoln Institute will sponsor a seminar on vacant land this spring in Río de Janeiro, with the participation of the original researchers as well as other experts from each of the cities involved.