MetroVivienda: New Urban Renewal in Bogotá
By JULIET CULLEN-CHEUNG
New York City Dept. of Housing Preservation & Development
M.S. Urban Planning, Columbia University, NY

Concept: MetroVivienda
MetroVivienda is the City of Bogotá’s main mechanism for the development of affordable housing. The self-defined mission of the five-year old government agency is land-banking. The agency operates one program, which is designed to be an economically viable, self-sustaining operation. The initial public investment is to be recycled into the production of future mega-projects, each creating 5,000 to 10,000 units in new residential districts at the edge of the expanding city.

Instead of the government managing all stages of the projects, the basic strategy of Metrovivenda is efficiency: to acquire, through negotiated purchase or use of eminent domain, privately-owned open space at the urban periphery, creating large assemblages to be improved upon with infrastructure, planned and parceled, and sold to experienced developers for construction of “market rate” housing which is affordable to varying levels of low-income families. The sale of parcels makes funds more readily available for investment in subsequent rounds of acquisition and development.

Context: Housing Production in Bogota
There is an enormous demand for low-income housing in Bogotá. The City has 7 million inhabitants, with approximately 50% living in informal settlements. It is this growing population that has typically pushed the borders of the City outwards, either by fueling the housing market for dense, cheap, and illegally constructed housing or by themselves building informal settlements on unguarded pieces of vacant land. Housing is typically “owner”-occupied in Bogotá, so there are few renters. This may relate to the popular concept of private property “ownership” in Bogotá (and arguably in most of Latin America) having more to do with active use and occupancy of land rather than the holding of formal title and deed.

The market in Bogotá, left to its own devices, either creates high and moderate income “formal” housing or unplanned, “illegal” housing, without proper infrastructure and without conforming to codes. The expectation of “pirate” developers, and oftentimes the homebuyers, is that the City would add the site infrastructure at public expense (which is reported to cost four times more than improving the land prior to construction) after the informal houses were cheaply constructed, and the developer (perhaps having ties to elected officials) would disappear into the night….

In the seven years preceding the creation of MetroVivienda in 1999, about 211,000 units were constructed by the formal sector, 37% of which were “Viviendas de Interes Social” or “VIS” (costing less than 135 times the minimum monthly wage of about US$135), but only 1% of which were “Viviendas de Interes social Prioritario” or “VIP” (costing less than about 64 times the minimum monthly wage). Bogota’s 1998 master plan, the “Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial” or “POT”, estimated that 160,000 to 180,000 new people would be moving to the city annually, whereas in 1998 only 10,720 new units in total were legally constructed, plainly illustrating the primary fuel for the informal market.

Informal development persists in part because of problems with corruption in Bogotá’s public offices, though the situation has been improved during recent administrations, and because of the lack of enforcement of their good but burdensome building codes and the POT (insert photo of vacant lot surrounded by developed land with caption). MetroVivienda competes with pirate developers, reduces the amount of vacant land available for illegal development, as well as for slum or informal squatter settlements. The presence and nearby activities of a new and possibly more scrupulous mayoral agency (not fully beholden to established habits of long-term government officials) may further hamper illegal development.

Analogy: Urban Renewal Reconsidered
MetroVivienda’s mechanism for public acquisition and private redevelopment of property is conceptually similar to “urban renewal” strategies in the United States. Urban renewal is, at its most basic level, the mechanism by which government acquires and redevelops property for the purposes of increasing its utility. Since it initiated in the 1950’s, urban renewal in the U.S. became multifaceted, resulting in an array of public, semi-public, and private developments, such as parks and recreational areas, public and affordable housing, roadways, civic centers, and even shopping and entertainment centers in underutilized waterfront districts.

In the States, urban renewal is a contentious term because it is synonymous with the displacement of low-income families and the clearing and redevelopment of slums in the professed removal of “blight.” Now, the U.S. federal government supports housing policy (such as the HOPE VI program) which eradicates large public housing projects originally created through urban renewal. The development on these sites of new, lower-density, mixed-income neighborhoods is resulting yet again in the displacement of low-income populations, but now under the aegis of “decentralizing poverty.”

Bogotá’s recent experience with urban renewal is not quite so bleak. Though government representatives conceded that there is a level of forced relocation of squatters from the “vacant” land it acquires for public purposes, the government does provide assistance with relocation, though it is unknown what this assistance entails. Furthermore, MetroVivienda’s land is acquired at the urban periphery and not in the dense inner city as in the U.S., which may be a replicable strategy for other expanding cities. Other failures of urban renewal planning have fortunately not been replicated in the MetroVivienda model. Instead of isolating the urban poor into large superblocks of massive towers in the parks, without access to public transit, neighborhood retail, or community services such as educational facilities, MetroVivienda’s “projects” result in the creation of viable neighborhoods (Ciudadela El Recreo, El Porvenir, and Usme) that incorporate access to public transit, road networks, active and passive recreation areas, local retail and educational facilities, varying levels of affordability, and rowhouses providing both contextual scale and high density.

Criticisms and Proposals
Although the City does target its resources to stabilize very-low or no income populations, largely through slum legitimization and infrastructure improvement programs, the major criticism of Metrovivienda’s focus on market-rate low-income housing is that it does not sufficiently service very-low or no income populations who can not afford to own a home.

Propose working with private lenders or non-profits such as Fundacin Compartir to increase the availability of mortgage financing and down payment assistance (or matching savings programs) for low-income persons who lack credit history, perhaps by requiring or rewarding a credit system for investment in low-income communities.

A financing option with more up-front costs would be allocating public funds directly to grant and loan programs (from bond financing or tax levy) or insuring mortgages to limit lender risk for homebuyers who undergo some credit counseling and approval program.
Expanding the capacity of the non-profit development sector. Fundacin Compartir being the only major player, can also provide such social services as credit and homeownership counseling, as well as initiate programs which will help to create a connected neighborhood. Non-profit does not necessarily equal decreased economic efficiency (though it can) as exemplified in Fundacion Compartir paying comparable prices for land and building a comparable number of units as profit motivated developers in the Cuidadela El Recreo project.

Encourage (non-profit) developers to own and operate rental and/or cooperative housing which is more available to lower-income persons. MetroVivienda would not be the owner, but would sell the lots as they do for homeownership. Cooperative ownership could encourage neighborhood-wide or building improvements. Tax credit financing and government backed low-interest loans serviced by private lenders are possible financing sources for very-low income rental housing, if necessary.

Use the market. If a developer can market some units at higher prices, allow some units to be sold at higher prices in cases where the funds can cross-subsidize the sale of very low income units. A word of caution: care must be taken to protect the connection of higher sales prices of some units to the deeper subsidy for very-low income homebuyers.

Although “sweat-equity” construction is deeply embedded in the popular culture of Colombia, if considering this option one must balance the desire to employ very-low or no-income persons in the construction of homes with the efficiency of delegated processing (one developer overseeing each stage involving the construction of 230+ units). Perhaps selecting contractors who hire a certain percentage of the future homeowners would be a better approach than allowing disparate groups of people to haphazardly construct houses with whatever materials they can find or afford. Another option would be to build even more modest shells of homes with basic services, but allowing interior walls to be built out and floors to be added as is viable.

Metrovivienda does address the issue of land use by designating certain blocks for residential, commercial, and institutional use, as well as dividing that residential land into VIS and VIP housing. However, the timetable of development whereby the residential blocks are often sold and developed before the commercial facilities are built results in a lack of services to residents who already live at the urban periphery.

Some of Metrovivienda’s housing stock has been converted by residents to storefront businesses. Consider designing and marketing some homes with ground floor storefronts in key locations to encourage such private initiative.

Now that MetroVivienda projects have proven to be economically viaible, there should be less need to mitigate the risk of developers to build and businesses to occupy commercial space. They could simply mandate commercial completion to be concurrent with completion of the first residential phases.

In order to meet the demands of an ever increasing urban population, MetroVivienda seems to be achieving its goals of encouraging large scale affordable housing production in the formal sector and discouraging informal construction. Because the government is not involved in all stages of development, potential corruption is curtailed, funds flow back to new projects more quickly allowing the creation of much more housing with limited resources. The thoughtful, stable housing that the MetroVivienda model provides does much to create viable communities.

Recognizing these realized and realistic goals, other limitations become apparent, such as the exclusion of very-low and no income populations from the production model. Even though MetroVivienda itself does little to meet the housing needs of the millions living in slums, Bogotá is committed to slum legitimization and infrastructure improvements, focusing notably on such public health concerns as piping potable water throughout the City by the end of 2004 and improving sewage dissemination and treatment. Furthermore, help is still needed from the private sector to meet the significant housing demands, so more focus could be provided to the enforcement of building codes and the POT. The Mayor or other housing policy makers (if any) should also regularly assess and incorporate lessons learned from the successes and limitations of the MetroVivienda model in the strategic development of other programs, policies, and entities to fill in the gaps in Bogotá’s affordable housing production.

MetroVivienda, despite its acknowledged limitations, is meeting many of the overwhelming demands in the low-income housing market and is a replicable model for other cities with large swaths of vacant or underutilized land and a rising population. Many American cities with city-owned vacant or occupied properties perhaps obtained though urban renewal or tax foreclosure can learn from MetroVivienda’s focus on the creation of affordable new urban neighborhoods, and may reconsider their own policies of unrestricted sale or auction of city-owned properties, instead opting for a controlled, planned, and income-restricted affordable housing disposition policy which results in the creation of stable communities and preserves the stock of low-income urban housing.
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Sources:
Ciudadela El Recreo: Memoria del Modelo de Gestin de MetroVivienda. Alcada Mayor de Bogotá D.C. 2002
Interviews with, Carlos Valencia, Advisor to the Deputy Manager for Public Relations and Community Support, MetroVivienda; and Roberto Goldstuecker Gómez, Constructions Manager, Fundación Compartir, August 2003.

MetroVivienda