Barriers and Opportunities

IHC is focusing on important pathways to inclusiveness and economic and environmental sustainability in cities.

Lack of land rights and secure housing is evidenced in proliferation of informal settlements and slums, eviction and displacement.  These issues are related to access to housing and are disproportionately problems facing poor families, particularly those headed by women, who not only are relegated to substandard conditions but as a result of insecure and unpredictable tenure also lack stability, safety and opportunity to climb the economic ladder.

While specific actions on specific problems are important, it is also important that these not occur in isolation.  A comprehensive vision of the city reflected in a people-oriented spatial and financial plan is important to break down silos that can perpetuate inequality.  Such a plan engages all citizens, incentivizes investment for job creation, provides for more equitable development and service delivery, and addresses sustainability and climate resilience.  Then, such a plan is implemented through and by partnerships with all stakeholders.


Current Situation

What is Important to Know

An important and pressing issue is land security in poor urban areas. Many people who live in these areas, particularly in slums, have little to no control or ownership over the property they live on. Many informal settlements in cities are illegal and unfinanced, leaving poor people on poor properties with no chance of improving them.   Insecure tenure is one of the critical elements in the UN definition of “slum.”

  • The urban slum population is projected to increase to 2 billion people by 2030 (UN 2003)
  • According to the United Nations’ Global Land Tool Network, 70 percent of land in most developing countries is held under a category other than registered freehold (GLTN 2012). (USAID)

There is an alarming lack of global statistics on land security, but a few cities have comprehensive- and unfortunate- data. Most of the data details the situations of the population that is the most at risk- women.

  • In Uganda, as in many parts of Africa, most women have limited land use rights and have no control over production and management decisions. The tribal land laws give full access and governance to men while they relegate women to a secondary role in land governance and property and limiting their rights depending on their marital status. (USAID)
  • Indonesia’s interpretation of women’s rights to land is under the blanket law of Islam, which says women and men own land equally. However, specific areas enforce their own version of tenure law, and most disregard this equality idea. (USAID)
  • In Armenia, the number of women owning property is lower than that of men, but it is not due to practices related directly to land. Colombia’s land law is favorably equitable, however women headed households, especially from Afro-American descent tend to be vulnerable to poverty and inaccessibility to the housing market (USAID)
  • As of 2012 Nairobi had 2.5m slum dwellers, some 90% of whom have no rights to the land on which they live, and they live on less than 2% of the land in the city (economist)

Without secure land tenure, women especially have a hard time finding proper sources of income, and are more likely to face homelessness, poverty and violence. Married women especially find themselves at risk, and are often denied their share of land upon divorce or widowhood. With no other choices, desperate women are often forced to turn to dangerous behavior, like having unsafe sex or staying in an abusive relationship in exchange for housing, money or food.

It also affects vast numbers of people.  For example, between 30% and 50% of Asia‘s urban residents are estimated to lack any kind of legal tenure document which entitles them to occupy that land. (UN-Habitat)

What is at Stake/How does it impact urban equity?

Lack of access to secure tenure and appropriate land for housing has been a significant contributing factor to the proliferation of unplanned informal settlements in low and middle income countries around the globe.  In higher income countries, such as the US, security of tenure is associated with the lack of affordable housing options, forcing illegal sub-letting and so over-crowding in many cases, and in many others serial evictions of low income renters (Matthew Desmond, Eviction, 2016.  New Yorker Article: Forced Out)

Access to secure land and housing is seen by many as a precondition for reducing poverty.  Today, hundreds of millions of people live under the shadow of unforeseen eviction, or without sufficient security to invest what they have in improving their homes. (Holding On: Security of Tenure – Types, Policies, Practices and Challenges”

Research Paper, Geoffrey Payne and Alain Durand-Lasserve, 2012)

“Assessing the nature and scale of the problem is fraught with difficulties of definition as well as measurement. All attempts to assess the number of people globally who suffer from insecure land tenure and restricted rights have achieved limited success.  The responses by governments have so far failed to keep pace with the challenge of urbanization and urban growth in ways which enable the majority of people on low incomes to meet their basic needs. These groups now represent a large and in most developing countries an increasing proportion of total urban populations,” Payne, et. al, 2012.

High land prices, inappropriate regulatory frameworks, bureaucratic inertia and political exploitation invariably conspire to inhibit progress. Mistaken confidence that there is a simple solution to such large and complex problems has also failed to address the diversity of legal, cultural, economic and political systems within which land tenure and property rights operate.

Tenure insecurity is a global phenomenon. Yet assessing the nature and scale of the problem is fraught with difficulties of definition as well as measurement, and comprehensive, precise data is unavailable. I discuss some of the reasons why in my report. What is not disputed, however, is that the problem is real and its implications daunting.

No one is fully protected from tenure insecurity. At the same time it is evident that the most marginalized and poorest bear the brunt of the insecurity burden. Inhabitants of self-made and unplanned settlements epitomize tenure insecurity in a very visible form, but they are by no means the only example. Refugees and internally displaced persons, tenants, migrants, minorities, nomadic and indigenous communities, sharecroppers, other marginalized groups, and among all of these women – to name only a few – are often insecure.

All tenure forms, including individual freehold, can be insecure, as the recent mortgage and financial crises have shown in different countries.

  • Many informal urban settlements that house millions of residents are on land vulnerable to natural disasters such as storm surges and high tides (Satterthwaite 2006). Environmental mitigation efforts can be coupled with efforts to secure tenure in order to mitigate these risks. Community enumerations (mapping households and existing services in informal settlements) help identify infrastructure needs and policy and enforcement efforts that secure housing and property rights provide the poor with incentives to improve housing structures. (USAID)
  • Living in such conditions undermines the ability of the urban poor to fully contribute to or benefit from economic development and denies them rights they may hold under national constitutions or through international conventions.
  • Giving poor people with little to no rights over their lives, let alone over their property, ownership over their property gives an incentive to care and improve the land they live on. This incentivized population could be a great advantage for making a whole city sustainable and inclusive.
  • Additionally, strengthening women’s property rights has positive spillover effects for economic improvement in developing countries. As women’s income increases, the additional income benefits the family and the community (IHC).

SEWA Grih Rin_Image 1

What Can Be Done?

  • Formal data on the status of tenure in informal settlements needs to be gathered and aggregated, at city, national and global levels, in order to properly assess the problem.
  • Governments should improve the legal and regulatory environment related to housing and increasing the supply of affordable, legal shelter with tenure security and access to basic services and amenities
  • Security of tenure and access to land for housing are complexly interwoven with a country’s history, culture and economy; thus workable and affordable solutions need to be contextualized.
  • Physical upgrading of informal settlements (Colombia, Indonesia, Pakistan): In select locations, informal urban settlements have been provided public open space, water, sanitation and power networks. These services create a high level of perceived tenure security without a formal change of legal status and have encouraged local improvements and investment. (USAID).
  • In other cases, such as In Morocco, the city of Montfleuri [1]successfully integrated outlying informal settlements through a process of mutual compromise, which brought the unplanned settlement into acceptable relation with the planning norms. The process that occurred over a period of 10 years, resulted in the regularization of title in exchange for adherence to agreed urban planning guidelines and plan and installation by the city of infrastructure and other urban improvements in exchange for significant cash and in-kind contribution by residents and private developers
  • Governments should officially recognize slums or informal settlements (India, Brazil): In India, slums classified as “unobjectionable” are eligible for upgrading. “Objectionable” slums are those in non-residential zones, on low-lying lands, or where roads and other public infrastructure have been proposed. All residents in the unobjectionable settlements have this basic form of tenure, which is sometimes accompanied by the provision of public services, such as access roads, electricity, water supply and sanitation2 (USAID)
  • Gender should be mainstreamed in land policies, programs, procedures and practices, through building the gender awareness of staff and professionals and carrying out assessments of the gender responsiveness of tools and processes. *(World Bank)
  • Analysis of the application of existing property laws regarding inheritance and women’s right to own property in light of prevailing custom or historical tradition would help to ensure that poor women are not further marginalized.

Additional information/Sources

IHC Article: Gender And Property Rights

World Bank Document On Gender

USAID Land Tenure Article

[1] Judith Hermanson, Montfleuri: A Case Of Accommodation Between The Informal & Formal Sectors In Urban Development, Cooperative Housing Foundation, for U.S. Agency for International Development, August 6, 1990.