World Habitat Day Event: Secure Housing, Women’s Right to Land, and the New Urban Agenda

by Karly Kiefer

On October 3, IHC Global and Habitat for Humanity International’s Solid Ground Campaign co-hosted an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of World Habitat Day. The event was co-sponsored by the Housing and Urban Development Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and addressed the critical issue of land rights and gender under the New Urban Agenda. Judith Hermanson of IHC Global moderated a panel of four presenters from the Solid Ground campaign, Landesa, USAID, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Hermanson opened by acknowledging the importance of World Habitat Day and all it represents, underscoring that land and tenure are fundamental to the realization of adequate living conditions. Dynamic conversations on the complexities of land rights and secure housing followed the presentations.

The first panelist, Anne Myers from Habitat for Humanity International, spoke about the Solid Ground campaign, a global advocacy campaign focusing on land rights that is being implemented in 28 countries around the world, and of which IHC Global is a partner. She noted that land is the number one barrier to providing decent housing around the world, and that Solid Ground has four primary areas of focus in order to enhance access to land: security of tenure, gender equality, disaster resilience, and slum upgrading. The Solid Ground campaign has a goal of improving access to land for 10 million people around the world.

Next, Chris Jochnick, CEO of Landesa, spoke about Landesa’s work to enhance land rights for the rural poor, noting that security of tenure not only improves the immediate living situations of the rural poor, but leads to a range of secondary development benefits such as increased extension services, greater educational attainment, and increased access to credit. Of the three primary challenges to land rights that Landesa focuses on—legal issues, political will, and practical implementation—Jochnick stressed that thinking about how land reforms can be implemented on the ground is key to ensuring that land rights for women and the rural poor are truly realized. For instance, requiring land title forms to include two names instead of just one head of household can be a transformative practical measure to ensure that women’s tenure security is not just tied to their husbands’. He also noted that a purely top-down approach to data collection and mapping can actually lock in bad data, and advocated for a bottom up model that trains community members to collect and map their own data in order to ensure that data is representative of on the ground realities. Jochnick concluded by praising the New Urban Agenda’s focus on land rights, and reminding that urban and rural land rights are inextricably linked to each other and should be thought of holistically.

After the first two panelists shared, the moderator opened up a time for questions. One audience member raised the point that the political elite often stand to gain from having a lack of clarity of land rights on the ground, and asked how the challenge of raising political will can be tackled. The panelists noted the importance of finding champions in the government and using those people to help gain traction. They also reemphasized the importance of campaigns like Solid Ground that can help raise the profile of the issue and push governments to act.

Next, Anthony Piaskowy from USAID’s Urban Office spoke about the opportunities and challenges posed by the New Urban Agenda. He praised the New Urban Agenda for pushing forth an integrated approach to urbanization, giving prominence to the concept of inclusivity, and paying attention to financing and funding structures. He noted that the document’s weakness primarily lies in its lack of details on implementation. A language search of the New Urban Agenda shows that land and housing are given frequent attention, as are issues of gender equity. Piaskowy highlighted the importance of viewing tenure security as a continuum, rather than a binary, and noted that the Urban Agenda shows signs of recognizing a tenure rights continuum. The New Urban Agenda also has the potential to increase tenure security in indirect ways—through its focus on infrastructure provision and participatory land use planning, and through new and innovative technologies. Finally, Piaskowy noted that the New Urban Agenda emphasizes the role of local government officials and the importance of engagement at the local level, a task that is both an opportunity and a challenge for bilateral development agencies that are structured to engage primarily at the national level.

The final panelist, Robin Rajack, Lead Specialist for Housing and Urban Development at IDB, emphasized that we need to recognize and work with the inherent rationality of the behaviors of stakeholders such as the urban poor, the private sector, and politicians. The urban poor understand how to make tradeoffs, and have learned how to circumvent impractical and unfair land and housing regulations because it is in their best interests to do so. Similarly, Rajack noted, when campaign finance limits are unrealistically low, politicians act rationally by making deals with urban real estate mongers to bridge the finance gap. Rather than expecting stakeholders to change their behavior and act in a way that is irrational for them and is not in their best interests, Rajack emphasized that policy and programs must build upon economic rationality, in other words, “find the rhythm, rather than change the song.”

Rajack’s presentation led to a robust discussion of how to handle the tradeoffs between making higher valued property available for the poor and recognizing the rationality of the behavior of private property markets. As panelists and audience members discussed, the socially driven “right to the city” approach and the economically driven “markets-based approach” are often seen as polarized positions. However, pitting the two approaches against each other leads only to discord and inefficient solutions. Rather, those involved in housing and land rights should seek a middle ground that recognizes that rationality of behavior of both slum dwellers and real estate bankers, and work to find solutions where neither side is expected to act against their own interests. Rajack cautioned against overestimating the demand for formal tenure, noting that what we think of as ‘formal tenure’—which involves meeting housing and building codes and a level of financial investment—may be unrealistic and uncalled-for by poor populations. Instead, we need to ask the question of what the poor actually desire regarding tenure security. Rajack noted that this may be somewhere towards the middle of the ‘tenure security contimuum’, where tenants are free from the fear of eviction, but are not required to meet regulations and make financial investments that are irrational for them given their economic situations.

Overall, the presentations and discussions that followed recognized the significance that land rights and gender haven been given in the New Urban Agenda, and the potential that a focus on land rights—particularly for women–can have for improving global development. However, each of the presentations emphasized the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the issue, and cautioned against the assumption of a single, straightforward solution to reaching equal land rights and security of tenure for all.