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 by the 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. These families are relegated to substandard conditions and, as a result of insecure and unpredictable tenure, lack stability, safety and opportunity to climb the economic ladder.

While specific actions on specific problems are important, integration is vital to ensure that these actions do not occur in isolation.  A comprehensive vision of the city reflected in a people-oriented spatial and financial plan can break down silos that 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.  Such a plan is comprehensive and implemented through and by partnerships with all stakeholders.

Current Situation

What is Important to Know

Land security is an important and pressing issue 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 data. Most of the available data details the unfortunate situation that the most at-risk population  is 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 based in Islamic law, which provides that women and men can own land on an equal basis. However, specific areas enforce their own version of tenure law, and most disregard this religiously based ideal of equality. (USAID)
  • 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 who live on less than 2% of the land in the city, approximately 90% of whom have no rights to the land on which they live. (economist)

Without secure land tenure, women have an especially difficult 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 when they face divorce or widowhood. With no other choices, desperate women are often forced to turn to dangerous behavior, such as sex work or staying in an abusive relationship in exchange for housing, money or food.

This reality is experienced by 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, as well as serial evictions of low income renters (Matthew Desmond, Eviction, 2016.  New Yorker Article: Forced Out)

Access to secure land and housing is 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.

Tenure insecurity is a global phenomenon. The mistaken confidence that there is a simple solution to such large and complex problems has failed to address the diversity of legal, cultural, economic, and political systems within which land tenure and property rights operate. High land prices, inappropriate regulatory frameworks, bureaucratic inertia, and political exploitation are the main factors that inhibit progress. Assessing the nature and scale of problems such as these is fraught with many difficulties, but mainly those of definition and measurement due to a lack of precise and comprehensive data. Recent efforts to gather data and provide comprehensive analysis has already yielded solutions as opportunities for advocacy and investment are more deeply informed every day by initiatives such as the Gender and Land Rights Database operated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO).

No one is fully protected from tenure insecurity. Yet, it is the most marginalized and poorest who 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 communities, indigenous communities, sharecroppers, other marginalized groups, and among all of these women, exemplify the demographics of tenure insecurity.

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.
  • 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).
  • In many developing countries there is a discrepancy between labor and tenure rights. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia women constitute nearly half of the agricultural labor force, while representing less than a quarter of land tenure rights.(Ravnborg et al., 2016)
  • Granting, ensuring, and defending women’s land tenure is a very tangible form of social and economic empowerment which has led to women’s greater overall participation in finance such as the use of credit, particularly in developing regions. (USAID)

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.
  • In some places, local governments or organizations have tried so-called slum upgrading—providing informal urban settlements with improved water, sanitation, health services and infrastructure (Corburn and Sverdlik 2017). 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 informal settlements to ensure inclusion and accessibility to public services. In India, for example, slums classified as “unobjectionable” are eligible for upgrading. Residents in unobjectionable settlements have a basic form of tenure, which can also include access to public services like roads, electricity, water supply, and sanitation (USAID 2014). 
  • 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

“Better livelihoods for poor people: The role of Land Policy” DFID, 2002.

Land Tenure and Women’s Empowerment. USAID, 2016.

Marx, Stoker, Suri., “The Economics of Slums in Developing World.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2013.

Payne,  “Urban Land Tenure and Property Rights in Developing Countries: A Review of the Literature.” The Overseas Development Administration, 1996.

Rakodi., “Expanding women’s access to land and housing in urban areas.” Women’s Voice and Agency Research Series, World Bank, 2014.

Rao, “Indicators of gendered control over agricultural resources: A guide for agricultural policy and research.” CGIAR, 2016.

Ravnborg et al., “Land Governance, Gender Equality and Development: Past Achievements and Remaining Challenges.” Journal of International Development, 2016.

[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.