Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Slum Housing 101

In many peoples’ minds, the word “slum” conjures up imagines of cardboard boxes and temporary shantytowns.  It carries connotations of crime, filth, disease, and immoral behaviour.  Politicians use it to describe the homes of people they want to relocate.  Developers use it to justify communities they want to demolish.  It’s a place where homeless children run wild as single mothers prostitute themselves for a buck and abandoning fathers drink themselves to death.

Ok, maybe that last sentence was a little much.  But you get the idea.  Most people who don’t live in slums – especially in the developed world where we are far away from Third World realities – think of them as places of abject poverty and moral deprivation.

Unfortunately, both the actual number and proportion of people living in slums is increasing as population growth and urbanization continue.  Today, half the world’s urban residents live in slums.

So what’s the solution?  These people need homes.  Simple as that.  These people need secure tenure.  They need access to basic necessities like clean water, waste disposal, transportation.

There are three basic strategies to slum housing.

[Please note the following information is taken from my class notes for “Geography 352: Urbanization in the Global South” taught by Dr. Charles Greenburg in 2011.  The text for the class was Planet of Slums (2006) by Mike Davis.]

1.  Public Housing

Public housing was a common strategy employed by governments all over the world during the mid-1900s.  Some examples of countries that still have strong public housing policies include Cuba, Venezuela, and Kenya.  Essentially, the state either uses vacant land or clears existing slums to build large projects.  These typically take the form of huge apartment complexes.

Various issues have arisen regarding public housing.  For instance, who gets access to housing?  Usually public housing targets lower middle-class or upper-lower class, meaning not necessarily the poor people most in need.  It’s also very expensive for governments to maintain.

In South Africa, the government is turning over most of its public housing projects to private non-profit organizations (like Madulammoho).

2.  Spontaneous Housing

Most of today’s slums are examples of spontaneous housing.  Also known as self-help housing, this strategy allows poor people build their own communities.  Migrants are left alone to build slums wherever they can find room, whether inside a city or on its fringe.  Unfortunately the areas left over are often vacant for a reason, such as environmental damage (pollution) or unsafe locations (cliff sides, fault lines).

But besides that problem, this strategy sounds pretty straightforward, right?  It’s actually relatively uncommon for states to sanction spontaneous housing.  Governments do not want to condone slums.  If you’d read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (2003), think of slum the main character lives in.  It’s adjacent to a large construction project, but everyone knows that once construction is finished, the government will demolish the slum.  The police visit periodically to destroy parts of it and assert their authority.

Herando de Soto of one today’s biggest advocates of spontaneous housing.  He argues that if the state gives people title to the land, it promotes upward mobility.  People feel safe investing in their houses and gradually upgrading their lifestyle.  Essentially, if the state would just get out of the way, people’s natural entrepreneurial instincts and the market will sort out the problem of insufficient housing.

Mike Davis, on the other hand, argues that giving slum dwellers title ship will not stop many of the problems associated with informal housing.  He calls de Soto’s strategies “soft imperialism” meaning that titling will increase land value and make slums more attractive to the middle class.  It is a way for the state to move land development costs onto the poor.

Davis also admits, however, that titling gives slum dwellers legitimacy and a political voice that they would have otherwise.

It’s a complicated subject, no?

3. Sites and Services

The third strategy regarding slum housing is a mix between public housing (arguably doing too much) and spontaneous housing (arguably doing too little).

“Sites and services” means that the government selects areas for development and sets them up with basic wet infrastructure and power.  The poor are then left to build their own homes.  Sometimes governments sell property credits or subsidized housing materials.

This strategy allows the state to decide where migrants can live, which hopefully means it’ll environmentally safe places.  On the other hand, it also means the poor have no choice in location.  Often the sites are too far away from the town centre for people to live and commute to work.  In addition, even the most inexpensive sites are too costly for many poor people.

Today, most governments are leaning towards spontaneous housing as their coping mechanism.  In the past, many experimented with public housing or sites and services, but those were SAP-ed away by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  (SAPs are “Structural Adjustment Policies” that the IMF and World Bank imposed on Third World countries wanting loans in the 1970s and 80s.)  Since the 1970s, states have moved from strategies of replacing slums to improving them.  Or hoping they improve themselves.

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