Monitoring Security of Tenure in Cities

I was asked to review and comment on the recently published UN-Habitat report “Monitoring Security of Tenure in Cities: People, Land and Policies“. I wanted to share my unedited comments here in case the readers of this blog have suggestions of their own.


An underlying assumption of this publication (and of UN-Habitat in general)  is that more Security of Tenure (ST) is in itself a good thing. And that’s also the view of the Millenium Declaration/UN General Assembly. I am sure there is a strong argument for the normative position that UNHabitat/UN General Assembly takes on ST; I am just not fully aware of it. While I personally enjoy having tenure security for my own dwelling, I don’t think I fully understand the arguments that support the conclusion that greater tenure security is in the best interest of all or whether it leads to greater good for the society. My reasons for my doubt are as follows.

I have been following some of the political debates about education reform here in the US. Many are critiquing the idea of giving tenure to school teachers as some evidence seems to suggest that those states that have gotten rid of tenures for teachers have improved student performance in standardized tests. There are a growing number of nonprofit organizations in the US that are campaigning to put the interest of the students above the interest of the tenured teachers and their unions. While in the case of getting rid of job tenures for school teachers, there are clear winners (students, young teachers) and losers (tenured teachers), I have been thinking if there are groups who would be disadvantaged if security of tenure for dwellings in cities across the world are strengthened. For instance, what happens to the new-comers in the city? Does tenure security unfairly privilege existing city dwellers and property speculators, who have already occupied the best locations available in the city, at the expense of newcomers or future migrants? How is the idea of promotion of ST different from conventional ideas of rule of law and protection of private property rights? The idea of rights is encompassed within the broader idea of justice. Doesn’t focussing too much on rights ignore other aspects of justice that are equally important. Laws are not given by god. They are man-made laws and they serve the interest of some more than others. Also laws are applied differently to different people.

What I mean is this: Looking at security of tenure (ST) strictly from the “rights” perspective leads us to believe that a person should be protected against forced eviction only if she/he has a legal claim to the land. (The emphasis on availability of some kind of documentation to prove how one has acquired the land, in constructing a measure of ST, reflects this view. One obvious benefit of this emphasis on documentation is that it allows for a creation of a market for dwellings that can be traded and therefore encourage new housing development in the lower end of the housing market.) But looking at ST from the point of view of justice, a person might be viewed to have a certain claim on a piece of land irrespective of her legal use rights to that land, if she can prove that her very survival (e.g. pregnant women, families with infants, those depending for their livelihood on that land etc.) depends on access to that land and that she will not be threatening others’ survival by using that land. In some countries, courts will intervene if a landlord tries to evict a pregnant woman for defaulting on her monthly rent, for example. This view is based on principles that go beyond protection of private property rights.

Below are some more specific comments:

– Question about security of tenure for dwelling or for land (Box 3.1 Page 11)…there is significant difference between the two and using one as a proxy for other might be problematic. In the urban context, where most of the value of a housing unit is primarily attributable to the value of the land on which it sits, the issue of tenure is more important for land than for the dwelling. In a situation where the survey respondent is a tenant paying rent to a local slumlord who might have illegally occupied the land, the resident might report having a rental contract with the slumlord but that contract is not legally enforceable if the legal owner of the land chooses to evict the tenants and bulldoze any structure on it. In this case, will the respondent not be wrongly classified as having a relatively secure tenure when the question is framed in the context of dwelling instead of the land?

– The cost of collecting data on ST seems to be an important issue throughout the report. The reasons the report identifies for why the cost of collecting information on ST is so high are as follows:

1) requires special training for interviewers as the concept of ST is new and somewhat technical for both interviewers and respondents to understand.
The report already identifies the need for UN-Habitat to have a handbook or a manual that can be used to train interviewers. Perhaps UN-Habitat can think of developing short (half hour or so) online course (generic to all countries) and making it available for free to anyone. Country census bureaus or DHS or MICS country teams can then add a module to this generic version of the course to accommodate country-specific categories or definitions and use that to train themselves. The idea is to keep marginal cost of training one additional interviewer close to zero I guess.

2) there are less incentives for local levels to collect this type of info at their level and aggregate the numbers through each subsequent higher levels of government.
The mandate of the Millenium Declaration to monitor ST at the global level is one thing and the use of that information at the local level is quite another thing. It is very possible that there will be resistance from local elites to collecting information on land rights especially where land is concentrated in the hands of a few local elites. In such cases authorities may not want to know the extent of tenure insecurity as it can open a can of worms. Therefore putting this subject in the local political agenda is important. Are there ways to make it more attractive for the local communities / neighborhoods / townships / cities / districts / provinces / countries to assemble this information  on their own in a standardized internationally comparable way? What do they gain from sharing this information? Are there reasons to believe they would over- or under-report the extent of tenure insecurity in their jurisdiction? For example, what was the motivation of the mayor of Aleppo to negotiate with the National Statistical Office to add a module that got more information on security of tenure in the census questionnaire? Can that motivation be replicated elsewhere?

Instead of (or in addition to) lobbying the UN Working Group on Population Censuses, are there local advocacy groups/NGOS who can push this as part of their local or national agenda (perhaps NGO partners of COHRE, ACHR etc.)? How about crowdsourcing (modelled on Wikis) parts of LIFI or the settlement level assessments? UNHabitat can partner with Google Maps or – their philanthropic arm perhaps. They have done some work with WHO for monitoring spread of diseases etc. Google has partnered with UNHabitat before. Another option is to explore ways to tap into the IBM Smarter Cities expertise to see if they have something to offer. They are into use of big data in public decision-making at the city level.

3) A big share of expense goes towards international consultants. (Even local consultants charge internationally fixed prices.)
The report already identified opportunities to partner with selected universities and research institutes. Wage arbitration opportunities exist in many countries where consultants earn a lot and university professors do not earn enough but are equally capable of undertaking high quality data collection (sometimes making use of their students as part of such projects). If the mode of selecting consultants/teams for data collection is altered to make it look more like a competitive research grant application, more bang for less buck can be achieved. Of course the review and scoring of such grant applications will cost some money but I would still think it would be more cost-effective. More broadly speaking, there is a need to think of innovations in the procurement process for data collection services to bring down some of the cost.

– IAEG’s advice ten years ago to limit the reporting of Target 11 to the first four parameters (i.e. excluding the Security of Tenure parameter) meant that there was a possibility of underestimating the number of slum dwellers in the world. Do we know what percentage of households surveyed in Sao Paulo UIS can be classified as a slum household due to falling short on only the Secure Tenure parameter (i.e., those households that otherwise have access to water, sanitation, sufficient living space and durable housing but only lacking secure tenure)? That would tell us the extent of underestimation of number of slum dwellers in Sao Paulo using our 2002-2003 method (i.e. without taking into account the ST parameter). This report mentions that many of those with insecure tenure in Sao Paulo actually live in non-slum areas, possibly in the tenements. Not clear to me if these tenements would be classified as slums based on the other four parameters in the definition of slums. If not, we might have significantly underestimated the number of slum dwellers (approx 900+ million worldwide based on the 2003 UNHabitat report).

– For any policy or institutional framework there are usually a group of winners and a group of losers. Usually there are ways to tax the winners and compensate the losers in such a way that Pareto optimality is achieved. It might be an idea to incorporate questions in LIFI that explicitly tries to identify possible “losers” in the policy towards promotion of ST and how they are being compensated. Some ideas that comes to mind are: How do new migrants / future generations of current residents access land/housing in the city? Is it through some form of land redistribution where older residents share their land with new arrivals? Or is new land brought into the city system through investments to extend public transportation and other infrastructure? Are there penalties for land speculators that prevent them from keeping their property unused or underutilized? If rent control is used to protect tenants from greedy landlords, do such controls make it harder to attract private investments in new housing needed to accommodate increasing population thereby pushing new arrivals to insecure tenures? Again, these are questions, I don’t yet have answers for but might be something to think about.

– Table 5.1, page 35: Not sure how rights to sell or inherit dwellings/land is related to the idea of Secure Tenure. If the rights to sell or inherit (or perceptions of such rights) mean a greater security of tenure, then renters with formal contracts would lack such rights and would therefore be considered insecure. No?

– Table 4.2, page 17: Indicator #1 deals with “documents as evidence of legality or legitimacy for access to land rights”. Is the idea of documentation strictly defined in terms of a piece of paper (a lease contract, a sales receipt, or a land title etc.)? Would verbal commitment or testimonies of neighbors count as documentation? In some societies, a paper document can be forged and might be considered a less reliable proof of a land rights claim when compared to verbal agreements. The local expert group making the classification between “secure” vs. “insecure” (table 4.3, page 18) must be mindful of this.

– Table 4.3, page 18: Among the possible documentation for owners, the ones that are listed in this table are issued by either a governmental agency (land registry, local property tax office etc.) or quasi-governmental agency (public utility companies etc.). The assumption is perhaps that an agent outside of the community is best positioned to confer rights to individual members of the community. But sometimes communities can grant permission to individual households who are members of that community to use a certain plot of land for certain purpose. And if the community is large and cohesive enough, such community-granted permissions can sometimes provides more security of tenure to individual households than any government issued certificate. (I am thinking of Elinor Ostrom’s community-managed common pool resources within an urban context.)

– The Sao Paulo case study is very interesting. I am not sure why it was decided that the experts assigning scores for the LIFI indicators had to reach a consensus score. Why not let them individually come up with their own scoring which can then be aggregated (perhaps by way of reporting the mean or the median score for each indicator)? I think in the LIFI process in Sao Paulo, it would be good to see the distribution of scores for each indicator. (Same for Nairobi LIFI.) The LIFI indicators that received scores with widest spread should then be reviewed with the purpose of exploring why different experts gave scores so different from one another. It might have to do with the definition of the particular indicator but it might also have to do with different interests and roles of different stakeholders in the city to under- or over-report.

– Page 51: Why is the eviction anxiety of renters more than mortgage holders? If renters fear defaulting, why don’t mortgage holders fear defaulting? Are foreclosures not common based on their bankruptcy laws? Also, the distinction between “forced eviction” and a landlord’s demand that dwelling be evacuated is only in their legality and use of violence. In terms of their adverse effect on the household, both processes create similar insecurity due to the uncertainty of finding an alternate housing at a short notice (especially those with children or for elderly people).

– Page 54, last paragraph: Even in places where markets are well-developed, free-market system is usually coupled with protection against eviction due to market forces for vulnerable populations, e.g. pregnant women, single mothers, families with children, elderly and handicapped residents etc.


About qriopal

I am a social science researcher who enjoys asking questions...
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