Addressing the Shelter Needs of the Poor
Once policymakers accept the inevitability of urban growth, they are in position to help meet the needs of the poor. One of the most critical areas is shelter. As UN-Habitat has made eminently clear over the years, the many difficulties faced by the urban poor are linked, to a greater or lesser extent, to the quality, location and security of housing.
Overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and services, insecurity of tenure, risks from natural and human-made hazards, exclusion from the exercise of citizenship and distance from employment and income-earning opportunities are all linked together. Shelter is at the core of urban poverty: Much can be done to improve the lives of people through better policies in this area. Initiatives in this domain are particularly beneficial for poor women who are often burdened with triple responsibilities in child rearing,
management of the household, and income earning.
A roof and an address in a habitable neighbourhood is a vital starting point for poor urban people, from which they can tap into what the city can offer them by way of jobs, income, infrastructure, services and amenities. Decent shelter provides people a home; security for their belongings; safety for their families; a place to strengthen their social relations and networks; a place for local trading and service provision; and a means to access basic services. It is the first step to a better life. For women, property and shelter are particularly significant in terms of poverty, HIV/AIDS, migration and violence.
If inadequate shelter is at the root of urban poverty, the persistent reluctance of policymakers to accept urban growth leaves the poor to fend for themselves in disorganized and merciless land and housing markets. Powerless, the poor are forced to live in uninhabitable or insecure areas, where even minimal services such as water and basic sanitation are unlikely to materialize.
With the boundless ingenuity and resourcefulness that humans demonstrate across the globe, millions of people in developing countries live in “self-help housing”. Large segments of the urban poor are able to obtain access to land and housing only through invading land being held by speculators or by settling in locales not highly valued by land markets, such as steep hillsides, riverbanks subject to flooding, fragile ecosystems, water catchment areas or sites near industrial hazards.
Such squatter settlements are often illegal but generally represent the only option open to poor people, migrant or native, in search of shelter. Illegality and insecurity of tenure often inhibit people from making substantial improvements to their homes or from banding together to upgrade their neighbourhood. Secure tenure would stimulate the local economy because it encourages people to invest in improving their homes.
Governments will generally not help areas where land rights are unclear, so these informal settlements are rarely provided with water, sanitation, transport, electricity or basic social services. The resulting pattern of occupation is frequently haphazard and asymmetrical.
When slum dwellers try to improve their conditions, or when local governments finally try to provide them with minimal services, the economic costs can become impracticable.(17)Just putting in a road or providing channels for water or sewage requires tearing down existing construction. Lack of planning, inadequate location, the lack of access roads and the sheer accumulation of miserable conditions make it more difficult to retrofit poor neighbourhoods with water, sanitation, electricity, access roads and waste management. Meanwhile, the mere expectation that the attempt will be made pushes up land prices, encourages speculation and increases insecurity.
Improving access to land and housing for the growing masses of urban poor calls for a more proactive attitude. There is greater recognition of people’s rights to housing; but decision makers’ largely negative stance towards urban growth still prevents them from dealing effectively with the shelter needs of the poor. In several countries, women face additional difficulties in exercising their rights to shelter because national laws prevent them from legally owning property.