The city of Medellin famously used escalators to connect hillside slums to the surrounding communities. Fredy Bulles/Reuters

Cities are falling back into some bad housing policy habits. We’ve learned this lesson before.

Nearly 900 million people around the world live in slums, lacking access to adequate water and sanitation or adequate housing. And by 2025 it is estimated that 1.6 billion people—a fifth of the world’s population—will lack access to secure, adequate, and affordable housing.

As in the U.S., the dominant approach to the global housing crisis is to build large-scale subsidized housing programs in slums relegated to the fringes of cities. But there is increasing evidence that this is having a perverse effect.

A new study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) lays out how bad policies on public housing, an emphasis on home-ownership, and problematic land use policies have worsened conditions in slums and made the global urban crisis worse.

More than 330 million households in the world suffer from a lack of secure, adequate and affordable housing, a figure that will grow by 30 percent to 440 million households by 2025. And although the percentage of the world’s population that lives in global slums has declined over the past couple of decades, the absolute number of people living in urban slums worldwide has grown from less than 700 million in 1990 to 880 million in 2014, and will expand further in the coming decades. In India and China roughly a quarter of the population live in slums, and in Africa more than half of the population is trapped in substandard living conditions. Women and minority groups worldwide are disproportionately concentrated in slums.

Graph by World Resources Institute. Estimates from Habitat III Policy Unit 10 2016; UN-Habitat 2015  

The dominant strategy from the 1950s through the 1980s was to construct public housing in high rise buildings, which often led to further concentration of poverty and economic distress. The 1990s and 2000s saw a shift to more “enabling approaches” to upgrade slums and remove obstacles for disadvantaged groups to access urban land. But the past decade or so has seen a return to large-scale subsidized housing programs, often located in the sprawling slums at the outskirts of global cities.

The report rightly calls for empowering disadvantaged groups to upgrade their own communities. This is in line with a great deal of research—from the work of Janice Pearlman on Brazil’s favelas, to Doug Saunders’ accounts of the poor themselves creating their own economic opportunity in the world’s arrival cities. It is also in line with Jane Jacobs’ long-standing argument that economic development comes from enabling local communities to solve their own problems and create their own opportunity.

The study affirms that slums cannot be successfully upgraded without the community’s participation. And community participation is amplified when governments make policy that builds on their existing capacity, and improves their access to city infrastructure.

Based on this broad perspective, the report outlines three key strategies for addressing the global housing crisis and upgrading global slums.

Keep residents where they are

It’s a big mistake to see slums as a problem, when in fact they are an opportunity. And it is an even bigger mistake to locate people away from their current settlements to new government projects. Slums typically crop up around centers of economic opportunity, however rudimentary. And slum dwellers by their very nature understand how to mobilize community resources and generate opportunity.

In the words of the report, the location of affordable housing is “as important as, or even more important than, the quality of this housing.” When residents are displaced or relocated, they are disconnected from critical social and economic networks and livelihood options they themselves created. Making in situ improvements to these settlements allows slum dwellers to remain connected to their own networks and sites of economic opportunity.

Repurpose existing infrastructure in urban centers

The disadvantaged and the poor benefit from locating in or around the urban center, where economic opportunities are more abundant. After all, urban centers are the basic engines of mobilizing talent and human capabilities that provide opportunities that can benefit both advantaged and marginalized groups. This is why some people migrate to cities in the first place.

One way to do this is to convert underutilized urban land for affordable housing and economic development, with realistic standards for development. This includes incremental housing improvements, easy-to-understand planning processes that acknowledge the wide range of market segments, and simple zoning rules and building codes. It also encourages cities to explore community ownership, and creative solutions to revitalizing underused land, buildings, and districts.

Providing infrastructure like streets and transit can help connect slums to economic opportunity. The city of Medellin in Colombia famously did this by using escalators and gondolas to connect steep hillside slums to centers of jobs and economic activity.

Shift from ownership to rental housing

For the very poor, and those who lack the documentation to qualify for mortgages, homeownership is simply not an option.

Particularly in the global south, the current emphasis on homeownership creates additional burdens for women and members of minority groups in many rapidly urbanizing parts of the world. This is because their rights are inextricably bound to male family members, marital status, or are otherwise restricted by cultural norms. Even in countries where property legislation is gender neutral, law enforcement often restricts women’s ability exercise their rights to purchase housing.

So any development strategy cannot work without a policy that supports local affordable rentals rather than just homeownership.

Ultimately, the hundreds of millions of the urban poor who live in global slums are the key to resolving the global housing and urban crisis. They know their communities and are doing the best they can to mobilize resources and create opportunity.

And giving them access to resources and connective fiber is the best thing we can do to help unlock the urban engine of economic progress. As John F.C. Turner argued long ago, it is time we shift from seeing “housing as a noun” something that governments build for people to “housing as a verb,” something people and communities build for themselves.

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