It takes legal empowerment to solve the housing crisis


Globally 22% of justice problems that people face are related to housing, land and neighbors, one of the six most common justice problems identified in the Justice for All report. With this guest blog, Pathfinders starts a new series of Justice for All blogs focused on what works to solve people’s most common justice problems.

The authors discuss the global housing crisis, drawing on experiences in supporting informal settlement communities in Argentina, Kenya, Mexico and Nigeria. These reflections are drawn from a webinar they organized last year. Resolving justice problems starts with empowering people and communities to know, use and shape the law to confront collective challenges. Paralegals and community-level action play an important role in supporting communities to access justice mechanisms for redress and to participate in decision-making that affects them. Multi-disciplinary partnerships involving a range of actors have proven key to overcoming long-standing obstacles that informal settlement dwellers face.

SDG 11.1 sets the goal of ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing by 2030. The authors argue that at their core, housing problems boil down to a denial of justice.

A blog by Adrian Di Giovanni (IDRC), Luciana Bercovich (Namati), Megan Chapman (JEI), Maria Silvia Emanuelli (HIC-AL), Leilani Farha (UNSR), Emily Kinama (Katiba), Pablo Vitale (ACIJ)

Mukuru, Nairobi (Photo: Muungano wa Wanavijiji)

Globally, the plight of urban poor can appear mind-numbing. An estimated 1.8 billion people lack adequate housing — just over 1 in 4 people globally — which means they may be lacking proper access to basic services like water, electricity and sanitation and land tenure security. Twenty-five percent of the world’s urban population lives in informal settlements, and in some cities in the Global South that rate rises to over half of the population. Homelessness and forced evictions are on the rise in virtually every country, and the challenges of urban poverty and exclusion stand to increase in the future, with the world’s cities growing all the time (see the United Nations’ estimates over the next decades here).

Behind these figures are stories of families and communities, women and men, young and old, and their efforts to ensure not just a roof over their heads, but a dignified place to call home. “Residents of informal settlements affirm humanity in the most inhumane circumstances,” as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha underscores, in a recent report on the right to housing in informal settlements. In the face of some of the most severe and disturbing living conditions, urban poor communities and grassroots advocates have managed to carve paths to obtaining more just and dignified living conditions.

The housing challenges faced by people living in informal settlements, poverty or conditions of vulnerability in urban centres around the world are complex and structural in nature, to be sure, and require action by many sectors at the same time. At their core, however, these challenges boil down to a denial of justice. The intolerable living conditions of many of the urban poor globally represent violations of the right to adequate housing under constitutions and national laws, or as part of broader international human rights guarantees to an adequate standard of living (under article 11 of ICESCR, for instance). And again to echo the UN Special Rapporteur: “without access to justice, housing is not properly recognized, understood or addressed as a human right.”

The denial of justice takes several shapes. At its most basic, it is a failure by states to recognize housing as a human right. The lack of recognition often arises where countries do not incorporate a right to housing in their constitutions or national legislation. In many countries, laws are also a source of distrust, used to fuel evictions, penalize or criminalize people living in homelessness — a reality confirmed in Kenya, Mexico and Nigeria, among others. Even when countries recognize the right to housing, they often fail to live up to that commitment: to take reasonable steps over time, to the maximum of available resources, and ensuring that the urban poor can access adequate housing (for instance, by putting in place policies to address price speculation, public housing and affordable rents).

Governments are making genuine efforts to implement urban integration and housing programs. Such initiatives for the most part do not include access to people-centred justice mechanisms that, for instance, enable people claim their rights, or seek redress where housing is unjustly denied or taken away. Yet meaningful participation of community members in decisions about housing and the formulation of housing programs, is itself a basic right and crucial part of ensuring access to justice. Governments too often cling to a view that we see as outdated: that the right to housing is not “justiciable”, too expensive to fulfill, or that property rights are a higher priority. Courts across the Global South have set pioneering and courageous precedents that spell out practical ways to uphold social and economic rights. With no place to claim the right to housing, the causes of violations often go unidentified. Even where courts have stepped in to uphold the right to housing of the urban poor, governments have in some cases ignored court orders. In a chilling example from Lagos, Nigeria, government officials demolished an informal settlement, in defiance of a court order, resulting in the displacement of 30,000+ people.

In the face of such challenges, grassroots advocates have found creative ways to work alongside urban poor communities and marginalized groups, inspiring novel approaches to knowing, using and shaping the law. A common theme in these approaches is not to over-emphasize courts and the use of lawyers. In many contexts, well-trained paralegals or recourse to administrative processes are more easily accessible and responsive front-line ports of call; provided that courts stand as a final backstop to ensure decision-making and programs are consistent with the right to housing. In other contexts, customary justice mechanisms stand as the more legitimate or practical route to settling disputes and seeking justice. Human rights institutions have also proved a crucial voice in many countries, raising the need for greater action in ensuring that people have access to adequate housing.

Ensuring access to justice for the right to housing will require efforts across a range of actors, at different levels of government (local, regional, national), as well as from civil society, the private sector and global institutions. Too often large companies and developers are cast as part of the problem, in driving evictions or making housing unaffordable, whereas the private sector has a potentially key role in delivering public priorities to build and finance housing solutions for the poor. Multi-disciplinary approaches in contexts like Nairobi have proven key to overcoming longstanding obstacles facing informal settlements dwellers, where a coalition of urban planners, financial specialists, community mobilizers and lawyers have worked side-by-side with residents and local government to plan a redevelopment process. Lawyers and human rights experts do not hold all the answers. In many cases, change comes when several advocacy efforts are harnessed at once — a grassroots movement to secure the right to housing, a push for new legislation or reform, political advocacy, litigation, and creatives uses of media. The solutions are usually not technical in nature, requiring hard fought political responses, and long-term public policy and structural responses.

(UN Photo / Jawad Jalali)

Urban poverty and inequality are not only problems of informal settlement dwellers. They affect all of us as a society. They are fundamentally questions of basic human dignity, which is at the foundation of all human rights. Providing a decent habitat for all urban residents leads to more cohesive, inclusive and secure cities. More practically, the concept of dignity has stood in where national law has not recognized the right to housing, with some success in shifting the needle in some countries, to convince the courts that housing is not simply a luxury but a basic human right. Finally, the idea of dignity can also help to tell the story needed to prompt positive action by public officials, and a wider set of actors. If no one would wish homelessness or intolerable living conditions on themselves, or members of their family or community, why aren’t more societies around the world doing more to ensure freedom from homelessness or prevent unjust evictions?

We look forward to keeping the discussion going, and invite you to join in. Please see a few resources we have developed over recent years:

– Hear our full discussion in a webinar from April 23, 2019: It takes legal empowerment to solve the right to housing crisis

– Learn more about the grassroots organizations in the webinar, and the work of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing:

  • Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, Argentina (ACIJ)
  • Habitat International Coalition — America Latina (HIC-AL)
  • International Development Research Centre, Canada (IDRC)
  • Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, Nigeria (JEI)
  • Katiba Institute, Kenya (Katiba)
  • Namati: Innovations in Legal Empowerment (Namati)
  • Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing (UNSR)

– Principles to ensure the right to housing developed by Latin American human rights and legal empowerment actors (here)

– Read Lessons Note and participate in a discussion about Promoting Legal Empowerment in Informal Settlements (here)

– Read the Justice for All report here.

Are you interested in publishing a blog in the Pathfinders’ Justice for All blogs — please be in touch with