Tackling urban inequalities: Housing justice and inclusive urban development in Sierra Leone

Stakeholders gather to understand how housing can help build equitable and inclusive cities in Sierra Leone


By Paula Sevilla Núñez, Program Officer, Pathfinders & Ansumana Tarawally, Research Officer, Sierra Leone Urban Research Center (SLURC)

Cockle Bay pan bodi housing (Photo: Andrea Klingel)

Annemarie was just notified by her landlord that her rent would double next month. A single parent, she is already struggling to save enough money to afford school fees, uniforms, and books for her two sons and her mother’s medicines. Finding a new place to live is an extraordinary struggle; without any regulation in place, landlords ask for up to two years of rent upfront, and require that the tenant pays for any maintenance costs. As a resident of Cockle Bay — an informal settlement along Aberdeen creek in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone — she is no stranger to the struggle of housing insecurity. The pan bodi that Annemarie and others can afford are self-made structures that because they are located in the most flood and risk prone areas of the city, are often destroyed during the rainy season. Residents of informal settlements like these also know that they can be evicted at any time and will face harsh consequences if they try to resist.

Although stories vary, many individuals in cities as different as Freetown and New York are suffering from the global housing insecurity crisis. Access to housing and having a home is, “the cornerstone of our social, economic, and emotional lives,” and, “epitomizes stability and security for an individual as well as their family.” Across the world people are demanding that action be taken to address housing affordability and that societies deliver on their citizens’ right to housing and to the city. Providing decent and affordable housing to all citizens is a key component of building equitable and inclusive cities. Yet, it is an ambitious goal that requires new approaches to policy making and implementation, and rethinking the relationship between the different actors involved in society, from the government, to the private sector, to citizens themselves.

Sierra Leone’s housing situation, like many other cities in Africa and across the world, has developed into a crisis over the years. Rapid urbanization after the civil war paired with very limited land use planning has resulted in a huge housing shortage and a proliferation of informal settlements without access to basic services, and in constant danger of flooding or demolition. Volatile and informal sources of income make it almost impossible for most residents to access a mortgage, so housing tends to be built incrementally by individual households. With the average rent in Freetown’s formal market being affordable to only 3% of the population, renters often have to seek arrangements with landlords in informal settlements which leave them susceptible to exploitation and limited access to justice. The COVID-19 pandemic made the housing issue worse as people lost incomes and fell behind on rent, and the rise in the cost of commodities and food resulting from the aftermath of the pandemic and now exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war are making housing more expensive as people find themselves with less resources.

Recently, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, housing has received increasing attention. As the Government of Sierra Leone prepares for its next Medium-Term Development Plan, housing has the opportunity to serve as both an important catalyzer in delivering a visible improvement to Sierra Leoneans’ lives, but a multiplier of other efforts to reduce inequality in cities.

“Access to decent and affordable housing is essential to ensuring vibrant communities and families… I have no doubt that housing is a pathway to enhancing economic development and ensur[ing] means to reduce poverty and inequality” — Francis Kai-Kai, Minister of Planning & Economic Development of Sierra Leone at the Tackling Urban Inequalities conference

Participants in the “Tackling Urban Inequalities” workshop, hosted by the Sierra Leone Urban Research Center (SLURC), the Pathfinders and the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED)

Last month, the Sierra Leone Urban Research Center (SLURC), in collaboration with the Pathfinders and the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), convened a conference and workshop to lay out a path towards more inclusive and equitable cities in Sierra Leone. Representatives from different ministries and local governments met with leaders of savings groups and urban poor federations, members of the private sector, and experts in urban planning to develop the guiding principles of a national housing policy that could effectively support the government’s commitment to reducing inequality and exclusion in the country, particularly in urban areas. Participants also heard about experiences in other countries, including housing finance for low-income communities in Ghana, collective self-help housing in Brazil, or the proposal for a Lagos Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Stakeholders of the workshop outlined key matters to consider, including:

  • Explicitly addressing the needs and aspirations of low-income earners — particularly slum dwellers — and vulnerable populations, to achieve housing security and access to basic services and economic opportunity;
  • Ensuring the meaningful and inclusive participation of all stakeholders in the policy design, planning, implementation, and evaluation stages;
  • Utilizing and promoting bottom-up knowledge processes, as well as leveraging local resources such as local building materials;
  • Committing to effective coordination across the government and with other sectors, as well as empowering local councils;
  • Addressing capacity needs and investing in proper communication of the policy to stakeholders;
  • Being forward-looking to proactively address future urbanization and sustainability challenges, while also responding to situations of emergency.

“Politicians, decision-makers… don’t leave us behind in your decisions!”

Annemarie herself attended the conference and shared her story with the policymakers in the room. Her call to take action — “Politicians, decision-makers… don’t leave us behind in your decisions!” — was present throughout the discussions that followed, but can only be properly heeded by translating the current consensus on the need to tackle housing inequalities into concrete policy and implementation. The outcomes of the workshop will hopefully inspire further efforts with all actors in Sierra Leone to develop and implement an effective housing strategy, ensure national development plans explicitly address urban inequalities and exclusion, and deliver more inclusive cities in Sierra Leone.