From your point of view, is the New Urban Agenda a step forward in terms of human rights?
I think the New Urban Agenda is weak on human rights, specifically the human right to adequate housing. Although the term is mentioned, housing is viewed more as a commodity rather than a legally enforceable human right. This is demonstrated by the absence of any reference to existing human rights standards related to housing, including those on forced evictions, displacement, and security of tenure. The New Urban Agenda places priority on the market to deliver housing, and does not call for regulation of mortgage securitisation and the real estate sector, or control of corruption and land grabbing. By ignoring the inequity and cyclical crises created by the market, the Agenda also forgets the Habitat II commitment to ensure implementation within a just macroeconomic order.
The absence of a human rights approach and the lack of a focus on social justice throughout the document is also an issue of concern. Although the New Urban Agenda mentions the human rights principles of equality, non-discrimination, accountability, and solidarity, it does not stress existing legal commitments of states or operationalise the “indivisibility of human rights” framework.
Another major concern is the change in the title of the conference, from the UN Conference on Human Settlements to the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. This essentially narrows the Habitat Agenda, backtracks on commitments made in Vancouver in 1976 and Istanbul in 1996, and leaves out half of humanity that still lives in rural areas. The Habitat Agenda clearly called for a commitment to end forced evictions and homelessness, and to “treat villages and cities as two ends of a human settlements continuum.” The title of the Habitat III conference also assumes that urbanisation is inevitable without attempting to understand or address its structural causes. In many countries, people are forced to move to urban areas because of the lack of adequate investment in rural areas and the compounded problems of agrarian crises, disasters, forced land acquisition, landlessness, and displacement. Urbanisation is thus not a choice for many, but a situation they find themselves confronted with. Addressing these structural issues is, therefore, as important as addressing increasing urbanisation, but the New Urban Agenda fails to do this.
What needs to be done at national and/or local level to ensure security of tenure in informal settlements? And how can the inhabitants themselves contribute to that?
Legally protected security of tenure is an important component of the right to adequate housing, as also expounded by the United Nations. The fact that people do not have security of tenure is one of the biggest problems in the Global South; it is also the reason why evictions take place quite frequently, especially in cities. It is important that governments stop thinking of people as illegal –they live in settlements because states do not have low cost housing options or social housing policies. As a result, people are forced to live in extremely inadequate conditions without access to basic services and largely without tenure security. Residents of these settlements also often live in constant fear of eviction, especially when the government does not consider resettling them because it did not consider them as “legal” inhabitants in the first place.
I think the first step towards achieving security of tenure in these countries would be a change in the mindset of the governments in the Global South. It is important to make them understand that as inhabitants of the city, the people living in settlements have just as much of a ‘right to the city’ as everyone else. They are contributing to the city and they help to build it and to keep it running. They take care of a range of functions, such as cleaning streets and sewers, driving buses, and engaging in labour-intensive construction work, but they are not given adequate space to live. That results in denying them many human rights, such as the rights to water, sanitation, equality, non-discrimination, and the freedom of movement and residence.
Countries need to have laws and policies that recognise people’s right to live with dignity, including through the provision of tenure security. Secure tenure does not always have to be in the form of an ownership title, it can also include rental security or collective tenure, depending on the model required and accepted by people. Tenure arrangements should be developed in cooperation with the people affected and not imposed on them. There are examples of different kinds of tenure models from around the world that have worked, such as collective titles and community land trusts, but whatever option is selected, it should be developed in collaboration with people and adopted with their full and prior informed consent.
Ultimately, communities need to have some kind of documentation from the government, some kind of formal recognition of their right to stay where they are, that they can show in case a bulldozer shows up at their doorstep. Because that is what happens very often. People are usually not even informed that they are going to be evicted. Demolitions take place without notice and due process, and people are not even given time to gather their belongings and move. Documentation would go a long way in helping them to prevent getting forcefully evicted.
In terms of the community being able to participate in this process, I think it could enter into negotiations with the government or work with social movements and civil society to demand and ensure its rights, but the first step in providing security of tenure has to be taken by the state.
What role does urban gentrification play against this background?
In many cities, low-income groups live on land that is undeveloped, in an area of the city where no one else wants to live. But these groups develop the land when they start living there and gradually, services improve and a whole economy develops around them. The value of the land then increases and the government gets interested in acquiring the land for profitable ventures. At this point, measures – sometimes illegal – are taken to evict the inhabitants of the informal settlement. Mostly they are not given any resettlement, but if they are, the resettlement is generally on the peripheries of the city and extremely inadequate without access to basic services, secure housing, livelihoods, education, and healthcare. This results in further impoverishment and marginalization of the urban poor.
Whether it is Mexico, Brazil, India or the Philippines, this kind of gentrification happens in the big cities of the Global South. The “cleared” land is then used for real estate ventures, housing for the rich, parks, and shopping malls. There is a very systematic kind of dispossession of the poor for the upgrading of neighbourhoods. Once rich people move into these neighbourhoods, real estate prices usually skyrocket. That’s the reason for the state perpetuating this kind of economic model.
In some countries, like in India, there are laws that say that land can only be taken for a “public purpose”. But land acquisition and eviction processes are often not for the public purpose because they benefit only a select population, while depriving the poor of their rights. There is a trend towards gentrification and segregation in many cities—both in the global North and South— and I think this is something that needs to be stopped immediately.
Which groups of citizens face the most discrimination when they try to access housing?
It differs from country to country, but I think in every country there are certain groups of people who are the most marginalised in terms of housing. In most countries, indigenous peoples face many of barriers; also, people belonging to low-income groups suffer from discrimination. Depending on the context, people of a certain faith are sometimes discriminated against, as well as people belonging to certain castes or other historically discriminated groups are often excluded. Women also find it very difficult to access their right to adequate housing in many countries. They are legally excluded from inheritance because property laws – and often religious rules – do not recognize their equal rights. Single women also face difficulties sometimes, especially in accessing rental housing. In some cities in India, for example, there is a certain stigma attached to being single, and most landlords do not want to rent housing to single women. People living with HIV/AIDS and mental illness also face obstacles and discrimination in accessing housing.
There is also intersectional discrimination. For example, if you are an indigenous woman with a low income and live in an informal settlement, you face multiple levels of discrimination. If you are a member of a sexual minority, you face discrimination not just because people do not accept you, but also because sometimes the law does not give you equal rights. There are so many barriers for people to access their human right to adequate housing, which have to be addressed at different levels – the social, political, economic, and religious levels.
I think discrimination is sometimes highly institutionalised, at times it can be very subtle while on other occasions it is very blatant. Governments thus have to address it at different levels. They need to fight discrimination so that marginalised groups can enjoy their right to live with dignity.