New UN Report Reveals Depth of Tenure Security Crisis

Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur, has released a new report on tenure security that presents a framework for improving global housing security while outlining the challenges ahead. Rolnik was involved in the Mega-Cities Project in Sao Paulo since its inception. The report, entitled “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, and on the right to Non-Discrimination in This Context” is available at

We are in the grip of a global tenure insecurity crisis. Access to secure housing and land is a prerequisite for human dignity and an adequate standard of living, yet many millions of people live under the daily threat of eviction.” – Rolnik

When are you secure in your home? Do you have to own it? What if you own it but have no government documents to prove it? What if somebody wants you off the land anyway? How about renting?

A new report from the United Nations documents the scale of tenure insecurity around the world. Tenure insecurity is the condition under which a person or family has reason to fear removal from their residence. The report, presented on March 4th by UN Special Rapporteur on Housing Raquel Rolnik demonstrates the myriad ways in which the “security, peace and dignity” of the urban poor are impeded by threats to their living situation.

Rolnik, whose mission is to document global issues concerning the right to adequate housing, has travelled the world conducting studies to develop the report. Stating the severity of the problem, she bluntly calls it a “global tenure insecurity crisis”. Every year the number of people with insecure tenure increases due to displacement. In 2011, over 40 million people around the world were displaced by conflicts or natural disasters. Others lose their security of tenure when they move from rural farmlands to informal housing arrangements in cities, either to seek employment or because of land speculation and large-scale acquisition of farmland. Forced evictions are the extreme manifestation of tenure insecurity and are the product of development, conflict, land grabbing and mega-events. “Single and older women, in particular, too often do not have the legal empowerment, education or financial resources to defend their tenure.”

While tenure insecurity is a global phenomenon, Rolnik stresses its variability. Different social, political and cultural contexts shape housing dynamics. For example while some cities only recognize titled property owners, others grant rights to squatters. Many cities deal with competing rights – like occupancy vs. ownership – and resolve them in a variety of ways. Legal and juridical approaches to land rights are so different around the world that even defining security of tenure is a hazardous task. Rolnik settles on a broad definition that is relevant to a diversity of housing contexts from the Favela residents of Brazil to conflict refugees in Sudan: “Security of tenure is understood…as tenure of land and/or housing which ensures a secure home and enables one to live in security, peace and dignity.”

After examining the variety of tenure arrangements, Rolnik came to a major flaw in the international response to the crisis. While on-the-ground realities of tenure security are diverse, the response has been too one-dimensional. She critiques UN-Habitat’s conception of tenure (which is shared by many governments) arguing that it is limiting to see “individual freehold” land rights as the ultimate form of secure tenure. According to Rolnick this legal model reflects the dominant market ideology and not necessarily the best way to offer security.

She suggests that in the future the goal of those looking to improve the lives of the vulnerable urban poor should be to transition them from tenure insecurity to security rather than from informality to formality. That would mean considering alternatives to individual freehold, such as collective tenure rights and “more flexible and expansive ways of recording and recognizing tenure forms and tenure rights.” She concludes that  there is “an obvious need” to develop a “more specific and comprehensive human rights guidance on security of tenure” that is applicable to the myriad legal and managerial systems around the world.

Rolnik’s conclusions challenge the dominant focus on formal property rights as a way to provide secure tenure. However, she can only cite a few examples of alternative rights arrangements and acknowledges that neoliberal economic policy has limited the response of most governments to untitled city dwellers. While the number of people lacking secure tenure is sure to rise, the report offers little hope that governments and trans-national institutions will get much better at helping them.

The report is also light on a point of major concern for the urban poor in the developing world. With sea levels projected to rise three feet in the next one hundred years and more frequent violent storms a certainty, many cities in vulnerable locations will face planning scenarios that could necessitate the depopulation of hazardous areas. Rolnik’s proposed comprehensive human rights approach will have to take into account situations where governments use coercive force to ensure the long-term safety of a climate-threatened neighborhood.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 at 7:41 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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