The importance and benefits of tenure security -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The importance and benefits of tenure security

By David Ehrenberg

UN-Habitat estimates that 924 million people, nearly a third of the world’s urban population, live in slums. In what will be one of the greatest migrations in history, this number is expected to double in the next 30 years as over a billion additional people move to urban slums in the developing world. As public housing programs have failed to keep up with this tide, providing security to these new urban residents as they build their own homes and communities has become a central component of urban interventions.

In addition to its role in protecting the fundamental right to housing, tenure security provides numerous additional benefits. Most importantly, as security increases, families invest more savings and sweat equity to improve their housing. Increased security is also associated with greater political strength and ability to demand services. Titling was recently shown to contribute to increased work and educational attainment as family members are not required to stay at home to guard against eviction. While the goal of tenure security is widely accepted, programs take a variety of forms.

The most rudimentary kind of tenure security can be provided by the extension of utility services into communities, a friendly administration, or a lack of recent evictions, all of which create a sense of security. However, these “solutions” are subject to political reversal. More formal programs that provide a range of legally enforceable rights have been developed in order to provide true guarantees. Each program grants a different set of rights depending on the specific benefits sought, to whom these benefits are targeted and local implementation challenges.

Benefits sought and rights provided

Tenure security has recently become synonymous with the provision of full ownership rights, partly because of the success of Hernando de Soto’s “The Mysteries of Capital.” For de Soto, providing full ownership not only provides the highest level of tenure security for individual families, but also serves as an anti-poverty program by enabling the poor to use their newly titled homes as collateral for bank loans.

However, this focus on ownership rights is not without its critics. Many believe that if the consolidation of communities on the land they occupy is the goal, titling too quickly may be dangerous. By integrating centrally located settlements into the market, some fear that initial squatter owners may reap benefits, but ultimately the land will become unaffordable to future poor residents. Titling drives can also be used as a pretext to relocate squatters from the central city to the periphery where they will lack access to jobs, infrastructure and services.

Other forms of tenure security

While full ownership recognizes the greatest level of individual rights, various intermediate forms of titling and legally enforceable leasehold contracts have been developed. While there are a wide variety of models from around the world, a few examples include:

The government of Belize initially provides newly regularized communities with leases that cannot be sold. Once sufficient upgrading has taken place, residents are given the opportunity to purchase their land at a subsidized rate, after which they enjoy all the rights of full-freehold title and can sell if they so choose. It is hoped that by restricting the right to sell before upgrading is complete, the local real estate market and community structures will have time to mature, allowing initial residents to receive a better price for their land if they ultimately decide to sell.

A number of Brazilian municipalities provide Concessions to the Real Right to Use (CRRU). CRRU are legally enforceable lease contracts, typically long-term, under which the municipality maintains ownership of the land, but residents are granted ownership of the buildings. Residents can sell, but only with municipal approval and to other low-income families. In some cities, such as Recife, communities that are provided CRRU are deemed Zones of Special Social Interest, effectively an anti-gentrification zoning program. While Brazilian programs have generally been developed on a city-by-city basis, the 2001 federal City Statute provides a more consistent foundation for local programs.

The Baan Mankong Project directly links urban upgrading with communal ownership of the land in informal settlements. Under the program, communities are provided infrastructure subsidies and community managed capital pools to develop their housing or community based services. Land ownership and decisions as to its disposition are maintained at a community level.

Countries in Africa, in particular, have begun to address the interface between customary law, which governs land use at the urban fringe, and the statutory legal system, which generally controls urban uses. The Community Land Trusts program, operated mainly in secondary cities around Kenya, maintains the community’s ownership of the land but provides long-term leases to individual families. It is believed that by balancing the communal and individual rights, the program will allow communities to use their collective strength to obtain infrastructure and services while providing individuals with long-term security and thus incentives to invest in their homes.

For whom are benefits sought?

While the rights provided imply different balances between individual and community interests, programs also have varying effects on different community members. Tenure security is important for women as they negotiate relations within the household and wider community and become particularly critical in the event of widowhood. Countries such as Vietnam, Peru and the Philippines have taken the important step of issuing titles jointly to both spouses. Other differences within the communities, such as between owners and renters, should also be considered.

Local implementation challenges

Local implementation considerations are another significant factor in shaping programs. For example, if land is state owned, nearly any program design is possible. However, when communities are located on private land, most programs rely on adverse possession, whereby current residents may petition a court for full ownership if their use of the land has been unchallenged by the current owner for a set number of years. Many countries now recognize communal adverse possession, simplifying the process for residents and reducing the burden on court systems.

Programs from around the world provide a wide variety of implementation lessons. One such lesson is that a fast and equitable process for resolving ownership disputes within the communities is essential. Such processes may be managed by the cadastre system (as in Cambodia), a separate agency that works before titling begins (as in Mexico), or through the titling agency itself (as in Peru). Most programs engage the community in a participatory process to establish plot boundaries, resolve conflicts and identify non-eligible individuals (sometimes including absentee landlords or those who own multiple plots). Reliance on a formal arbitration process, or adjudication in a court, is typically uncommon and the last option.

An effective system to track future land sales must also be developed to ensure that land does not revert to informality after subsequent sales. Most tenure security programs will require significant legal and regulatory changes at the national and local levels, as well as investments in cadastre systems, more effective land use planning processes, and other technocratic and technological program components. However, while some technocratic solutions may be required, they are often less effective and more costly than community-based solutions.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that while providing tenure security is critical, it must be coupled with infrastructure upgrading, programs with banks to enable residents to access loans, more inclusive urban planning processes and legal changes that accept the realities of these communities instead of requiring unenforceable Western-style regulations.

Further resources

If you are interested in additional information regarding specific country programs, you may find it useful to refer to the following sources:
“Secure Tenure in Latin America and the Caribbean: Regularization of Informal Urban Settlements in Peru, Mexico and Brazil” a report prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank available online at:;
Report and papers prepared for the International Federation of Surveyors Expert Group Meeting on secure land tenure: “New Legal Frameworks and Tools in Asia and the Pacific” held in Bangkok December 2005 available online at:; and
Alain Durand-Lasserve, Edesio Fernandes, Geoffrey Payne, and Martim Smolka, 2002, “Secure Tenure for the Urban Poor,” CIVIS Learning from Cities, Cities Alliance, Issue 3 available online at:

David Ehrenberg, a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in public affairs and urban and regional planning. In 2005 he worked on a report for the International Development Bank on secure tenure in Latin America that examined the implementation of programs in Mexico, Brazil and Peru. He also worked with the United Nations Development Program in Malawi.