About one billion people live in slums. That’s close to the entire population of China, twice that of all world refugees or roughly 550,000 times the number of billionaires. The number will triple by 2050.
Just as pressing as what slums are, how many there are and where they are, is how to talk about them — how to talk about one-seventh of the world population, and a quarter of Latin Americans.
City masterminds, who converged this week for the third Habitat conference, held every 20 years, are now catching onto the issue as one that merits discussion. Using a cleaner term, they organized reports and a roundtable on “informal settlements” to plan how to eliminate them in time for the next Habitat conference.
Speaking after the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing called slums inhumane, deplorable and outrageous, the head of the Housing and Land Rights Network, Shivani Chaudhry, checked the U.N. on its terms. The term “informal settlements,” she said, feeds assumptions of criminality, encroachment, impermanence and illegality, all of which work to justify eviction and demolition.
The politics behind the language become clearer when considering the usual makeup of these so-called settlements: refugees, racial and ethnic minorities, low-wage workers and those forcibly displaced from their rural homes, often from massive development projects or economic necessity.
The diagnosis follows accordingly.
If “informal settlements” are outside the margins of what the city can control, then the city must bring them within its reach. U.N. partners gathered in Pretoria in April to lay out global guidelines on how to deal with slums, and they came up with “sustainable incremental slum upgrading, triggering further investments from the government, businesses and private households in neighbourhoods, and harnessing the land value increments, thereby enabling local investments, local economic development, and local value addition.”
In other words, slums represent land that needs revitalizing, demanding appropriation from the state or action from the private sector. Once the city puts together a strategy to reduce its “informal” numbers and expand its “formal” borders, it can — and should, reads the U.N. Pretoria Declaration — seize the opportunity to profit from the higher-value projects and subsequent land speculation.
In their words: the U.N. and its partners “stress the need for new comprehensive financing frameworks, with a mix of instruments from international, public and private institutions, governments, the banking and finance sector, multilateral agencies and the people, to address the settlements upgrading needs, utilizing existing and new financing mechanisms and options, that leverage the value created through sustainable urban development.”
At the Habitat III conference, former World Bank urban expert Maryse Gautier said that cities have an obligation to capture the rise in the value of land in a process widely known today as gentrification, or displacement resulting from rising housing prices. By doing so, cities help fill their coffers — for better land management, she said. Still, if the goal is better land management, she added, then that land should not be seen exclusively for its commercial value, but planners must consider its social value, too.
A city official from Chad in the audience pointed out that she gave lip service to regulating speculation and minimizing displacement—as did the Pretoria Declaration—and asked her in what context she expects that to happen.
Considering the way cities now work, and the way mapped out for them by the Habitat Urban Agenda, the context is not right.
Those that see slums as a social ill — feces-infested, prostitution-riddled, chronically hungry — will continue to prescribe programs and new housing projects to treat the symptoms.
Those that don’t — that see the social problem of evictions, forced migration and land speculation — have other answers.
Chaudhry, who corrected the panelists on their language, said that what’s missing is redistributive land and agricultural reform, investment in affordable housing, tougher regulation of real estate and an end to demolitions and privatization.
Rose Molokoane, another panelist from South Africa who organizes with Slum Dwellers International, said that she enjoys the intensity living in a slum. If the more unlivable parts are to be changed, the dwellers must not “participate”—another favorite U.N. word—but rather “partner” to make sure they keep a consistent, active and equal role throughout the process.
Barcelona’s take, after electing a progressive municipality on an anti-eviction platform, is that until the Pretoria Declaration won’t serve the people unless it takes seriously two concepts. One is “democracy,” which Deputy Mayor Janet Sanz Cid pointed out never featured once in the Urban Agenda. The other is the “right to the city,” a once-radical concept that demands that the people access the tools to define their own urban life.
A park and a few big streets away from the Habitat conference, an alternative and open gathering talked about the same issues, but from a grassroots and academic perspective.
One of the most well-attended events was the International Tribunal on Evictions, where displaced people testified their stories to a jury, which then compiled the cases and submitted them to the U.N., governments and responsible parties.
The project calculates that on average, evicted families lose tens of thousands of dollars when their houses are demolished, usually without compensation. The right to housing — and to land — should help protect themselves from unjust policy.
A group of South Korean witnesses testified that more than half of their population is considered to be urban nomads, evicted every two years from their home. Brazilians called out government lies, from false environmental concerns used to justify evacuation and racist land policy to erasure of housing problems in the country’s report on the Olympics to Habitat. Others cited lost livelihoods, mass graves and creeping commercial projects as results of successful evictions.
In the clash of arguments, one side has literally swallowed the other. The Habitat conference set up its home in Arbolito Park in the center of Quito, Ecuador, occupying every inch of lawn and closing down all surrounding streets. Twenty years before the conference, the park was given the gift of a monument to the enforced disappeared, victims of a variety of state violations. During construction for the event, locals that frequented the park noticed the monument had disappeared. The city’s explanation – that it was under restoration – was later debunked.
The disappeared — and the dispossessed, the demolished, the displaced — are still demanding an honest resolution from their cities.