When the world shut down last March, the urban housing conversation took on a radically different hue.
Suddenly, housing was a public health concern – which, of course, it always had been. Where you live, and under what conditions, appeared viciously linked to your likelihood of getting sick. The question of who has stable housing and what “stay at home” looks like came front and center. In some countries, eviction moratoriums and rent freezes became the new normal. And as deaths soared, talks of “livability” dominated policy debates.
Fast forward a year later. The tick-tock of vaccinations and variants has left the world in a race against time, as outbreaks swing between the global north and south. But with talks of a post-pandemic rebound, it’s clear that the fundamental issues plaguing housing, particularly in global south cities remain unperturbed. Affordability, displacement, and hyper-privatization are still the biggest concerns.
Yet although the challenges are the same set, the economic disruption of COVID should shake us into new ways of thinking about property – and, subsequently, who actually has access to living on it securely. Before and throughout the pandemic, researchers from PEAK Urban, a five-continent initiative based out of the University of Oxford, have been investigating innovative living arrangements that could address several core housing issues. But they require the world’s growing cities to reimagine what’s possible.
Learning from Occupation
The phenomenon of “vertical occupation,” when residents occupy an underutilized or abandoned building without holding formal ownership, has been around in South Africa for some time, in cities like Durban and Johannesburg. But it’s relatively new to Cape Town, says researcher Nobukhosi Ngwenya, who’s based at the African Centre of Cities there. And it came at a time when she and her colleagues were thinking about what institutional knowledge can be gleaned from similar “do-it-yourself” housing solutions coming from informal settlements.
“It added a very interesting dynamic to occupational practices in Cape Town,” she told me. “But also, on how we’re thinking about providing inclusionary housing and more affordable housing in the heart of the city and central business district.”
In many ways, Cape Town resembles what has been happening to major global capitals for years now. The central business district is increasingly unaffordable, even for young professionals like Ngwenya. Property prices have skyrocketed. And buildings are being bought up by wealthier residents, many who live elsewhere, or converted into tourist lodging. That has left an increasingly challenging situation for poorer residents.
Hence, the vertical occupations, which, in a sense, are doing what government and the market have failed to do, in better utilizing un-used space at a cheaper and faster rate.
Ngwenya and her colleagues have been tracking two occupations in particular: one in Woodstock, of a now fully decommissioned hospital; and another in Green Point, of a former nurses home. Both properties are state-owned and had security on site that occupiers had to sneak around at first, she said. But eventually, numbers grew. The occupiers, under the social movement Reclaim the City, soon found themselves in legal trouble.
“We have a very litigious local government who doesn’t hesitate to go to the courts and begin eviction proceedings,” said Ngwenya.
In South Africa, the public discourse around occupiers, she explained, is rife with stigma, with terms like “hijacked buildings” fairly common. But rather than seeking evictions in court, Ngwenya argues that municipalities should look to learn from occupations, which current legal and funding mechanisms prevent. “They really leave no room for innovation,” she said.
She lists three reasons to see vertical occupation as more than a nuisance. The first, she said, is innovation in terms of materials for retrofitting, as Ngwenya outlined in a recent paper. With low funds, occupiers often reuse construction materials, like wood and concrete, and patch up any deficiencies through stopgap measures. While perhaps not structurally ideal in the long run, these practices have potential to generate new ideas at a time when industries are being called on to decarbonize their construction methods through more sustainable uses.
The second is innovation in how occupiers connect to local infrastructure, and access services. “So water, electricity, and sanitation, which can be a bit trickier.” Taps for water can be fixed and reconnected to water mains, while downed electrical services can be revived. This, Ngwenya says, has led to occupation of state-owned lands, where services are more readily available.
And the last is innovation in self-organizing. The occupiers in Cape Town have been able to mobilize support from surrounding communities and prepare formidable cases for court.
“It’s really highlighted that we’ve underestimated those who we’ve classified as poor or characterized as government beneficiaries,” Ngwenya told me. “There is a lot that they are indeed capable of doing, but it’s just a matter of learning how their processes of organizing and mobilizing resources can fulfill a common goal or end.”
Ngwenya said that a shift in South Africa’s housing policy is being led by more progressive planners, from mandating a top-down heavy approach of construction to letting people build themselves with more accessible resources. Now elected officials just have to get on board.
“If the politicians in charge don’t see value, it falls by the wayside,” she said. “But the momentum is there.”
Being Better Prepared for ‘Forced Urbanization’
Housing crises are nothing new in Colombia, a country with the most internally displaced people in the world. (Estimates peg the total at nearly 8 million, but advocates think it’s even higher.) Edwar A. Calderón, a PEAK researcher based at Medellín’s EAFIT University, explains that scars from the country’s decades-long civil conflict play out in rural-urban migration. It lands countless residents in “marginalized settlements” along the urban fringe, where realities shift fast.
“It’s a phenomenon that no local ordinance can handle,” Calderón told me. “When I talked to some government stakeholders, they say, ‘I visited that zone last month, and I came back today, and literally a new neighborhood emerged in that period of time.’”
“It’s such a rapid and unpredictable phenomenon that the government doesn’t have the technical or financial capacity [to keep us],” he added, “so I wanted to focus on that.”
Along with colleagues, Calderón is mapping out what displacement and what he calls “forced urbanization” looks like using satellite imagery and socio-spatial analysis.
For example, how much vegetation does the marginal settlement have? What are the built structures in the area? What places of individual or collective significance have been built or created? And what color or texture are they?
By understanding the shape these settlements take, and what works (or doesn’t) for specific populations, governments can provide longer-term, cost-efficient, and customizable solutions rather than one-size-fits-all answers, Calderón argues, which leads to repeating past mistakes.
Perhaps that means a greater emphasis on place-making, where nodes of ‘social infrastructure,’ like community centers, parks, plazas, and libraries, allow refugees to rebuild their civic lives. Or designing street networks that encourage social cohesion – with active storefronts, less vehicular traffic, and shorter paths – rather than discourage it. Collecting that data could even help guide engagement, where residents are asked what they’d like to see in their community.
Calderón says he hopes the project will help local governments in Colombia and other countries in the global south make smarter, more effective planning decisions, rather than construct faceless housing for vulnerable populations on a dime. “Countries have been demolishing these types of buildings [and neighborhoods] since the 1980s,” said Calderón. “They don’t work. They generate more segregation, marginalization, and violence. And yet 30 years later, we’re building them. What is our learning process?”
An Alternative Vision
The city of Medellín is also home to Moravia, a former trash heap that was converted into a landscaped hillside barrio. In recent years, the municipal government has looked to privatize it through land titles and, eventually, compulsory purchases, which residents often accept due to their high value. Sales to developers and even evictions if people try to negotiate, have followed suit.
The approach, says Nicholas Simcik Arese, a professor of architecture and urban studies at the University of Cambridge affiliated with PEAK, is typical for the developing world. “The dominant policy towards informal settlements or self-built neighborhoods is to give people property rights, but in a very particular way,” Simcik Arese explains. Property rights formalize the land, he explains, thus allowing more people to enter the market-driven world of loans and mortgages. The idea, Western in origin – British, to be precise – has helped fuel what some say is a global enclosure movement.
But there’s an issue: in places like Moravia, residents often quickly sell their titles and then leave the informal settlement, thus opening it up to development. It also aggravates extortion and blackmail, says Simcik Arese, as some residents are forced to sell their homes by illicit parties. “It’s a mistaken approach because it takes the property imagination of the global north, a particular North Atlantic one, and assumes that’s the best-case scenario for so much variety across the global south,” he said. “When in reality, it’s much messier.”
Simcik Arese and his team are revisiting the concept of property itself. For decades, liberal countries have grown accustomed to believing that land can only hold singular ownership: one owner, one property. When in reality, Simcik Arese argues, the banks and developers are slicing and dicing up land as they see fit. Think condos, subprime mortgage packages and credit-default swaps. So, why can’t people?
“There’s an immense imagination, possibility and experimentation with property that’s not understood as experimental,” said Arese. “The bank owns the mortgage, shareholders own the bank, and all of those people own your house. There’s this gap of imagination of what property is and what reality is. And somehow, some people are allowed to do these things, and others aren’t.”
Through community workshops, Simcik Arese is leading an interdisciplinary team to provide residents with ideas of alternative forms for ownership, like community land trusts, where residents each buy a share of their land. In the global north, the model is growing in interest in cities like New York and Oakland; in the south, organizations in Kenya, Brazil and Bangladesh are deploying it in informal settlements. (A Honduras model applies a CLT model to the protection of a local watershed.)
A small stake allows residents to stave off real estate interests from buying up the land without unanimous consent, Simcik Arese argues, and maybe even benefit from local land value growth without displacement by gentrification. They are also looking to digitize the tools, joining a movement for more open-sourced, accessible financial tools called “platform cooperativism.”
“How can we think of property systems like Moravia that can be suitable for this transaction?” Simcik Arese says. “What we want to do is give people agency, to facilitate people achieving agency over what should be theirs by any standard.”
When I asked the PEAK Urban researchers if the COVID-19 crisis changed the semantics of the issues they’re exploring, none said it did explicitly. If anything, they said it reinforced why it is so important in the first place. It places a greater emphasis on why secure housing is an essential urban right, as coronavirus will certainly not be the only global crisis that we collectively face.
In Colombia, Calderón told me, COVID “froze everything.” But because lockdowns pushed more workers into the informal economy, perhaps for the foreseeable future, it left them with less money for a roof over their head. “Post-pandemic, it’s going to get worse,” he said. “That’s why we need to study this.”
John Surico is a journalist and researcher. He is a fellow at Center for an Urban Future, a leading think tank in New York City, and teaches urban journalism at New York University. He holds an MSc in Transport & City Planning from University College London.