Habitat for Humanity recognizes that some of the most precarious housing conditions and levels of poverty and fragility occur in informal settlements which contributes to poor health, violence and a host of socio-economic difficulties.

People are moving into cities at rapid rates, with an anticipated 70 percent of the global population living in urban areas by 2050. In 39 of the world’s countries, over 50 percent of urban populations live in slums.

Factors driving urbanization and rural-to-urban migration include the need for migrant labor within the developed national economy, which is considered an attractive source of actual or perceived employment. Cities offer educational and medical facilities with transport networks and offer a potential way out of poverty.

Cities around the world, however, have not intentionally prepared for the current or future influx of new residents. Against this large-scale human need, planning is catching up with rather than leading human settlement formation which have created further problems for land use policies and plans. This presents many infrastructural challenges, one of which is access to decent and safe housing, which can lead to the formation of informal settlements, or slums. 

It is difficult for national or city governments to make housing and residential spaces available on a large enough scale or a low enough price to match the needs of the urban poor and those migrating to cities. Nor is it easy for governments to provide shelter on an instant-access, less bureaucratic basis that the arriving rural and urban poor urgently require.

Habitat for Humanity works to improve housing while acknowledging the importance of physical improvements and basic services to improve living conditions, reduce vulnerabilities and improve the safety of informal settlement dwellers.

As land values within cities continue to rise due to an ever-higher number of urban residents, affordable land becomes increasingly scarce, driving up one of the key input costs into housing and further eroding affordable housing delivery.

Communities on the outskirts of cities often lack access to basic services. Families and individuals living in informal settlements face many challenges, including accessing public transportation, clean water and sanitation, medical services and educational facilities.

There are unique implications for communities residing in these informal settings, with specific impacts on their health, livelihoods, wellbeing and their ability to escape the cycle of poverty. Without land documentation, families are often unable to connect to available municipal utility supplies, including water, forcing families to buy water from expensive vendors.

Poor planning, inadequate institutional capacity and constrained budgets compound the pressure to release land and construct sufficient housing. Pressures on governments are mounting and there is a need to develop different partnering models that involve a wide range of stakeholders, with a more pronounced role for the private sector.

The regulatory and policy environment is often inappropriate, ineffective and out of sync with local realities and the way communities build and structure their settlements. Habitat for Humanity advocates for participatory approaches, multi-stakeholder platforms, pro poor and gender responsive policies that are fit-for-purpose.

Effective policy making processes involve communities where policies are to be applied by those that need to abide by and enforce them. Contextually aligned policies are required to address the scale of the challenge and to ensure that informal settlements are better planned with services, improved access routes, public spaces and livelihood opportunities.

Based on the experiences of Habitat’s network and partners, Solid Ground recommends several core principles for slum upgrading:

  • Regulations should encourage incremental building and recognize the long-term nature of the process towards sustainable development.
  • Inclusive and innovative microfinance products should be available for home and land improvement.
  • Secure tenure should be at the center of slum upgrading.
  • Urban and city plans must be inclusive of slum areas.
  • Infrastructure development, including re-blocking processes, should be pursued with as little displacement as possible.
  • Housing policies and systems should be promoted that broaden housing choices, including self-build options and opportunities at the appropriate scale and at an affordable price in diverse, suitable locations vis-à-vis access to employment and income generation to address slum settlement formation.
  • Appropriate resources must be allocated for policies to be achieved and implemented.

Habitat for Humanity’s slum upgrading work aligns with global commitments to action including the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which aim to end poverty, and promote prosperity and well-being while protecting the environment, by 2030. Efforts to upgrade slums contribute to SDG Goal 11, to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” and is specifically addressed in target 11.1, to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, and upgrade slums” by 2030. Habitat for Humanity not only contributes towards meeting SDG target 11.1 but also urges civil society and all levels of government to do the same.

Through the Solid Ground campaign, Habitat national organizations and partners are working to upgrade slums to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, including access to improved water and sanitation, sufficient living space, freedom from overcrowding, durable and structurally safe dwellings, and security of tenure.

For example, Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh is working to increase the resilience of slum communities in Dhaka. Since 2012, Habitat Bangladesh has used vulnerability assessments, community action planning, urban informal settlement mapping, water and sanitation infrastructure, and housing repairs to address the needs of people living in informal settlements.

In Liberia, Habitat for Humanity funded the launch of the Slum Upgrading Unit and ran a design competition to develop innovative housing designs for slum upgrading. The overall objective of the competition was to engage vocational schools and the private sector in thinking innovatively around slum upgrading and affordable housing delivery and to create opportunities for people, public and private partnerships to support housing delivery.

Habitat for Humanity Brazil collected data on urban land conflicts in the state of Pernambuco, one of the states with the highest incidence rates of land conflicts in Brazil. With this concrete data, Habitat for Humanity and Solid Ground partners will be able to take an evidence-based advocacy approach to work jointly with local governments, the judiciary, grassroots organizers and civil society organizations to find solutions to forced evictions and help prevent human rights violations.

Habitat for Humanity continues to work to address gaps and design policy and system implementation mechanisms globally that improve the implementation of policy, encourage governments to prioritize slum upgrading and address the needs of their urban residents residing in informal settlements.