The Values of Property

The recently announced Rajiv Awaas Yojana (RAY) has brought back an old ghost to debates on how to allow the urban poor a foothold into the city and the possibility of upward mobility. The central policy initiative of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation is the most significant contemporary attempt to address urban poverty through providing housing to the urban poor. The “slum-free city” is back. Now more than ever, then, it is time to ask: what is a “slum-free city”?

First, the good news. The RAY tries not to patronize the poor. It begins with their right to come to and be in the city as well as have shelter within it. It acknowledges the  failure of the state in keeping its own commitments to housing the poor as well as not enabling the market to reach them. In many ways, RAY is an expression of a right to shelter we have refused to give to our fellow citizens even as information, education and health have been won.

RAY gives priority to in-situ upgradation, i.e. “redeveloping” a settlement on the site (or a part of it) in which it is located. This priority could break the vicious trend of evictions and peripheral resettlements that are scarring almost all our major cities, though it is unclear how the policy will ensure that city and state governments actually upgrade rather than evict. In-situ upgradation allows residents to remain in place – to hold onto hard-fought, incremental service improvements, keep children in local schools, benefit from dense local economies, and avail of affordable transport networks. In short, to survive on limited and often irregular incomes; to have what one might call “development time.” Every time a basti is evicted, these links break and an entire generation cannot break the cycle of poverty.

So how does RAY intend to do this? By giving financial and other support for city and state governments to try and mend the housing gap, based on giving “property rights” to the poor. It is here that RAY will face one of its major challenges.

What is a “property right”? Is it ownership? A right to sell and buy? A title? Is it the right to use? The right not to be evicted?Is the right necessarily individual? Can be it communal, co-operative, or common? What rights does one have to land that is “public”? How are “property rights” related to security of tenure – the ability (in many ways as important to the poor as ownership) of being able to stay in place? In a city like Delhi where most ‘slums’ are on public lands, there is another elephant in the room: who decides how public lands should be used and to what ends?

What is a “property right”? Is it ownership? A right to sell and buy? A title? Is it the right to use? The right not to be evicted?

The question that faces RAY then is: what is it that allows the poor to remain in place? Are property rights – understood as individual titles for households in the very powerful and increasingly quoted imagination of the economist Hernando De Soto – the means to this end? If the goal of programmes like RAY is the empowerment and development of people living in “slums” [as opposed to the value of the land they sit on], the answer is not a simple yes. The Mumbai model of partial resettlement is just one of multiple global experiences that have shown that individual property titles that “unlock” trapped land inevitable displace the poor. The eviction in this case is a neater one – rising rental and land values simply ensures that the newly commodified land will allow the market to take its course. Bulldozers are no longer required. This displacement also results in the transformation of housing stock at rental and purchase levels that the poor, and particularly new migrants, can afford into ones that they cannot. When new migrants come to city and find no legal shelter they can rent for Rs 150, or 500, or 1000 a month, they create shelter where they can – new slums emerge.

Our objective in creating inclusive cities must be two-fold: (a) to give security of tenure to the poor that live in our cities today so that they may have adequate ‘development time’ to climb out of poverty; and (b) to enable the poor access to legal shelter at a price they can afford and therefore to build this legal housing stock that is available at the bottom of the market. To do so, we must broaden our idea of property rights. If our focus shifts to security of tenure, then individual property rights as titles become just one of the ways we can reach there, and even these have to be qualified. So what could be the others?

Let us start with the familiar end of the spectrum of property: title. Even individual property titles could come with restrictions of sale – blocking them for a period of time, allowing sale only to other families of similar income levels. These could be attached to a critical protection that keeps low-income housing truly affordable: enforced restrictions on buying multiple units, combining them, or modifying them to make them more appealing to richer buyers. Other ways to think about property rights could be on co-operative or communal titling options, typically thought of in terms of long-term leaseholds, which reduce the pressure from developers on individual families to sell. Venezuela’s Favela Barrio program is a successful example of community titling as a form of upgradation that doesn’t displace the poor. At the far end of the spectrum is a guarantee against evictions for 20, 30 or 50 year periods, that while not ideal, still buy the poor development time, allows them to clear ‘cut-off dates,’ and gives them incentives to invest in their housing and communities.

These options, however, can also only work on the basis of one assumption: legal, low-income housing stock also becomes continuously available in the city so families have the option of moving out and new migrants have the option of moving in. Our current crisis is that what we call ‘slums’ are also almost the only low-income housing stock that anyone has built – either through the state or the market – in most of our cities.

Finally, there is one of the least explored possibilities of creating a legal housing stock at the bottom of the market: rentals. Rentals are currently not allowed in any scheme that resettles the urban poor. The principle behind this is to prevent “slumlords” from taking over houses assigned to poor families as part of resettlement schemes. Yet, a consequence of this is that families do not have the option to use their housing to generate secure wealth and families that cannot afford single one time or staggered ownership payments get excluded from access to housing. This is an incredible lost opportunity and one that would reduce greatly the incidences of families who receive housing from the state that they often cannot afford to maintain or live in, sometimes because its structure and design is inappropriate (a fifth floor walk-up with no space to work or store goods) or because the maintenance is more than they can afford.

The second argument often made in favour of property rights as title is that they give the “informal/illegal” poor a sense of belonging, citizenship and security. Yet before asking if property titles should be a prerequisite to feeling like a citizen [do the non-poor need property titles in order to have rights or belonging?], it is worth asking why the poor are made to feel like second-class citizens in the their own cities.

At the heart of this debate is how to think about inclusive cities, a concept that is meaningless unless it takes one of the central urban questions: how do you value land? If the answer to that question remains one of marketized values in terms of exchange, the poor will always be peripheralised and excluded. This is particularly important, but also possible, when the land is public, as much of the land is in Delhi. What does it mean for the land to be “public”? Who gets to decide? What systems of value should exist for publicly owned land?

If we can begin to value land and property in terms of use, or as in the Brazillian case, in terms of their “social value,” we can begin to see “slums” as invaluable uses of land for what they offer in terms of shelter, livelihood and life, and we can ask how to improve these neighborhoods and communities. We can pick improved, cleaned up, serviced communities [no longer then called ‘slums’] as better, more valuable uses of land than high-rise residential developments that create more profit value. The Brazillian City Statute 2002 is a federal law that takes on this challenge – this is more than just a pipe dream. Its maxim is compelling. Articles 182 and 183 of the law, require every Brazillian city and town to re-write its Master Plan: “to guarantee, in the realm of each municipality, the right to the city, the defense of the social function of the city and property, and of democratization of urban management (articles 182 and 183).” Fighting words, these – “the social function of a city and property.”

The RAY is an opportunity that hopefully many city governments will use. What is critical for its success is that they take the spirit of the policy seriously: to give shelter and allow the poor a right to the city. To do so, governments must be clear on the objects and priorities of inclusion as well as be willing to try a range of approaches that often will not be the easiest and most seductive ones, as giving individual property titles can be. If we can begin to value land and property in terms of use, or as in the Brazillian case, in terms of their “social value,” we can begin to see “slums” as invaluable uses of land for what they offer in terms of shelter, livelihood and life, and we can ask how to improve these neighborhoods and communities. We can pick improved, cleaned up, serviced communities [no longer then called ‘slums’] as better, more valuable uses of land than high-rise residential developments that create more profit value. It is only then that programmes like RAY will be able to make slum-free cities that are not simply cities without the poor.

One thought on “The Values of Property”

  1. Gautam,

    There are slums as old as a hundred years old. Why is it that the state does not want to give them land ownership? One option is for the government to give khatas to those households, in the slums on public land. Of course, once look at a cut-off date for this etc. This does not need any big scheme like RAY , does not need any money to be spent.

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