Evictability and tenure security

Policy debates over informal settlements have long recognised the importance of tenure security as a primary concern for the most marginal urban residents. It emerged as central in our previous research in four African and Asian cities, ‘The Unknown City’. The potential for eviction – what we referred to as a condition of ‘evictability’ – hung heavily over everyday life, shaped political action and influenced residents’ decisions over investing labour and finance to build and service their own neighbourhoods.   

Scholars recognise that tenure is not usefully conceptualised as a binary of security/insecurity or legality/illegality, but rather there is a continuum of different sorts of often highly complex tenure arrangements. The limits of formal titling programmes are well known: informal or customary arrangements may provide greater de facto security than formal titles and leases. Perceptions of security/insecurity can be as or more important than actual legal arrangements in terms of their effects on investment.  

In addition, a wider political understanding matters, as this can help explain why tenure in informal settlements is typically not only complex but also ambiguous and legally ‘grey’, and hence open to political manipulation. It can shed light on the interests underpinning protracted insecurity, and the opportunities and constraints for marginal urban dwellers to contest or manoeuvre to enhance their security.  

The concept of evictability usefully draws attention to these underpinning power relations and their connections to everyday life and grassroots political practice. It refers both to a regime of governance and lived experience. Experienced as a threat, the socio-political, economic, psychological and material effects of the potential for eviction may persist over time and can compromise citizenship. Thinking about how to address evictability leads us to look at land and housing policy, as influenced by global neoliberalism, capital investment, speculation or gentrification. Moreover, it demands consideration of a range of other factors, such as political conflict or labour market dynamics, ethnic, religious or gendered divides, and environmental pressures, all of which can have a bearing on the potential for eviction.  

How can infrastructure development be made to work for the urban poor in a manner that produces greater tenure security, rather than perpetuating evictability? The way infrastructure is provided can make the poor more evictable, e.g. where marketised approaches create new forms of exclusion, or when infrastructure displaces households or entire neighbourhoods.   

Yet infrastructure can also work to enhance tenure security for the most marginalised. In some settlements, our research showed that insecure residents were lobbying for, and investing money and labour in, services and buildings, as a means of gaining recognition for settlements and securing their own land and housing. Indeed, where residents have a role as producers or suppliers of services, their land and housing tenure, and the recognition of whole settlements, could go hand in hand with improved services. Working with grassroots community organisations will enable us to understand their priorities and tactics to contest evictability, enhance tenure security and achieve access to services.