Op-Ed: 400,000 Haitians Need Homes—And the Right to Live in Them

Land tenure means living in a place with a documented legal right of occupancy. Most of the world doesn’t have it.

Children look up into the sky when a plane flies above their tent encampment in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Relocating some 400,000 quake survivors still living under tents and tarpaulins will require decisions to resolve land tenure obstacles. (Photo: Swoan Parker/Reuters)

Nov 12, 2012

Insecure tenure—or the lack of ability to live in a place without fear of eviction—often lies at the heart of poverty housing. Insecure tenure deprives the poor of the most basic physical, economic and psychological stability afforded by adequate shelter.

What are the facts behind the term? More than 20 percent of the world’s population struggles on a daily basis to stay in houses or on land where they live. More than 80 percent of the world’s population does not have legal documentation of their property rights. According to UN-Habitat, approximately 5 million people worldwide suffer forced evictions every year.

Security of tenure can increase economic growth, address inequalities and reduce poverty in developing countries. Yet, in many locations, barriers to secure tenure remain. These barriers include insufficient legal and regulatory systems, excessive land regulation, gender discrimination, corruption, inefficient or inadequate land registration systems, the disintegration of customary and traditional protections, and the lack of political will to resolve the issue.

MORE: Devastated Haiti Offers Little Shelter From Approaching Hurricane

Women and children are often most vulnerable to insecure tenure. Written laws and customs often fail to protect them. Even if protections are available, women and children are also less likely than men to have the education or resources necessary to assert their rights.

Urban dwellers are also at risk. As land values in cities continue to increase and affordable land becomes scarce, more poor urban dwellers are driven to locate in informal settlements without secure tenure, often resulting in forcible eviction by local governments.

Nearly 400,000 people in a population of 10 million remain displaced today. Building a house is risky when no one is able to ascertain who owns the land or who will have rights to the built structure when it is finished.

Rebuilding after a disaster is also incredibly complex without a system of legal land tenure.

Almost three years ago, Haiti experienced the most devastating earthquake in 50 years. More than 200,000 people died. After the loss of life, the most grave consequence of the earthquake was loss of shelter. Roughly 190,000 houses were damaged and 105,000 homes destroyed. Nearly 400,000 people in a population of 10 million remain displaced today.

Building a house is risky when no one is able to ascertain who owns the land or who will have rights to the built structure when it is finished. A 2009 UN-Habitat report on Haiti states that “due to inadequate registration and follow-up, there are no clear records of what land is owned by the state or by someone else.” Putting Haitians back into homes without security of tenure exposes them to the same precarious housing situations that existed before the earthquake. 

Many development partners, multilaterals, bi-laterals and nongovernmental organizations engaged in reconstruction and development after the 2010 earthquake have identified an urgent need to create consistency and transparency for land transactions in Haiti and to document the procedures necessary to buy and sell land.  

To address this challenge, Habitat for Humanity International has played a leadership role in creating and sustaining the Haiti Property Law Working Group. Habitat drew on its global advocacy work on land rights and its 28 years of experience in Haiti to bring together nearly 100 representatives of government, donor agencies, the business sector, civil society and NGOs.

Since June 2011, the group has identified bottlenecks and challenges to the effective functioning of the Haitian property rights systems; developed clear goals, objectives and priorities and has completed the first in a series of four land transaction manuals designed to support the understanding, focus and capacity of Haiti to deal with long-standing land issues.

Globally, land tenure is a key priority for Habitat. So often, land tenure is the first step in accessing better housing. In order for safe, decent housing to become a reality everywhere, concerned citizens, policymakers and NGOs must understand the complexities of land issues around the world and work together to solve the challenges.

To learn more, join Habitat’s Twitter party on November 14, at 7 p.m. EST to discover how factors such as land tenure help build and strengthen a community. For details, visit: http://bit.ly/RiKusH

How would your life be different if you had no clearly defined legal right to your place of residence. Think it through in COMMENTS.

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