No climate justice without housing justice

Climate justice in cities must align with efforts to tackle urban poverty and inequality so that the impacts of climate change and efforts to reduce emissions do not deepen but instead tackle housing injustices.

Article, 23 June 2022
Better cities are possible: achieving resilient, low-carbon and inclusive urban development
A series of articles looking at ways to achieve resilient, low-carbon and inclusive urban development
Shack housing on the side of a hill.

The informal settlement of Dwarzack in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Photo: Alexandre Apsan Frediani, IIED)

Advancing the right to adequate housing is a key pathway to make urban development more environmentally and socially just. Ongoing debates about housing justice have emphasised that housing should be recognised as a human right in international agendas, as well as in policy commitments by national and local governments.

At the same time, promoting the right to adequate housing can protect and fulfil other human rights in urban areas, such as the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

This is part of a series of articles setting out a vision for urban transformation that responds to the twin crises of climate change and inequality.

The problem

Access to adequate and secure housing for all is critical to ensure urban development is more equitable and sustainable. We know, however, that most housing policies and practices do not address the pervasive and persistent nature of housing discrimination whereby particular groups are systematically excluded from housing opportunities. 

Currently, 1.6 billion people (20% of the world’s population) "live in inadequate, crowded and unsafe housing". Recent studies have shown how housing has become increasingly unaffordable, as housing prices are growing faster than people’s incomes.

Housing injustice intersects with a variety of other challenges including:

Furthermore, current dominant housing policy and practices reproduce social and environmental injustices and lock governments into high-carbon urban development pathways. 

The spread of large-scale subsidised housing programmes through private contractors has resulted in the production of units in poorly located areas. Such provision neither responds to low-income residents’ needs nor advances sustainable urban development. 

This tendency, combined with the growing financialisation of housing, has contributed to the deepening of social and spatial inequalities in cities. 

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the role that housing plays in urban dwellers’ resilience to health and environmental risks. For those living in unsafe and overcrowded housing that is poorly serviced and without access to adequate digital connectivity, staying at home has not been an option. 

There are clear links between overcrowded housing and the transmission of COVID-19. In addition, rising evictions reflect heavy-handed state responses to the pandemic. 

Given the increasingly insecure living conditions as well as the pivotal importance of housing to foster health and wellbeing, equitable and sustainable interventions are urgently needed to advance the right to adequate housing. In other words, advancing housing justice is a key condition to ensure that efforts to achieve climate resilience in cities are more effective and inclusive. 

Housing justice reduces the threat of ‘green gentrification’. It also highlights that the transition towards decarbonised and just urban development must require an equitable redistribution of the associated burdens and responsibilities.

The solution

IIED’s 'Better cities are possible' agenda recognises that respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to adequate housing can be a key disruptor of environmental and social lock-ins. There are three ways which housing policy and practice can move in this direction. 

1. Location matters 

Getting the location right is key to advance housing practices that do not feed into carbon-intensive pathways of urban development: urban sprawl via the eviction of informal settlements and relocation of residents to isolated and poorly serviced high-rise developments at the urban peripheries. 

Grassroots housing movements and federations of the urban poor have pioneered in situ upgrading and community-led housing initiatives that respond to housing needs and boost resilience.

More research is needed to understand how these efforts and enabling policies can integrate climate data and planning, guarantee access to well-located areas in the city and align with long-term sustainability efforts.

2. Small actions can create big change

Housing policy needs to recognise that the main providers of affordable and well located housing opportunities in the global South are dwellers engaging with self-help improvements and small-scale developers. In an extremely insecure and unstable environment, they invest and enable housing opportunities through often informal and incremental practices. 

If housing policies are to have meaningful impact in urban development pathways, they need to start by recognising such actors not as ‘informal’ or ‘outlaws’, but rather as potential partners for equitable and sustainable change. 

Further research is needed to examine how to support these actors and enable partnerships that advance locally led adaptation strategies and increase the capabilities of urban marginalised groups to respond to the impacts of the climate emergency. 

For example, how can we support networks of informal builders and masons to promote resilient building techniques, and affect change in the construction industry at large? How can self-help and local construction practices go beyond adaptation and affect wider and systemic decarbonisation efforts of cities? 

By addressing questions such as these, policy and planning can better support the mushrooming of small-scale housing practice in ways that can head towards a tipping point that redirects urban development pathways.

3. For people and nature, not profit

For housing initiatives to address the needs of present and future generations, it is crucial that safeguards are put in place so that housing is not driven purely by market forces. Housing policy and practice need to advance and promote ways to secure, produce and manage housing in non-speculative ways. 

This can be done through collective land-management and zoning instruments, where the norms that shape land and housing markets are dictated not only by supply and demand, but also by the values of social and environmental justice. 

Examples like these are included in the online global database of community-led housing put together by the CoHabitat network. Nevertheless, more knowledge is needed in this field to investigate the financial, institutional and legal conditions needed to replicate and sustain non-speculative housing, such as community-led initiatives.

Building on our work

IIED has a long history of engaging with housing issues affecting the urban poor in cities of the global South through our Human Settlements research group. Our work and research on housing has been key to the development and implementation of global urban agendas, such as those promoted at the UN conferences on human settlements.

Some of IIED’s recent housing work includes the 'Shelter provision in East African cities' project, which shed light on the power structures shaping the urban poor’s access to housing in Nairobi, Hawassa and Mogadishu. 

IIED was commissioned by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) to produce a global 'Rethinking housing policies report (PDF)' in 2019 that brought to the forefront the key role that local and regional governments play in addressing housing needs. 

Furthermore, in the two special issues of Environment and Urbanization on housing published in 2020, IIED explored the various agendas associated with housing and mechanisms to access adequate housing. The different contributions have addressed issues such as struggles against eviction, incremental and government-led housing production, land disputes and informal land investments, and rental housing dynamics.

IIED is currently leading housing studies in Nairobi, Freetown, Lilongwe and Accra as part of the African Cities Research Consortium. This research aims to shed light on potential entry points to make housing systems in African cities more socially and environmentally just. 

Myth buster: “Technology will solve the global housing crisis in a context of the climate emergency”

Can sustainable technology advances solve the global housing crisis in the context of the climate emergency? In part, yes. 

Technology will make the building sector less polluting and sustainable and this is key for climate mitigation measures. And it will be critical to make these transitions in ways that benefit the urban poor in the global South, who are most exposed to the effects of a changing climate. 

But technological solutions must be accompanied by mechanisms that enhance the security of tenure of those who are most marginalised, that protect land and property markets from speculative and exclusionary dynamics, and that promote adequate access to services and infrastructure, while democratising urban governance. 

On its own, access to renewable and sustainable housing products is not enough to change carbon-intensive and exclusionary urban trajectories. The use of these technologies can do more harm than good, by devolving the burdens of climate adaptation to the poorest while leaving their real needs and urban dynamics unaddressed. 

Technological innovation must be accompanied by and integrated with a process of putting people and diverse urban stakeholders at the centre of the efforts to respond to the global housing crisis.