Residential commons, doing and living together

Bulletin n°115

May 2022

Villes en développement (ADP)

« AdP - Villes en Développement » is a forum for exchange and reflection on urban development and city management in emerging countries. AdP brings together urban planners, engineers, architects, economists, geographers, sociologists, etc. who work independently or in public services and consultancy firms, and who have an entirely or alternately international career. « AdP - Villes en Développement » is the editor-in-chief of the « Villes en Développement » Bulletin from which this article is taken.

How can the commons approach applied to land be a lever for solving poor housing in the South? This is what Claire Simonneau, a teacher-researcher, and Éric Denis, a research director, have studied as part of a programme 1 led by the Géographie-cités joint research unit. The two urban geographers collaborated with specialists in the study areas.

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Decent housing in the city is a fundamental right that remains inaccessible for a significant proportion of city dwellers in the South. Poor housing is still all too often a majority situation, whether due to the risk of eviction, the precariousness of the housing or the land on which it is built, or the marginality of the inhabitants in terms of access to services and employment.

The price of land makes it impossible to produce decent and affordable housing for low-income families, whether for rent or for home ownership or self-construction. In addition, the rapid rise in the exchange and financial value of urban land is increasing the share of speculative acquisitions, especially in contexts of low financial inclusion and high inflation.

In the context of the rehabilitation of precarious neighbourhoods or the promotion of new housing developments, the pooling of land to produce housing on a local scale is a relevant lever. It helps to maintain a social mix in the city. By neutralising land value, it is possible to prevent exclusion by the market and land speculation, which is increasingly open to transnational capital.

Various solutions for the production of popular housing by pooling land support exist in Africa, Asia and Latin America. From residents’ cooperatives through mutual aid in Uruguay to the Kenyan community land trust (CLT), their comparative study shows that these residential commons are extremely diverse and their results very uneven.

The difficulty of scaling up and sustainability

Very few projects go beyond the experimental scale. The Voi CLT in Kenya, although recognised by UN-Habitat as a best practice, has never been replicated elsewhere in the country. What is more, in Voi itself, what was a success for the first generation to be rehoused is now suffering from dereliction. Community governance structures are weakening and land ownership is dispersed because of the lack of a framework to ensure subsidised, non-specular, intergenerational access. In Uruguay, on the other hand, residents’ cooperatives based on mutual aid are multiplying and enduring, from generation to generation of residents. There are now more than 600 of them, while the first ones are more than 50 years old.

Between these two extremes, we could describe in numerous nuances the diffusion of the initial experiences beyond the first-time buyers, the maintenance as a tool for urban access and the methods of dissolution of the common good. It is therefore possible to identify at least three principles that favour the initial success, the scaling up and the inclusive sustainability of the land commons for popular housing.

1 - Ownership of the model by resident collectives

The support of international cooperation or even national support for the implementation of a model that has proven itself elsewhere, such as the CLT, is not a sufficient condition to guarantee its success locally. This is even less the case for its dissemination beyond an initial experiment. Soil pooling must be ‘appropriate’ locally. For this to happen, it must respond to pre-existing ways of doing things together, whether they are popular, militant or traditional. For the desire to do and live together must be supported by a collective that is sufficiently united to bear the values in the long term. In this sense, the support of pre-existing shared values is fundamental, whether it is a question of powerful and long-standing cooperative and trade union movements, as in Uruguay, of collective forms of organising agricultural work and sharing the use of the land, as in Burkina Faso, or of collective movements for land appropriation, as in Brazil.

2 - Convincing support from public authorities

It is also essential (but not sufficient) that a favourable legislative framework emerges at the national level. It must be able to be assimilated by residents’ collectives and the associations that support them, particularly in setting up a legal structure that protects them. Local authorities also have a crucial role to play in making land available in the heart of the city or in the collective regularisation of the land in the case of the in situ rehabilitation of precarious neighbourhoods.

3 - A regulatory framework that needs to be made sustainable

Many promising projects initiated with enthusiasm by the residents and their associative and institutional support are gradually dismantled. The common good is dissolved by the loose sale of individual possessions over time. This can be called transitional commoning, if dissolution was initially envisaged. But in most cases, nothing has been foreseen and this leads to speculative drift and/or deterioration of the common parts which are no longer managed. Anti-speculation measures can be used to regulate resales and successions in order to preserve the inclusive dimension of these residential common areas. In this case, the collective will control the sale price of the dwellings and will keep the ownership of the land in order to favour the accession of new modest residents.

Limits and perspectives of residential commons

If residential commons represent an inclusive developmental ideal, in practice they can also be an instrument that deprives residents of access to the capital of their housing. In this case, they can be a brake on their economic insertion in environments where only mortgages and the capture of land and property rents through resale allow the mobilisation of substantial financing.

The housing land commons as a solution for the integration of working-class families into the city must therefore be part of a broader movement. It is a question of taking, or resuming, collective responsibility for the costs of common goods, education and health. Without this, real estate cannot free itself from its exchange value and remains a key element in the economic security of families.

Moreover, doing things together is not self-evident in relation to the individual aspirations of city dwellers. This raises the question of imposing a model of communal living on the urban poor when the middle classes retain the right to value their housing capital. In this respect, the transitional commons in the in situ rehabilitation process may constitute an interesting median approach, allowing the implementation of common residential management systems before resales are authorised.

Finally, although in theory they allow for the development of a share of rental housing, residential commonholds nevertheless remain a proprietary model that is not very well suited to taking into account the mobility of its members. In other words, it is a model which favours the installation and anchoring of modest populations in the city as close as possible to their needs, but it cannot do everything.

1 This research was supported by the AFD as part of its « A World in Common » strategy


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