Almost one-third of the world's urban population lives in slums, making the provision of adequate housing a top priority for city residents as well as for national and local governments in the developing world. On Tuesday, May 22, 2007 the Comparative Urban Studies Project organized a seminar on "Housing for the Urban Poor" that examined slum upgrading efforts as well as the role of slum dwellers as active agents in the process of meeting human settlement challenges.

Rose Molokoane, president of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FED UP), Johannesburg, detailed her organization's work to mobilize the urban poor to gain government attention and action to address their needs. She stressed the importance of recognizing the poor as major actors in efforts to relieve the housing crisis. Molokoane said, "poor people are really ‘fed-up' of being objects and subjects." Instead, they want to be partners in the creation of "cities without slums." She stressed the need for governments to work cooperatively with the poor to collect accurate data that demonstrates the number of city residents who need housing and services. Citing the successes of Shack Dwellers International (SDI) in Mumbai to raise money, organize, and manage housing by the poor themselves, Molokoane emphasized how important it is to organize as a collective. FED UP is an affiliate of SDI, a federation working in 26 countries around the world. She stressed the importance for community groups world-wide to exchange information, experience and knowledge in order to improve their situation and influence policy. Taking lessons from India to South Africa, organizing women around savings has been an effective tool in leveraging open the door to government funding. Women are at the center of communities and are an important source of information that can be used to negotiate for secure land tenure and housing. Some of the most successful housing policies, according to Molokoane, have provided space for people to build their own homes. Many governments around the world build for the poor, and not with the poor. Development efforts geared for the poor ultimately need to be driven by the poor, she concluded.

Diana Mitlin, senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London discussed development assistance and shelter policies and programs for the urban poor. Why are the UN's Millennium Development Goals for slums so modest, she challenged, addressing issues of affordability, insecure tenure and the lack of basic services. Effective policies will require a better understanding of informality as well as the politics of shelter provision, Miltin argued. Putting the problem in context, 35% of the population in Ghana is too poor to qualify for a housing loan. Estimates from Latin America, Asia, and South Africa indicate that one-third of the population has no possibility of accessing mortgage financing which requires formal employment. Loans, government subsidies and slum upgrading efforts often benefit the middle and lower class but do not reach the most vulnerable. Mitlin described how community investment funds have built collectives that engage political systems, create social capital and access to financing for investment in land and services. Shelter offers a way to inclusive citizenship, Mitlin concluded. Solutions found by the poor in the informal sector have resulted in social and spatial exclusion. Yet with regard to programmatic attempts, too little is being done and the unintended consequences of policies have in many cases further contributed to exclusion of the urban poor.

Peter Kimm, chairman of the board of the International Housing Coalition in Washington emphasized advocacy as key to building the political that will generate greater public and private sector investment in housing. Donors must consider the impact of intervening in the housing sector on the following fundamentals: 1) issues of land, title, tenure and rule of law, which are often the most complicated; 2) reliable ways of providing infrastructure that makes land usable; 3) finance, including mortgage and micro-finance, for lower income groups and its lack of relevance for the poorest; and 4) appropriate regulations and subsidies, which every government offers in some way. With these basics in mind, donors must consider the constraints they will target as well as the effects of their actions.

Eduardo Rojas, senior specialist in housing and urban development at the Inter-American Development Bank described the housing crisis in Latin America, much of which can be attributed to poorly planned policies and programs. Poorly targeted subsidies end up in the wrong hands, said Rojas. In addition, underdeveloped private housing finance systems and failed state-owned mortgage banks have worsened Latin America's housing situation. Rojas cited significant progress made in Chile as well as promising housing reform policies implemented in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru targeting subsidies to low-income families. Financial sector reforms have facilitated the expansion of mortgage financing and judiciary reforms have made possible the recovery of collateral. Rojas described the IDB's two-pronged approach to expand housing production by initiating sector-wide reforms and to improve the existing stock of substandard neighborhoods and houses. While urban sprawl and the escalating cost of land remain as challenges, solutions have been found, including zoning and efforts to expand the stock of low-cost residential land under public control; urban rehabilitation programs; and organizing to increase the bargaining power of land purchasers. Rojas also discussed the need for new programs to help the poor build and gain access to better shelter, such as micro-credit programs targeted for home improvements; technical assistance for home expansion; and new construction materials for the development of new homes. Most importantly, public sector responses must be coordinated among different tiers of government to deliver the necessary resources to households at the community level.

Farouk Tebbal, senior urban specialist at Cities Alliance outlined five urban myths related to housing for the urban poor. Myth #1 is that urbanization is negative and should be stopped. Many believe that urbanization is bad for the environment and that it diverts government attention from rural poverty. However, urbanization benefits countries and can help alleviate rural poverty. "Urban-phobia needs to give way to proactive and pro-urban policies," said Tebbal. Myth #2 is that slums are the product of the attitude of poor people who defy the law. As such, many believe that slum dwellers break the law by squatting in the city and that slum upgrading is not the responsibility of governments. In fact slum formation is the reality and visible face of economic and social policy failures and not the deliberate intent of the poor. Tebbal emphasized the need for political will to commit budgetary resources and implement inclusive strategies for the urban poor. Myth #3 is that secure tenure will incite the poor to migrate to the city. Many believe that if slum dwellers are given security of tenure or relocated by the government, then others will follow. Slums develop even in the most adverse conditions. Evictions only make life worse for the urban poor who will go on to create new slums in more difficult urban conditions. If relocation is necessary, negotiated solutions can provide good options. Myth #4 is that making land affordable to the poor conflicts with land markets. Tebbal argued that transparent markets and infrastructure that defines areas for long-term urban growth can be used to make affordable land available in compliance with the land market. Finally, myth #5 is that high rise buildings ease the land burden and are an efficient form of shelter for the poor. However, most slum dwellers make their living using space near their dwelling. High rises will impose different social and economic patterns on the poor. The provision of small plots of land can prove to be as efficient in terms of density and leave room for extensions, he concluded.