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Chapter 4.1 Sectoral responses

Housing, land and property rights


Engaging in housing, land and property (HLP) rights is vital for effective post-disaster recovery efforts and providing assistance to people caught up in long-term displacement situations. HLP can be a complex area to work in and act upon in urban areas (not least given the large number of forms of tenure arrangements) – but failure to engage can lead to wasted aid investments, increase affected people’s vulnerability and generate conflict over contested land.

This section+This section benefited in particular from inputs by Leah Campbell of ALNAP. defines HLP and identifies some of the challenges that complex HLP can bring to urban humanitarian response. It identifies challenges in HLP programming and discusses addressing HLP issues in shelter programmes.

HLP rights are a vital part of shelter and settlements programming, and so this section links closely to Section 4.2 on shelter and settlements. It also links closely to protection (HLP falls within the Global Protection Cluster, and is further discussed in Section 4.7), area-based approaches (Section 3.2), WASH (for example in accessing services; see Section 4.4), conflict (Section 1.2.1) and violence (Section 1.2.2).

4.1.1 Defining HLP

HLP rights are about ‘having a home, free from the fear of forced eviction; a place that offers shelter, safety, and the ability to secure a livelihood. HLP rights are referenced and defined in several international human rights instruments, and organisations providing protection and assistance to persons affected by crisis should respect the human rights, including HLP rights, of affected persons at all times, and advocate for their promotion and protection to the fullest extent’.+NRC, Security of Tenure in Urban Areas: Guidance Note for Humanitarian Practitioners (London: IIED, 2017 (

Key to HLP is tenure, defined by the Global Shelter Cluster as ‘the relationship among people, as groups or individuals, with respect to housing and land, established through statutory law or customary, informal or religious arrangements’.+Global Shelter Cluster, Land Rights and Shelter: The Due Diligence Standard, 2013 (, cited in NRC, Security of Tenure in Urban Areas. Within this are many forms of urban tenure arrangements, including private ownership, leasehold, cooperative housing, rental accommodation (on both formal and informal land) and living in informal settlements. Land ownership types include statutory, customary, religious or hybrid arrangements (see Table 4.1 for examples).

Table 4.1 Gradation of tenure options

Form of tenure Meaning Level of rights
Street/pavement dweller Squatter or informal settler No rights (no protection against forced eviction)
Squatter tenant (partial possession) Squatter or informal settler renting a plot/land with some degree of protection (e.g. may be administrative, such as access to utilities) or
Squatter ‘owner’ Squatter or informal settler with some degree of protection (e.g. may be administrative, such as access to utilities). Limited rights against eviction if there is a temporary form of protection
Tenant in unauthorised subdivision Tenant without legal protection with regard to zoning or land use No rights (no protection against forced eviction) if the site is unsuitable for development
Owner in unauthorised subdivision Owner without legal protection with regard to zoning or land use or Limited rights against eviction if the site is eligible for upgrading
Legal owner in unauthorised construction Owner with legal protection with regard to zoning or land use, but without construction permit Limited rights to use
Tenant with contract Tenant with legal protection and temporary contract (may be formal or informal contract), including approved zoning and construction  Limited rights to use
Leaseholder with contract Long-term leaseholder with renewable and registered contract, including approved zoning and construction Access to full set of rights
Freeholder Legal owner, including approved zoning and construction  Access to full set of rights
Source: A. Durand-Lasserve and H. Selod, ‘Urban Land Markets: Improving Land Management for Successful Urbanization’ in S. V. Lall et al. (eds), The Formalization of Urban Land Tenure in Developing Countries (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009) (

An important element is the distinction between tenure that is de jure (how things should happen according to the law) and de facto (how they happen in reality). This is particularly important in relation to informal settlements (which by law should not be there, but which account for the tenure arrangements of hundreds of millions of people).

4.1.2 HLP in urban areas

HLP is particularly complex in urban areas, for a number of reasons. Cities have a wide range of different living arrangements, from single-family occupancy to multiple occupancy, such as in a high-rise tenement. Multi-occupancy buildings may comprise both owners and renters. In some instances people may share rooms in shifts. People who rent property may do so under different forms of agreement with the landlord (see Table 4.1).

Another complexity relates to informal settlements, i.e. people living on land with precarious ownership arrangements who may have no formal documentation of ownership. Research by IDMC+4 B. McCallin and I. Scherer, Urban Informal Settlers Displaced by Disasters: Challenges to Housing Responses (Geneva: IDMC, 2015) ( notes the following points about HLP rights and urban informal settlements:

  • ‘Urban informal settlers are particularly vulnerable to disasters and represent a significant proportion of those displaced
  • ‘Housing assistance tends to be based on ownership criteria rather than needs, which excludes many urban informal settlers who are mostly tenants or squatters
  • ‘The complex and unclear tenure situation in informal settlements, combined with weak urban governance, hinders the provision of housing assistance. As a result, a disproportionate amount of international resources are dedicated to temporary shelter rather than long-term interventions
  • ‘Housing responses for urban informal settlers displaced by disasters require consistency and continuity between humanitarian and development assistance to address beneficiaries’ immediate needs as well as their underlying vulnerability to future disaster and displacement.’

The IFRC notes, following the Pisco earthquake in Peru in 2007, that 78% of landowners received grants for reconstruction, while tenants and informal settlers were generally excluded.+IFRC, World Disasters Report 2010: Focus on Urban Risk (Geneva: IFRC, 2010) (

In displacement situations, refugees and IDPs are at high risk of tenure insecurity, given that many will have limited choices about where to live, and will often have little option but to live in informal settlements or in places with little or no formal rental agreements. Research by NRC+NRC, Life Can Change: Securing Housing, Land and Property Rights for Displaced Women (Oslo: NRC, 2012) ( on women’s HLP rights in six countries (Afghanistan, Ecuador, Lebanon, Liberia, Palestine and South Sudan) found that the rights of women ‘are often neglected in humanitarian response’. HLP vulnerability is highly gendered. According to UN-Habitat, ‘less than 2% of women’s land and property rights are registered worldwide’.+‘Land and Property: UN-Habitat in Disaster and Conflict Contexts’, undated ( listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=3192). NRC’s research found that inheritance and marital property laws can protect women’s HLP, that ‘there is a need to recognise the significance of religious and customary structures’ and that existing discrimination is often worsened during displacement. UN-Habitat explains that ‘After disaster or conflict, women-headed households – whose land rights are secured through male relatives – may become vulnerable to a loss of land and access to livelihoods’.+Ibid.

See NRC, Life Can Change: Securing Housing, Land and Property Rights for Displaced Women (Oslo: NRC, 2012) (

Disputes over land rights can fuel conflict and discrimination. Regarding IDPs in Mogadishu, IDMC notes that ‘land and property disputes are at the heart of the urban conflict’.+IDMC, City of Flight: New and Secondary Displacements in Mogadishu, Somalia (Geneva: IDMC, 2018) (, p. 7. The report notes that ‘Common housing, land and property (HLP) challenges include the unlawful appropriation and attribution of public land titles by government officials and private owners, inheritance disputes and claims over land and property by returning IDPs, refugees and migrants’.+Ibid. The report also notes that ‘An estimated 80 per cent of court cases heard in Mogadishu’s supreme court are related to land’.+Ibid., p. 8. Crises can also be an opportunistic moment for illegal or unjust land acquisition, which can sometimes include overt violence and carefully planned legislative measures.+D. Brown et al., Urban Crises and Humanitarian Responses: A Literature Review (London: UCL, 2015) (

Finally, crises can also lead to a loss of documentation such as personal identification. One report on providing access to identification for refugees in Jordan states that ‘In humanitarian crises, the absence of identity documents can create a multitude of administrative dead ends for refugees: reducing their ability to register with authorities and/or humanitarian organisations, limiting their freedom of movement, preventing them from accessing formal employment or education, and making it difficult or impossible to access a wide range of humanitarian services’.+M. Wilson and J. Casswell, Recognising Urban Refugees in Jordan: Opportunities for Mobile-enabled Identity Solutions (London: GSMA, 2018) ( In Haiti, many humanitarian organisations were ill-equipped to deal with the complications of issuing identification to displaced earthquake survivors.+Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in Haiti following the 12 January 2010 Earthquake: Achievements, Challenges and Lessons to be Learned, IASC, 2010 (

Records relating to land ownership, housing and property may also have been lost or destroyed. ‘In post-disaster situations, particularly following conflict, legal frameworks can collapse altogether, making the task of verifying the legal status of land and property ownership especially difficult, as was the case in Kosovo.’+Brown et al., Urban Crises and Humanitarian Responses. Combined with damage to their residence, the absence of HLP documentation may prevent displaced people from returning to their place of origin.

For further discussion of these issues, see A. de Waal, ‘Why Humanitarian Organizations Need to Tackle Land Issues’, in S. Pantuliano (ed.), Uncharted Territory: Land, Conflict and Humanitarian Action (Rugby: Practical Action, 2009) ( files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/5559.pdf).

See also M. Lombard, Land Tenure and Urban Conflict: A Review of the Literature, Global Urban Research Centre Working Paper 8 (Manchester: Manchester University, 2012) (

4.1.3 Challenges in HLP programming

HLP challenges cannot usually be addressed by short-term responses.+16 This section draws in particular on NRC, Security of Tenure in Urban Areas. However, short- term actions can make a lasting impact on HLP for affected populations. Key challenges include the following:

Ignoring HLP issues can do harm

There are a number of ways in which humanitarian responses can affect HLP rights. For example, assistance to repair homes or resume livelihoods activities can cause tensions if there are competing rights and claims.+Global Protection Cluster, Emergency Response to Housing Land and Property Issues in Syria, 2013 ( Use of land for humanitarian activities (such as the provision of services in temporary camps, use of space to store stock and the construction of critical infrastructure) can have ‘unintended and negative impacts for the population such as forced evictions and forced relocation, notably for unregistered tenants and families living in informal settlements’.+Ibid. See also S. Levine, S. Bailey and B. Boyer, Avoiding Reality: Land, Institutions and Humanitarian Action in Post-earthquake Haiti (London: ODI, 2012) (

Post-disaster recovery efforts that ignore tenure can also have negative consequences, including agencies being sued by absentee landowners when they discover housing has been built on their land without their consent. Failure to consider tenure can also lead to forced evictions of people who have been assisted. In addition, ‘The threat of unexploded ordnance in urban and peri-urban areas creates risks for HLP rights. Ordnance clearance and release of land, houses and properties may be used to legitimize secondary occupation or exacerbate pre-crisis disputes’.[footnote]Global Protection Cluster, Emergency Response to Housing Land and Property Issues in Syria. See Section 4.3 on debris and waste management.

HLP issues can be long-term, systemic problems

After a sudden-onset or displacement crisis, urban residents may be rendered homeless, ending up in spontaneous camps (set up by people themselves) or planned camps (set up by agencies). People may live for months or years (for example in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake in Haiti) with no formal tenure arrangements, and be subject to removal at any time.

People displaced into cities often find themselves living among poorer residents who them-selves face HLP challenges, ranging from exploitative/conflictual relationships with landlords to insecure land tenure. In Tripoli in Lebanon, some of the most vulnerable settlements are considered illegal by municipal authorities.

For more on HLP issues and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, see UN-Habitat and UNHCR, Housing, Land and Property Issues of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon from Homs City, 2018 (

The degree of tenure can be an indicator of vulnerability

Wider vulnerability and the level of tenure are often linked: those with greater insecurity – such as IDPs, refugees and poorer urban dwellers – are almost always more vulnerable.+NRC, Technical Guidelines for Identifying and Addressing HLP Issues in Informal Settlements/Camps and Collective Centres in Northern Syria (Oslo: NRC, 2017) ( Table 4.1 identifies different tenure categories and associated rights. The first six of the nine types of tenure identified relate to the informal sector.

For further discussion on land tenure types and their relationship to internal displacement, see J. Kiggundu, Why Land Tenure Matters for IDPs: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington DC: Brookings, 2008) (

See also G Payne et al., Land Tenure in Urban Environments, USAID Issue Brief, (Washington DC: USAID, 2014) (

For an example of an initiative to address land rights and informality in Freetown, Sierra Leone, see Development Action Group, Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre Pro-poor Land Rights and Informality (Freetown: SLURC, 2018) (

Undertake due diligence to ensure that activities are rooted in a knowledge of legal conditions. Due diligence is the cornerstone of HLP rights. The aim is that those engaging in HLP have as clear an understanding as possible of the operating context concerning land and tenure. This includes understanding land rights, working to avoid the future threat that affected people may be forcibly evicted from the arrangements planned and preventing the risk of igniting conflict around construction activities. The example in Box 4.1 discusses the steps for enacting due diligence in camps in northern Syria.

Box 4.1 Due diligence requirements in camp settings, northern Syria

In northern Syria, NRC produced guidance for working in informal settlements and collective centres, emphasising that ‘Whether they are working in new or existing informal settlements/camps or collective centres, humanitarian actors have a duty to establish who the owner of the land/property on/in which their intervention will be conducted is and to secure their agreement before commencing activities’.

Due diligence requirements include:

• Conduct a stakeholder analysis, which should be updated on a regular basis, to gain and maintain an understanding of stakeholders’ roles in managing and influencing HLP issues.

• Ensure that you are dealing with the real owner of the land/property prior to intervention. There may be more than one owner, in which case humanitarian actors need to ensure they are dealing with all.

• Beware fraudulent claims, i.e. people claiming land they do not own for recompense.

• Use of Collective Centres – Collective Centres include public and private buildings that are used to offer temporary shelter to IDPs. At some stage the community is likely to want to use the building for its originally intended purpose. It is always important, therefore, to consider how long the collective centre will be available before planning interventions.

• Lease/Rental Agreement put in place – there should be a written agreement between the owner of the land/property and the party who is leasing it.

Source: Technical Guidelines for Identifying and Addressing HLP Issues in Informal Settlements/Camps and Collective Centres, May 2017 (

For more information on due diligence, see Global Shelter Cluster, Land Rights and Shelter: The Due Diligence Standard, 2013 (

Engage with reality

There is often a gap between the reality of what actually happens and the laws that dictate what should happen (referred to above as de jure and de facto). Complex HLP arrangements also mean that not everything that would be ideal will be possible. In the past, efforts may have ‘pushed for certain unworkable solutions, such as mass resettlement, rental ceilings and moratoriums on evictions, rather than accepting that such solutions were unrealistic’.+Levine et al., Avoiding Reality. The example from Haiti in Box 4.2 illustrates some of the difficulties encountered in complex situations.

Box 4.2 Addressing land tenure in Port-au-Prince

After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, many humanitarian organisations struggled with complex land tenure arrangements in Port-au-Prince. The scale of the crisis put pressure on organisations that had never had to address the complexity of land tenure in this way before. When organisations began to clear rubble and debris, this created conflict with some residents who felt that the debris was the only thing they had to identify their land. In this tense environment, it was unclear whether it was possible to address land issues at all. In the Katye project, implementing organisations PCI (formerly Project Concern International) and CHF International sought to rebuild the Ravine Pintade neighbourhood. They engaged extensively with community members before removing debris, and used a community consensus process to verify land rights. This allowed debris removal and emergency shelter activities to go ahead, and paved the way for further community participation in planning the neighbourhood’s reconstruction.

Source: Campbell, Barrio Mio and Katye.

For more on land issues after the 2010 Haiti earthquake see S. Levine et al., Avoiding Reality: Land, Institutions and Humanitarian Action in Post-earthquake Haiti (London: ODI, 2012) (

4.1.4 Addressing HLP issues in shelter programmes

As the above example from Haiti illustrates, shelter and settlement programmes in post- disaster reconstruction need to fully engage with HLP issues. In displacement situations (i.e. involving IDPs, refugees and people displaced by disasters and violence) this can include working with existing neighbourhoods to ensure that new arrivals are sufficiently accepted, and investing in local neighbourhoods, including infrastructure and services, so that incoming and host populations equally benefit. Concerning rental situations, firming up rental agreements and providing support for resolving disputes is a key activity. Here it may be beneficial to place rental agreements in the names of both women and men in a household in contexts where women may be especially vulnerable.+NRC, Security of Tenure in Urban Areas.

Box 4.3 Community rental agreements in Lebanon

‘While implementing a neighbourhood approach project in several neighbourhoods in Lebanon, Care International provided infrastructure upgrades for vulnerable Syrian and Lebanese households (a mixture of renters and owners). Where the household was renting, an agreement was signed by the renter, landlord and a representative from a community committee which gave consent for the works to be implemented, and promised the tenant would not be evicted or face a rental increase for a given period of time. While the rental agreements would not be enforceable by law, the involvement of a community committee helped to ensure these agreements were upheld. Monitoring has shown that a high percentage of tenants who received assistance in this project are still living in the upgraded home and had not been evicted or had their rent increased, even 1–2 years after the agreement had expired’.

Source: Quoted from N. Karroum, with Y. Bitar, L. Halabi and N. Hassan, SOHS 2018 Case Study: Lebanon (London: ALNAP, 2019) (

Provide support to prevent unlawful evictions

Forced eviction is a humanitarian concern in displacement situations as well as in post- disaster contexts (failure to engage with the threat of evictions undoes recovery and support efforts and increases protection risks). NRC’s advice is to undertake assessments in eviction situations to differentiate between forced evacuations and lawful evictions. In the former there are grounds to provide legal support. Catholic Relief Services (CRS)’s experience in the response to Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban city in 2013 highlighted the need to enable safe tenure conditions by facilitating notarisation or legalisation of rental or land usage contracts, and to coordinate with local authorities on referral pathways for legal support to tenants. The example in Box 4.4 summarises research concerning evictions and the support provided by agencies.

Box 4.4 Evictions in Lebanon

‘A study of UN-Habitat and UNHCR in 2014 in Lebanon indicated how most eviction cases are due to refugees’ inability to pay their agreed rental fees. Other reasons for eviction were related to security concerns; either local tensions or proximity to an Army position. It was found that eviction often takes place outside of a legal framework and in violation of both international and Lebanese national laws. Moreover, refugees often do not have access to courts to address objections.

‘Refugees often resort to social networks. Mediation and legal advice offered by international NGOs are effective means in addressing HLP protection concerns. Although taking a rights-based approach should be the main focus, it may be complemented by market-based incentives to effectively ensure refugees’ HLP protection. For example, state private land and awkaf (religious endowment land) can offer formal opportunities to improve regulation of landlord tenant relations’.

Source: Quoted from UN-Habitat and UNHCR, HLP Issues in Lebanon: Implications of the Syrian Refugee Crisis (Beirut: UNHCR, 2014)(

Provide legal support to access documentation

Humanitarian organisations can support crises-affected people to reclaim their HLP rights by facilitating access to legal support to replace lost identification and documentation. In Iraq, one individual who had been denied food rations because she did not have identification was given access to rations following the intervention of a lawyer provided by IRC and UNHCR.+J. St. Thomas King and D. Ardis, ‘Identity Crisis? Documentation for the Displaced in Iraq’, Humanitarian Exchange 65, November 2015 ( Identity needs will vary by person – for example, some individuals will find it particularly difficult to obtain legal recognition, and may not want digital records of their identity, such as people fleeing persecution.+Wilson and Casswell, Recognising Urban Refugees in Jordan.

Monitor and evaluate tenure

This is often overlooked, but is essential if understandings of tenure are to be improved, both within active programmes and also for longer-term activities in other crises. As noted above, monitoring and evaluation should be undertaken within multi-sectoral, holistic programme approaches, such as area-based approaches (discussed in Section 3.2). Monitoring and evaluation is discussed in Section 3.10.

Use advocacy measures to improve tenure

Advocacy concerns improving the operating environment in which agencies enact programmes. Activities and outcomes of successful advocacy can include liaising with city authorities to ensure that displaced people have fair access to resources, where disputes can be resolved and where refugees’ access to formal employment can be secured. Advocacy approaches range from informally engaging decision-makers to formal positions and statements (these may be more successful when agencies are aligned). Advocacy can however be risky depending on the nature of governance in a particular setting, and the freedom civil society enjoys to criticise power-holders.

After Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a number of organisations advocated to the government against the imposition of a ‘no build zone’. One national NGO, Urban Poor Associates, supported by Christian Aid, organised 200,000 families in a campaign against the policy, resulting in a government agreement to cease evictions until permanent and decent housing was available, and securing the right to build transitional shelters.+V. Dubuisson and A. T. Escandor, ‘After Haiyan: Life on Hold in the “No Build Zone”’, Christian Aid Global, undated (

In summary, HLP rights cannot be overlooked in humanitarian action in urban settings. In post-disaster recovery, decisions on location that ignore HLP can lead to wasted investments, while in protracted crises the vulnerability of affected households may be heightened by uncertainty around where they live. Failure to address tenure adequately can lead to conflict and violence. Effective HLP engagement therefore involves understanding the context, identifying barriers, engaging with relevant actors (landlords, the private sector, municipal authorities and affected people) and, perhaps above all, given the subject’s complexity, deciding on what can realistically be achieved over what timeframe.

Useful resources

As with other sectors discussed in this section, HLP is a wide-ranging and cross- sectoral topic. For further guidance, see the Global Protection Cluster, ‘HLP Essential Guidance by Themes’ (

Global Shelter Cluster, ‘Housing Land and Property’ (

M. Wyckoff, Securing Tenure in Shelter Operations: Guidance for Humanitarian Response (Oslo: NRC, 2016) (

IFRC, Rapid Tenure Assessment Guidelines for Post-disaster Response Planning: Pilot Version (Geneva: IFRC, 2015) (

K. Abhas et al., Safer Homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing after Natural Disasters (Washington DC: World Bank, 2010) (

NRC and IRC, The Importance of Addressing Housing, Land, and Property (HLP): Challenges in Humanitarian Response (