A land-based innovation in prevalent use in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world – community land trusts – may help protect informal settlement communities from gentrification. So says Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, who delivered the latest installment of the Lincoln Lecture series last month.
By some estimates, nearly a third of all humanity will live in informal settlement by 2050. About 85 percent of all housing worldwide is technically built illegally, according to Justin McGuirk. Rio de Janeiro is home to some 1,000 favela communities, the vast majority situated on public lands. Under new laws, the privatization of federal property is now being allowed, and the floodgates may open for favela communities claiming full land rights.
Over more than a century, Williamson said, community-orchestrated development unregulated by government has been the norm, but this organic urban growth has been more sustainable and resilient than is commonly recognized, with strong social and economic networks that thrive through flexibility and innovation. Many residents have jobs that pay a decent wage, and there has been less stigma associated with living there. “The vast majority of favela residents consider themselves happy and are proud to live there,” Williamson said. Because they are unregulated, the largely self-built areas “have developed each in an entirely unique way, resulting in both highly functional and vibrant communities.” Many favelas have become quite consolidated; by some accounts, favelas as a whole comprise the bulk of Rio de Janeiro's affordable housing.
Over the years, government’s approach to favelas – named after a spiny bush – has been marked by neglect, evictions – some 80,000 people during the run-up to the 2016 Olympic games -- relocation to social housing, and severe police interventions against drugs and crime. Other solutions have included awarding title to “squatters,” or making life better through targeted upgrades of infrastructure, amenities, and transportation; the cable cars of Medellín, Colombia are a leading example. Yet as efforts continue to integrate informal areas into the formal city, the most recent threat is clearly gentrification, Williamson said.
The trick will be to help secure legal rights for favela residents that would allow them to remain in their homes -- without tipping them into the formal and highly speculative real estate market. The community land trust model, where land is collectively owned to keep prices down, offers community control and potentially permanent affordability, Williamson said.
There are more than 250 CLTS in the U.S., and the Lincoln Institute has for many years helped establish a network for best practices. Arguably the first attempt to create a CLT in an informal area is in Fideicomiso de la Tierra along the Martín Peña Canal in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That effort was inspired in part by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury section of Boston.
CLTs allow the preservation of existing assets, and could allow favelas to continue to be self-organizing; and they address the No. 1 concern among residents: the ability to stay, she said. She suggests a pilot program and ultimately legislation allowing their creation, in tandem with efforts such as Brazil’s zones of special social interest. Adoption in Rio’s storied favelas could establish a model for the world.
Williamson was welcomed to the Lincoln Institute by Martim O. Smolka, director of the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean. Her lecture can be viewed in its entirety in this video. Her slideshow presentation is also available here.