Legality and Stability in Land and Housing Markets

Omar Razzaz, May 1, 1997

Land and housing markets, and any other market for that matter, can be approached as arenas in which persons exchange rights to assets subject to constitutional rules, statutory and common law rules, and administrative rules and procedures. The value of land is often believed to be determined by expectations about what land uses will be legally permitted over time and the return from such uses. However, there is substantial evidence, international as well as U.S.-based, that markets and prices are also shaped by expectations about what is legally prohibited yet is nonetheless achievable through extra-legal or illegal means.

Scholars since Jeremy Bentham have linked markets and their viability to a legal regime of property rights which clearly defines, safeguards and facilitates the transfer of such rights through legal means. How then do we explain illegal or extra-legal property transactions: the buying and selling of stolen goods; subdivision of single-family houses into one-room rentals; and squatter settlements.

In all these contexts, assets are being acquired and used, hence there is property. There are also markets, frequently thriving, to exchange such assets. What is absent from these markets are legally defined rights. Their absence, however, does not prevent these markets from emerging and affecting supply and demand in the legal market. It is crucial, therefore, that such markets be understood, not just as an exotic feature of the developing world, but as alternatives to which actors in the market turn under certain conditions.

What happens if property rights are not clear, are contested or are not well enforced? Policy advisors rarely address this question, not because they fail to see that property regimes are frequently lacking in stability and security, but rather because they see their function as one of putting in place the ideal set of laws, regulations, and administrative and enforcement mechanisms that would guarantee stable expectations, secure rights and efficient markets (see Figure 1).

The only problem is that putting in place such laws and regulations rarely happens in a vacuum. Rather, it happens in a landscape of existing interests, entitlements, conventions and practices. It is the interaction between these new interventions and existing norms and practices that determines who is able to do what with which assets in society. Three examples illustrate my point.

Farm Restructuring in Eastern Europe

Until the late 1980s, farmland in Eastern Europe was organized within state farms, collective farms, or, in some cases, small private farms owned by farmers who had the right to cultivate but not sell or develop the land. The absence of competitive agricultural and land markets prevented many necessary adjustments from taking place: labor mobility, adjustment in farm sizes, incentives to invest or increase labor productivity, and moving land to better uses.

Some policy advisers have argued that unless the New Independent States establish family-based farms with legally, well-defined and well-protected private property rights that can be transferred easily, little can be done to promote necessary adjustments. How do farmers adjust to the new realities of the transition while constitutions are amended, laws are promulgated, cadasters are compiled and land registers are established?

The answer lies in short-term informal leasing, which is the most common land transaction in Eastern Europe for several reasons. First, informal leases occur mostly between neighboring farmers who know each other and the quality of the land being traded. Second, most leases are short-term, allowing farmers to reduce the uncertainty associated with long-term commitments in inflationary and politically unstable environments. Finally, short-term leases allow farmers to adjust their farming units, which speeds up the economic restructuring of the farming sector. Farmers conduct these short-term transactions not because they are legally permitted but because of norms, conventions and local networks.

Squatter Housing in Developing Countries

Conventional wisdom on squatter housing in developing countries has been that lack of tenure security is responsible for the poor quality of housing in these settlements. Granting legal titles, the argument goes, would provide the necessary security and unleash household savings into investment in better housing. Recent empirical work, however, suggests that legal title is neither necessary nor sufficient for tenure security to exist.

Furthermore, absence of land title does not prevent squatters from renting or selling their houses. Indeed, except when an eminent threat of eviction exists, informal markets evolve to reduce the uncertainty associated with illegal transactions. Rules and arrangements evolve over time to provide information about who owns what, enforce contracts and resolve property disputes. For example, neighborhood associations in Brazilian favelas maintain an informal register of residents and issue documents as proof of ownership. Middlemen and land subdividers in Jordan play a crucial role in finding buyers and even financing them. These roles substitute for, duplicate or manipulate the legal system that functions in formal markets.

Illegal Housing Conversions in the U.S.

A recent series of articles in the New York Times documents the surge of illegal apartments throughout the City of New York in response to continuing poverty and the dwindling supply of affordable housing. In Queens, for example, one- and two-family units are being converted into multiple apartments, turning even attics and basements into makeshift flats.

These apartments are not registered with the city and are, therefore, not regulated. Firefighters estimate that as many as 80 percent of the homes in Queens are illegally subdivided. Needless to say, landlords, tenants, developers, brokers and contractors operate in these markets. They rely on evading, manipulating, and breaking laws and regulations to allow these markets to function. By necessity, they also have to rely on extra-legal means to enforce some of their contractual arrangements or resolve their disputes.

An Alternative Model

To understand how land markets operate, we need a “lens” that captures a wider array of rules and market arrangements. We need to examine not only what constitutional, statutory and common laws permit, but also what social norms and conventions permit. We need to go beyond property rights to include the range of property interests that are not necessarily based in law. We also need to go beyond the formal means of contracting and enforcement to include informal means based on ethnic, territorial and associational networks. This approach amounts to an alternative framework (see Figure 2) for understanding market actors’ expectations about the ability to use, develop, transfer and derive income from land.

The wider lens approach to market institutions also allows us to shift emphasis from institutional forms to institutional substance. The important question is not whether a particular institution (such as a land registry) exists, but rather how information about land and housing markets is provided, how risk is reduced, and how enforcement is made effective.

Omar Razzaz is Ford International Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He previously worked at the World Bank on property rights under transition in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


Bruni, Frank, with Deborah Sontag. “Behind a Suburban Facade in Queens, A Teeming, Angry Arithmetic,” The New York Times, October 8, 1996, p. A1.

Razzaz, Omar. “Contestation and Mutual Adjustment: The Process of Controlling Land in Yajouz, Jordan,” Law and Society Review 28, no. 1. 1994.

“Examining Property Rights and Investment in Informal Settlements: The Case of Jordan,” Land Economics, November 1993.

World Bank, “Regional Study: Farm Restructuring and Land Tenure in Reforming Socialist Economies: A Comparative Analysis of Eastern and Central Europe,” 1994. Prepared by Euroconsult/Center for World Food Studies, Washington, DC.