Cape Town slum project could boost land rights for the world's urban poor

by Ana Ionova | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 2 March 2018 14:50 GMT

A satellite dish adorns a shack in Khayelitsha township, Cape Town, May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Image Caption and Rights Information
"Empower Shack" scheme will rebuild 72 homes in Khayelitsha township on city-owned land

By Ana Ionova

LONDON, March 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An innovative makeover for shacks in a Cape Town slum could improve access to property rights for the world's poor and allow them to enjoy ownership of the land they live on, the developers behind the project said.

The "Empower Shack" scheme will rebuild 72 homes in Khayelitsha township on city-owned land. The city has said that, at some future date, it will rezone the land and hand those property rights to the families.

With that assurance, residents could invest in their homes without waiting for official rezoning or in fear of eviction, said Alfredo Brillembourg, a partner at Urban-Think Tank, a design collective, and a lead on the project.

"Squatters that have lived there for years, they have de facto rights," Brillembourg told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It may have been owned by the city before, but they've now got a slum there and they have to do something about it."

The project is a collaboration with non-profit Ikhayalami, and aims to address safety and housing inequality. It won an award last month from UN-Habitat, the United Nations' agency in charge of cities.

Although some cities have sold land to slum-dwellers or collectives for redevelopment, that process is often lengthy and leaves residents in limbo for years - while conditions in the slum become more hazardous, experts said.

This less formal approach, however, allows authorities to guarantee property rights to residents long before the land is actually handed over, they said.

The Cape Town project could open doors for similar measures globally, Brillembourg said, enabling slum residents in India, Venezuela and Brazil to get ownership of land they live on.

"What we need is easing of zoning laws in order to accommodate the poor," he said.

Slums are considered illegal in many countries, and residents often live in fear of eviction and harassment.

"Politicians don't want to make them permanent because they feel they will just attract more shacks," said Marie Huchzermeyer, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she specialises on informal settlements.

U.N. agencies have pushed governments to include urban poor in city planning by improving slums - some of which have existed for decades - rather than dispersing people who live there.

Last year, one Indian state said it would give property rights to people in slums, in an "historic" step towards improving living conditions for the poor.

Having even informal security of land rights is "critical" for slum-dwellers, said David Dodman, human settlements director at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

"It doesn't need to be formal, individual, legal documentation," he said. "There just needs to be some sort of process that gives people confidence that they are going to be able to stay where they live." (Reporting by Ana Ionova. Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.