H3 Policy Brief: Housing at the centre of Habitat III

By Frances Thompson

Back in October 2016, I was given the opportunity to work as a Policy Analyst for the University of Sheffield at the UN Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. This policy brief covers the broad debate on housing markets and (de)regulation, while you can turn to Rowan Riley from our team for insights into the (perhaps more exciting!) grassroots and community housing activisms present at the conference, which include examples from the UK.


The third Habitat conference in 60 years aimed to put housing back at the centre of international dialogue on sustainable urban development, reacting to concerns that housing had lost importance on the development agenda. While the Millennium Development Goals made no reference to shelter or housing, even the new Sustainable Development Goals devised in 2015 make only a vague call for settlements to be ‘inclusive’. In early drafts of the New Urban Agenda, stakeholders from the housing sector were alarmed at the lack of commitments to adequate housing contained in the document. Housing professionals expressed dismay that this central element of urban life – and location for contestation over urban space – had been essentially missed off the agenda. That is why there is such urgency behind the UN’s call for housing to be recognised as a human right, fundamental to the ‘right to the city’, and to be seen as a key development principle: the other aims of the New Urban Agenda could not be realised without cities housing their citizens adequately.

Habitat II, in 1996, had a strong focus on slums and informal settlements; this time around however, development professionals demanded that global housing markets be considered as part of the Habitat agenda, given the role of the housing financial machine in the global recession. This shift to pathologise the housing systems of the Global North comes with the recognition that Habitat’s development agenda focusses on the urban problems of poorer, often postcolonial, cities and countries without attending to inequalities within more prosperous real estate markets. Habitat III’s willingness to address financialised housing systems, gentrification, privatisation and securitization of housing was indeed a notable strength of the conference and brought in some professional expertise from outside the development community to inform a more diverse debate.

Ultimately, Habitat III was a conference where a hugely diverse array of housing issues was voiced. In response to the shift towards examining housing in the Global North, it was admitted by UN officials, government ministers, and city mayors from across the world that there is a crisis in global housing policy frameworks whereby markets are failing to provide adequate homes for all. That the conference raised these fundamental concerns for the development agenda is commendable, but clear implementation strategies for housing policies and activisms at the state-led scale were barely present.


The key mechanism for the implementation of Habitat III’s development agenda was the New Urban Agenda, a 23-page document which was formed over two years of preparatory meetings and committed to at the conference. The New Urban Agenda contains three key points relating to housing, although many of the other clauses refer indirectly to a need for adequate housing, or present housing as an integrated issue with other challenges such as gender equality. The three main clauses of the New Urban Agenda on housing are summarised below:

#31: commits to promoting housing policies at all scales of governance that support the universal right to adequate housing. It promotes enabling participation in the planning and implementation of such policies.

#33: commits to a variety of housing options, not just home ownership, which are affordable and accessible for all. It does so with a view to preventing segregation.

#46: commits to promoting the role of affordable and sustainable housing in economic development and recognising that the housing sector contributes to economic productivity in cities: “housing enhances capital formation” (Clause 46, page 7)

Habitat III included a large number of side events related to the provision of social housing, community-led housing schemes and land trusts. Three central events were run by the UN: the Housing Special Session, Housing Stakeholder Roundtable and the Housing Policy Dialogue. What follows will provide an account of the UN’s approach to housing policy as discussed at the conference. Overall, the argument is made that while there was a commendable call for the better use of urban land and a strong argument for the moral and practical necessities of adequate housing, it remains unclear how such ideas would be implemented on a large scale, or, crucially, how the housing finance sector should be drawn into the agenda. While Habitat III saw commentators call for a shift from the belief that property is a commodity, it failed to draw real estate practitioners into the debate and remained a someone rhetorical outcry.


This policy brief is based on my own observations at the conference, as well as literature from the policy unit on housing and from the UN regarding housing in the New Urban Agenda.

At the conference I attended each of the UN-led panels on housing, as well as numerous side events and networking events concerning affordability of housing, land rights, community-led projects and inclusivity. I approached the conference with a central question in mind: simply ‘how do conference-goers imagine the New Urban Agenda’s goals for housing being achieved?’. In answering this question I also considered what and who was missing from the conference in the discussions about implementation, and I believe this was where the most interesting insights were to be found.


At Habitat III, one message was clear: that housing does not stand alone as an urban issue. Housing was repeatedly linked back to access to the city and the “right to the city” for all, to the need for adequate transportation and services alongside housing provision, and to the inclusive society that progressive housing policies can foster. Housing was not only back on the agenda, but it was integrated within other discussion on equity, exclusion and segregation, and wider debates on who has a legitimate claim to space within cities.

The agenda also states that all housing must be “adequate”. Adequate housing is defined as more than just bricks and mortar making up a dwelling: it must have security of tenure, be affordable, be connected to services and infrastructure, habitable, located within a framework of employment opportunities and social facilities, and be compatible with cultural identity.

In terms of rhetoric, Habitat III revolved around two ideas. First, the New Urban Agenda pushes for housing to be ‘at the centre’, both physically – housing being necessary within cities and with connections to services and jobs – and as part of a more holistic framework of urban governance for sustainable development. Secondly, stakeholders – headed up by the UN’s passionate special rapporteur on housing Leilani Farha – consistently argued that housing is a human right and demanded a rights-based approach to provision. Habitat III called on governments to adopt housing policies that empower citizens to claim a right to adequate housing from whoever provides their shelter. For example, rather than penalising those living in informal settlements or homeless, the New Urban Agenda calls on governments to recognise these problems as human rights cases and enable people to access the right to an adequate home through progressive policies.

However, it was pointed out by some high-level commentators at the conference that the right to adequate housing is not a new concept; the New Urban Agenda only reaffirms that same push for a rights-based approach to housing as was laid out at Habitat II in 1996. However, this time around, there was perhaps a more nuanced explanation of the causes of the lack of adequate housing. Rather than focussing simply on population growth (indeed Habitat I has a fascinating history with its roots in 1970s fears of overpopulation), Habitat III identified another agent of housing ills: the pressure on urban land in a system of largely unregulated land and property speculation. In turn, this intense speculation was linked to precarious land rights of communities in city centres or on newly developed urban land. These discussions were uncomfortable close to home as in the UK we see communities living on prime land such as those from the Heygate Estate in Southwark being moved out of the borough to make way for new private development. As such, many high-level speakers called for a radical departure from the way we currently value land in city centres. How? That trickier question was largely not addressed at the main events of the conference.

Habitat III employed a consistent narrative of housing as a human right which requires a ‘paradigm shift’ to a rights-based approach to housing provision. However, it was not clear exactly what this translated into in terms of practical implementation of housing policy. Although the need for more social housing and state housing schemes was highlighted, speakers also called for a shift from the belief that property is a commodity. Yet discussions on property taxation, real estate regulation and land value capture were limited to side events. This seemed odd, given that, provocatively, ‘preventing land speculation’ features in the second key principle of the New Urban Agenda (Clause 14(b), page 3) as well as a commitment to “promote […] adequate and enforceable regulations in the housing sector, including […] preventing speculation” (Clause 111, page 15).

Indeed, the conference failed to draw real estate professionals into the dialogue at all, and one of the most frequent criticisms of Habitat III’s discussion on housing was that the debate on implementation of the New Urban Agenda was not sufficiently linked to housing finance systems. Notably, on the first day of the conference a leaflet was circulated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants which claimed “we are still missing any systematic debate on the role of global financial markets”, seen as outrageous in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crash. Speakers alluded to property investors causing significant social problems but neither called them out explicitly as illegitimate actors in cities nor seriously discussed how such markets could be regulated through the proposed human rights framework for housing.

Part of the problem is, of course, that housing markets are extremely entrenched global financial systems in the 21st century and as such a discussion about “housing as a human right” is a discussion about financial markets. Furthermore, speakers Don Chen of the Ford Foundation and Joyati Das of World Vision International summed up Habitat III’s ambitious approach to housing policy when they both commented that the New Urban Agenda’s implementation would require a fundamental rewriting of the social contract between landowners and the state. If we wish to reinstate human rights to adequate housing, we also have to examine our property rights, the social system where we agree who gets to use space and what obligations they have. Changing this contract will potentially require us to change land use, building codes, market regulations and taxation frameworks. This is a big ask from Habitat III, and one that wasn’t adequately addressed in the major sessions on housing.

The strongest hints at implementation through market regulation were security of tenure (thankfully recognised as a key issue in housing policy) and land value capture as a means of reclaiming the profit made from public assets. These were both addressed more fully in fringe events than at any high-level debate, although the sessions were packed out nonetheless. However, while land value tax is seen as a salient issue in academic circles, those advocating it at Habitat were a wacky group of libertarians who justified their position on taxation through a zealous account of land as our birth right from god – the question-time at the end of the session was unfortunately cut short due to the appearance of a preacher who effectively filibustered the event to its conclusion. These were by no means the strangest people I met at the conference, but it was frustrating to catch glimpses of discussions about implementation only as the very last moment when momentum had been lost in most debates.


Overall, the conference was remarkable in that it called for some fundamental and radical changes to our property markets, although with very little to say on how such changes could be achieved in practice. In general I believe there was a degree of self-awareness about this tension between rhetoric and implementation from the speakers who took part in the housing sessions; professionals recognised that writing the Agenda was an achievement but that the momentum it fostered would be hard to sustain into the more difficult questions of how to influence change. Part of the problem appeared to be that, whereas the New Urban Agenda is a document (though non-binding) specifically signed by states, the conference in Quito addressed different levels of government, professionals and communities. Of course, a key means of implementation is lobbying from just these groups, using the New Urban Agenda as a rallying cry. But without addressing what exactly governments can do, and should be expected to do, to implement the agenda for housing, Habitat III failed to move beyond rhetoric to suggest coherent guidelines for implementation whereby government action can be measured and held to account. The New Urban Agenda contains an ambitious agenda for housing policies, including a call for an end to land speculation, but the conference in Quito failed to expand on this provocative agenda to agree upon any common implementation tactics.

It is tempting to roll my eyes and ask ‘plus ca change, UN?’, but admittedly the professionals at Habitat III were not your typical diplomatic attendees – especially the planners – and this in itself was refreshing. What was exciting for me was to see how the Habitat agenda has shifted from a development-focussed event run by the Global North for the Global South to a much more diverse discussion about the range of governments, land markets, urban spaces and definitions of ‘sustainable urban development’ across the world.

Policy recommendations

  • Policy resources: concerns remain about the implementation of the New Urban Agenda for housing. There should be a continued focus from the UN on producing resources that suggest policy and finance measures that can be taken by different levels of government to support adequate housing. This would ensure that the insights gleaned from the conference can be widely accessible.
  • Revisiting definitions: the New Urban Agenda places a duty on states to provide “adequate” housing. To demonstrate a serious commitment to this goal states must define what is seen as ‘adequate’. Adequate housing includes the need for homes to be affordable, connected to infrastructure and services, and provided via a variety of options besides full ownership.
  • Policy review: states should ensure that their policies and targets for adequate housing are compatible with the New Urban Agenda and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. States should work towards a comprehensive review of where the right to adequate housing is not being fulfilled and how housing policy will meet the New Urban Agenda’s goals.
  • Data collection and monitoring: the collection of appropriate data ensures that states can be held to account and progress can be monitored on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.
  • Recognising culpable agents in housing finance and real estate: practitioners of the New Urban Agenda must ensure that all professionals within the housing sector, including those in the property market and real estate business, are aware of the agenda’s core principles. There is a need to incorporate housing finance professionals into the debate on housing as a human right.


Habitat III Policy Unit 10 (2016) Habitat III Policy Paper 10: Housing Policies

Un-Habitat (2016) Issue Paper 20: Housing

UN-Habitat (2016) Housing at the Centre of the New Urban Agenda

About the author

Frances Thompson is a Master’s student in Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. She is broadly interested in housing and the role of states in the (re)production of housing markets. She completed a degree in Geography at the University of Oxford and is a scholar of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Future Planners award. She can be contacted at fnthompson1@sheffield.ac.uk



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