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Commentary By Howard Husock

First rung on ladder to new life

CLOSE to 120 years have passed since Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Using stereoscopic camera, magnesium flash powder and riveting language, the Danish-born one-time crime reporter seared bleak, iconic images of New York's low-income neighbourhoods into the American consciousness. Though today Riis is almost universally celebrated, he helped set housing policy on a course that would prove tragically misguided. He inspired a range of government policies that viewed slums as bleak wastelands that transformed their residents into paupers and criminals and therefore had to be radically changed or eradicated.

The problems that Riis and the housing reform movement sparked are still relevant because slums, unlike many ills that worried 19th-century social reformers, remain with us. Their scale in the developing world dwarfs that of Riis-era New York. The UN estimates that, in 2001, 924 million people—31.6 per cent of the world's urban population—lived in slums; the number today likely exceeds one billion.

As Planet of Slums author Mike Davis writes, residents of the new slums constitute the "fastest growing and most unprecedented social class on earth".

Most of these settlements are in the developing world. Of the 924 million slum-dwellers worldwide in 2001, 554 million lived in Asia, in cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata in India and Karachi in Pakistan.

Another 187 million lived in Africa and 128 million lived in Latin America and the Caribbean (famously, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo). Fifty-four million were in developed countries.

The UN blames the vast migrations from rural areas on population growth that the countryside cannot sustain or on economic prescriptions said to emphasise commercial agriculture over small farming, thus driving the poor off the land. Whatever the cause, this "urbanisation of poverty" has resulted in the large-scale erection of primitive forms of shelter on public land or on private land owned by absentee landlords. Water, sanitation and other utilities are usually lacking, making the incredible overcrowding even harder to bear.

For Riis, the slum's biggest problem wasn't population density, lack of sunlight or even disease. It was what it did to the character of its residents.

Slums were "nurseries of pauperism and crime that fill our jails and police courts; that throw off a scum of 40,000 human wrecks to the island asylums and workhouses year by year; that turned out in the last eight years a round half a million beggars to prey upon our charities... because, above all, they touch the family life with deadly moral contagion".

"His entire book could be read as a plea for understanding how the tenement environment itself deformed character," Daniel Czitrom writes in Rediscovering Jacob Riis. The slum-dweller's grim surroundings kept him from developing bourgeois virtues.

Riis's environmental determinism led, gradually but inexorably, to the advent of large-scale public housing that would have unintended destructive consequences. Public authorities and idealistic architects would demolish the slums and replace them with publicly financed and operated buildings that it was hoped would uplift by providing a clean, cheerful, well-lit environment.

With terrible irony, the replacement housing gradually became a blighted locus of social problems, but for seldom understood reasons. Conventional wisdom still blames the projects' design mistakes (the high-rise architecture criticised by Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman) and so-called concentration of poverty. So governments keep looking for the public housing philosopher's stone. HOPE VI projects, pushed in the US by the Clinton administration (and perhaps to be revived by President Barack Obama), mixed the middle class and the poor in indistinguishable townhouses. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development's Moving to Opportunity program uses housing vouchers to relocate public housing residents to middle-class suburban neighbourhoods. Such approaches still assume that an improved environment—one where poor families have sufficient amenities and better neighbourly examples to emulate—will somehow inspire uplift and thus they continue the Riis reform impulse. All such bestowed benefits, however, turn out to discourage beneficiaries from behaving constructively: saving money and accumulating assets, say, or making the prudent life choices, such as marriage and education, that truly help households move up to better neighborhoods. In other words, improved housing is an effect, not a cause, of the bourgeois virtues that Riis held dear.

In Riis's view, "the tendency of the tenements and of their tenants is all the time, and rapidly, downward", as he wrote in How the Other Half Lives. But in a dynamic economy, it turned out, he had things wrong. New York's Tenement House Museum now refers to its historic building, tellingly, not as slum housing but as an "urban log cabin": a starting point for upward mobility.

This is also how we should think of the sprawling new slums of the developing world: not as doomed, deforming environments but as the low-cost housing built for (and by) displaced, formerly rural, people drawn into the modern urbanised economy and energetically aspiring to a better life.

The FinMark Trust, a South African housing think tank, has found no fewer than 335,000 businesses in one Johannesburg slum, one in seven of them home-based. They include everything from hairdressers and bars to welders and furniture makers.

These informal sprawls, for all their problems, may well prove to be a source of new products—and refinements and improvements of existing products—helping to fire future economic growth. Jacobs envisioned this transformative churning in her landmark book The Economy of Cities: a process in which the poor, making the best of their circumstances, create substitutes for expensive imports and eventually develop superior products for export.

Happily, the debate about slums is no longer dominated by the project of replacing or eradicating them.

"There is no drive to replicate the bureaucratic welfare-state housing policy approaches of the mid-20th century,'' Columbia University's Elliott Sclar observes. Even the Harvard graduate school of design—once led by followers of architect Le Corbusier, the father of high-rise public housing—sponsored an approving exhibit last winter on the "non-formal cities of the Americas".

Policy has shifted towards improving slum conditions incrementally, helping residents gradually become better off, even if they're still living within the slums. South Africa's Reconstruction and Development Program, for instance, has subsidised more than one million modest, 32sqm structures that families own and, through time, are expected to improve. The World Bank, too, whose work in developing countries long emphasised grand infrastructure projects such as dams and bridges, is now financing modest but significant improvements in the world's informal settlements. In Brazil's favelas, it helped 900,000 people obtain "potable water piped directly into their homes", and about onemillion receive sewer services. Cost: just $US84 ($131) a person. Similarly, the bank has invested $US192 million in the Mumbai slums to build privately managed pay toilets, used by more than 400,000 people. The UN's top 10 list of "slum upgrading actions" ranks "installing or improving basic infrastructure" first and makes no reference to government-subsidised replacement housing.

The incremental approach mitigates the risk of the kind of dependency that welfare states unwittingly had fostered in the poor in the past. After all, cities provide regular neighbourhoods with sewage and water systems too, so giving slums such services doesn't give their residents an incentive to stay put. Further, incrementalism doesn't undermine slum-dwellers' sense of personal agency. Living in a shanty that you can call your own and improve through time is preferable to moving into a spirit-killing welfare-state Potemkin village of affordable housing.

The most influential work about the new slums, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital, published in 2000, takes the ownership side of the debate, underscoring the limits of security of tenure. De Soto argues that the movement of millions from the countryside to cities has been choked in its potential for uplift not because slum-dwellers lack talent or energy but because the legal systems in their new locales don't allow them to be secure in ownership and accumulate wealth. New arrivals in slums, de Soto explains, face "an impenetrable wall" of rules that bar them from "legally established social and economic activities". Even when they begin to accumulate assets, those assets aren't safe. "Poor people save, but they hold these resources in defective forms: houses built on land whose ownership rights are not adequately recorded and unincorporated businesses with undefined liability." Without the formal legal institutions that allow one to accumulate wealth and borrow against it to build businesses, wealth cannot be put to full use, maintains de Soto. It is "dead capital". The logical solution, de Soto argues, is to bestow property on slum-dwellers, a reform effort that has shown promise. A program in Peru has issued 1.2 million property titles to poor urban households. Harvard economist Erica Field has concluded that it has led to a "substantial increase in labour hours, a shift in labour supply away from work at home to work in the outside market and substitution of adult for child labour".

Given the Peruvian evidence, it is dispiriting that the UN hasn't endorsed a system of defined, enforceable property rights as a key to slum improvement and overall economic development. Investing in improvements whose arbitrary loss they need not fear, and whose value they may someday capture through sale, can help slum-dwellers move to bigger and better homes. And a property rights regime isn't just about owner-occupied homes. One of the time-honoured ways in which property rights support upward mobility is allowing small landlords to acquire and maintain rental property. A property-rights regime would be good for owners and renters.

This generation's heirs to Riis seem to be avoiding the mistakes that he inspired. One piece of evidence that the popular view of slums (and slum-dwellers) is changing: the surprise success of the film Slumdog Millionaire, set in the shantytowns of Mumbai. The hero's rise from the bottom is the result of what he has learned from the slums, not from school. A romantic view, but also a long way from Riis.

Improving the world's slums will require many institutions—the governments of developing countries, international aid organisations, and Western nations and do-gooders—to get many policies right, from encouraging property rights to building a civil society to maintaining free trade. That, in the end, is what the slums—and we—must hope for.

Edited extract from City Journal, a quarterly magazine of urban affairs published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in the US.