Informal housing in global context

Informal housing is a large scale phenomenon that affects communities around the world. In the context of radical changes in political, economic and social systems, more and more settlements in the former socialist space have expanded as informal settlements. Thus, as the studies and analysis in the field show, the phenomenon of informal living in Eastern Europe, including Romania, is expanding.

Informal settlements are “illegal” residential formations lacking basic infrastructure, security of tenure, adequate housing, etc.

—Source: UNECE, 2009

1 out of 8 people

in the world live in slums, according to UN Habitat, totaling in 2016 about

1 billion people.

In the states of the Global South, informal settlements are referred to as “slums” or “squatter areas”, designating areas at the outskirts of large cities where the poor population migrating from the countryside has improvised barracks and shelters, thus relocating with the family closer to the city and the opportunities it offers. Thus, in the literature referring to the Global South, informal settlements are associated with a very poor population, for whom the only way to satisfy their need for shelter is to illegally occupy a plot of land and build a home with their own means (UNECE, 2016, p. 40). The incidence of this phenomenon is related to the accelerated urbanization process (migration from rural areas to major cities) and to the explosive demographic increase of the major metropolises in the Global South, a process that exceeds the authorities’ ability to plan urban expansion ( i.e. the development of street infrastructure, utilities, public services: schools, medical-social infrastructure etc.).

In 2003, the UN estimated that, globally, nearly one billion people can be considered “squatters”, a term used to denote people living without holding legal documents on land/ housing they occupy; the estimation relies mainly on studies and analyses targeting the Global South.

By comparison, informal dwelling in the EECCA area has advanced in the context of a steep shift from planned economies to market economies, which has created a legislative vacuum and a decreasing of “planning” itself as a process of organizing life in communities. Informal settlements in the EECCA area vary as income levels of the target persons, quality of construction and reason or determinants of informality (i.e. basic needs versus speculative development) (UNECE, 2016, p. 40).

The same report describes how the transition process had a considerable impact on the housing sector in general (UNECE, 2016) by:


Restitution and land privatization (different types: possession, divestiture, property);


Privatization of the stock of socialist public housing (and change of nature and diversification of property);


State withdrawal from the planning and housing sectors;


Changing responsibility for providing housing from the state to the private sector;


Decentralization and transfer of responsibilities for local urban development to the local government (a process that was not accompanied by adequate allocation of financial resources or human resource training).

The withdrawal of the state from the role of the main provider of housing was not accompanied by programs and measures to support access to housing by all income categories, which affected in particular the low-income categories that were in the position to find alternatives (informal economy, self-building, non-legal forms).

At the same time, the post-revolutionary power vacuum resulted in the fact that a big part of the economic activity in the whole region, Romania included, slipped into the informal sector. With the revision of the constitution and the whole set of laws, a large scale process in all surrounding states, some areas remained uncovered by institutions with clear and well defined mandates. In Romania, following the repeal in December 1989 of urban and rural planning legislation, new urban and land planning legislation began to be developed only in the early 2000s. Of course, the drafting and adoption of a central law does not immediately and automatically transpose into local practice, and this legislation vacuum has generated many forms of informal housing in both urban and rural areas, the phenomenon not being specific only for the ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, many communities in the region have expanded, both as a spatial footprint and as expansion and modernization of the buildings themselves, a process unaccompanied by clearly defined and applied authorization procedures, in a unitary and equitable manner. It is estimated that for urban areas with sustained growth in the EECCA region, for example capital cities, a quarter to half of residents live informally.

Moreover, the process of land privatization and restitution (a process not yet completed in Romania) accompanied by the lack of a transparent and up-to-date cadastral system, has generated many confusions, litigations and uncertainty about the situation of some properties in the country. Thus, in many cases, lands that have not been claimed by their owners have constituted and continue to constitute expansion areas for informal settlements.

Of course, the legislative gap, the lack of action of the public authorities and the uncertainties about land ownership have also generated cases where informality is not necessarily generated by extreme poverty and lack of alternatives, as a form of self-organization, land ownership and construction. In the absence of the role of “regulation” and state control (via local authority) in terms of planning and construction, and sometimes even as a result of speculation, informal housing and informal settlements have sprung.

As the UNECE report shows, informal living in the EECCA region is a phenomenon that includes very different income categories, and the typology of homes in this situation can range from improvised barracks to luxury villas. However, it is important to underline that informality itself has the most negative impact on the most vulnerable categories. Thus, the different categories of income affected should be reflected in related regulations and measures that take into account the vulnerability and real need of those concerned, and distinguish between informality that arose from need and informality that arose from speculation.

More research and information on the phenomenon of informal places in the world can be found here.

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