A Framework for Informal Settlements and Community Land Trusts

(Written by Patricia Basile and Meagan Ehlenz)

In a recently published article, “Examining responses to informality in the Global South: A framework for community land trusts and informal settlements”, we analyze the potentials for and impediments to community land trusts (CLTs) as an alternative response to informality. After examining the CLT model relative to prevalent policy responses to informality, they propose a conceptual framework outlining the main considerations for implementing the CLT model in informal settlements. This article summarizes our analysis and our conceptual framework for future CLT implementation and research.

According to the U.N. Habitat, one in eight people live in informal settlements. Despite many efforts to improve living conditions in informal settlements, there is still a pressing need to address the issues faced by their residents worldwide. Governments and other organizations have attempted to address basic necessities through different approaches. However, almost one billion people remain in informal settlements, struggling with social, economic, environmental inequities and stigma. The CLT model has been primarily applied to U.S. and European countries; however, Basile and Ehlenz see opportunities for its application in informal settlements as an approach that facilitates long-term affordability and community control.

Policy Approaches to Informality

In general, government interventions in informal settlements have followed three approaches: (1) mass social housing, (2) upgrading, and (3) land titling. Mass social housing, also commonly known as “public housing”, eliminates informal settlements by providing large-scale social or public housing to its residents. Informal settlement residents are relocated to subsidized housing units in large building complexes. Mass social housing advocates highlight the potential for residents to build wealth through homeownership and related self-improvements in living conditions as benefits to this strategy. However, past experiences demonstrate that this is not always the case. Despite improving the quality of life and social status of residents, mass social housing projects are usually located in peripheral areas, isolating residents in large-scale monotonous developments that ignore their needs and desires. Mass social housing creates financial burdens for residents through maintenance and service fees along with increased taxes. This approach also excludes the most vulnerable people who cannot verify income.

The upgrading strategy involves improving the physical environment of informal settlements, providing basic infrastructure and amenities. Upgrading is less expensive than mass social housing projects while allowing residents to remain in their communities and homes, preserving existing social ties. Critics of this approach note that changes in the social structure of informal settlements from upgrading can lead to gentrification and displacement of tenants and more vulnerable residents. Another criticism is that this approach prioritizes the physical environment over the residents’ livelihoods/wages and political capacity.

The third approach, land titling, entails granting titles to informal settlements’ residents in an effort to regularize them. Promoters of this approach claim land titling can reduce poverty and expand the local tax base, considered a more cost-efficient approach to informality. Despite its potential to improve tenure security, research has shown that land titling does not decrease poverty and it can lead to negative consequences, such as unexpected financial burdens, rising rents, potential involuntary home sales, and displacement.

The CLT model

The three common approaches to informality outlined above have some capacity to improve certain life conditions, but also fail to empower communities or offer residents opportunities for control, wealth-building, quality of life, and long-term security. Alternately, the CLT model offers the potential for long-term affordable housing and security, as well as wealth-building opportunities to residents, filling the gaps in the existing approaches to informality.

In the CLT model, a nonprofit organization holds the land title on behalf of the community, while residents maintain improvement rights to their individual properties. There are two guiding elements of the CLT model: (1) permanent affordability of parcels and guardianship of the land by a non-profit and (2) a community-represented board, including equal representation from CLT-residents, other members of the local community, and representatives of the public interest. The CLT ensures permanent affordability by: retaining ownership of the land, separate from improvements, thereby removing that cost from the homeowner’s purchase price; embedding subsidies into the property, rather than allowing them to expire with the homeowner; and operating a shared appreciation model that limits the effects of market prices on home values over the long-term. Collectively, the CLT’s approach supports wealth-building for low-income residents by increasing access to affordable, stable loan products and lowering home purchase prices.

Examples of the CLT model in action

In recent years, CLTs have grown in popularity, as have the debates surrounding the model. Nevertheless, its reach remains limited, with the majority of experiences in the US and other Global North countries. In the Global South, there are few instances of CLTs, including: Tanzania-Bondeni CLT (Kenya) and Caño Martín Peña CLT (Puerto Rico).

The Tanzania-Bondeni informal settlement went through upgrading efforts in the 1990s with an emphasis on securing land rights. Residents chose the CLT model as a way to retain upgrading benefits, ensure community control, and limit the influence of the real estate market. Local government support and technical assistance from planners and social workers were key to ensuring successful implementation. The CLT has retained affordable housing but has also faced significant difficulties over time. Some of the issues faced include administrative difficulties, internal leadership conflicts, and difficulties to enforce some of its constitutional rules.

The Caño Martín Peña CLT in Puerto Rico grants close to 2,000 families collective ownership of 78 hectares of land along the San Juan’s Martín Peña’s channel. Since the CLT received landownership in 2009, many factors have contributed to Caño Martín Peña CLT’s successful implementation and recognition. The community has endured serious political challenges and setbacks, including the repeal of the CLT’s communal landownership by elected officials. After years of continued community organizing and political advocacy, the CLT has reestablished its land rights. Public engagement, partnerships, and grassroots organizing for community empowerment have all been central to the CLT’s continued existence.

Potential for and Impediments to CLTs in Informal Settlements

Potential: One underlying concern for the three most common approaches to informality in the Global South is long-term affordability and security. The CLT model offers an alternative through permanent affordability, mitigating risks of gentrification and displacement due to improvements or regularization. It is common for informal settlements’ residents to mobilize around the quality-of-life improvements and against threats of eviction. The CLT’s reliance on community control leverages existing grassroots organizing and social networks, prioritizing community engagement and empowerment.

Potential: Incremental housing—the gradual improvement and expansion of housing units as resources become available—is a common practice in the Global South. The CLT model offers a socio-economic framework that can embrace incremental housing practices, as well as new building technologies, to improve existing conditions in a sustainable and cost-effective way. CLTs supports residents’ permanence in their communities, while providing opportunities for infrastructure and building improvements.

Potential: In the CLT model, the non-profit organization’s role includes facilitating access to stable loans, homeownership education, and resources. Such wealth-building opportunities are valuable in informal settlements because of their direct effect on the quality-of-life improvements and poverty reduction.

Impediment: A lack of support from the public sector could weaken—and even impede—the application of the CLT model in informal settlements. Local government support can be essential in securing land ownership as well as in creating legislation and providing funds to support and facilitate the implementation of CLTs.

Impediment: Difficulties in community organizing efforts can also pose challenges to the creation of CLTs in informal settlements. A community-controlled non-profit organization is the foundation of a CLT, being responsible for establishing a community-empowered mission and overseeing the land acquisition, among other managing responsibilities. If this type of community organization and social infrastructure does not exist in an informal settlement, it may be difficult to create it from scratch. There is also a necessity of community consensus of the goal to implement a CLT. Without consensus, it would be difficult to apply the CLT model in an informal settlement.

A framework for informal settlements and CLTs

Based on an assessment of the existing policies and CLT experiences, we created a conceptual framework identifying five necessary conditions for CLT implementation and long-term viability. The lack of one or more of these conditions could hinder or even preclude the establishment of a CLT. This framework offers support to communities, practitioners, and governments working towards the application of the CLT model in informal settlements.

Community willingness, commitment, and agreement are the first and most fundamental conditions for the successful establishment of a CLT. This represents a community commitment to collective ownership of the land and guardianship from a CLT non-profit. This condition encompasses consensus among community members, including a participatory process (as seen in the Caño Martín Peña CLT) and resident education about what the CLT model. A lack of shared commitment and community willingness to the CLT model would prevent its implementation.

The presence of community stewards and/or leaders is the second necessary condition. The implementation of a CLT requires community leaders to initiate the process by advocating the model, educating community members, and partnering with local government and/or supporting organizations. Once established, a CLT demands a representative organization to lead and ensure broad community participation. Without individuals and groups willing to lead and sustain community-led processes, it is not possible to successfully implement a CLT.

Land acquisition is an essential condition for the CLT model in informal settlements. A real possibility of acquiring the land it occupies is necessary for informal settlements to enact a CLT. The CLT model is not viable if economic, political, or legal circumstances preclude community acquisition of the land. Additionally, the ideal scenario would allow communities to obtain land titles without incurring substantial debt.

Public sector support is the fourth condition, representing a range of activities informed by local context. New legislation or amendments to existing laws, ordinances, and/or specific policies might be necessary for the adoption of the CLT model in informal settlements. If the occupied land is publicly owned, public sector support would include receptivity to negotiate, transfer or sell the land to the CLT. Ongoing political support is also important, specifically in cases where there is resistance from particular groups or the general public. Depending on the context, lack of public sector support may not prohibit a CLT project, but it can represent a significant barrier.

Third-party support is the final condition for CLT implementation, and it represents partnerships with allied organizations, institutions, and/or technical professionals. Such partnerships can provide critical support in the process of the creation and development of a CLT in informal settlements. Establishing a CLT in an informal settlement involves creating a non-profit organization with bylaws and a mission statement, negotiating land rights with public or private entities, formulating an improvement plan which might include infrastructure and housing. These steps can be complex and may require technical support in legal matters, urban planning, and fundraising. The absence of such partnerships is not an absolute impediment, but such support may be critical for a successful implementation process.


Informal settlements are heterogeneous communities that exist in a variety of social, economic, and political contexts. Therefore, there is no “one-size-fits-all” policy model able to address the complexities and nuances of all informal settlements. CLTs are a bottom-up model that requires highly collaborative processes. The decision to implement a CLT rests, first and foremost, with the community. While government entities can provide support to enable CLT implementation, such as educational resources, legal infrastructure, and seed funding for land acquisition, they cannot impose the CLT approach on a settlement.

Ultimately, the CLT model represents another tool in the informal settlement toolbox with the capability to provide permanently affordable housing, community control, quality of life improvements, and wealth-building opportunities.