Mitchell, Ann Elizabeth; Macció, Jimena (2017). 'Housing deprivation and multidimensional poverty in urban informal settlements' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


‘People in poor countries are for the most part agrarian and pastoral folk'. Just twenty-five years ago this statement summarized for many the vision of life in low income countries. The growth of the world’s cities in recent decades, however, has changed the nature of poverty in the Global South. Today half of the population of the less developed regions live in urban areas and these regions account for three-fourths of the global urban population (UNHABITAT, 2016).

People are drawn to cities to find jobs and benefit from the economic opportunities urban centres offer (Glaeser, 2011). But urbanization has also produced a large increase in the number of urban poor, who often face different types of challenges than the rural poor (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 2013). The concentration of the urban poor in informal settlements and other enclaves exacerbates aspects of poverty such as overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure, deficient housing, insecure tenancy, health risks connected with the congestion of people and industries, residential segregation and social exclusion. 

Recent literature has documented both a lack of evidence on the characteristics of poverty in urban areas—especially in urban slums (Marx, Stoker and Suri, 2013)—and a tendency to underestimate urban poverty (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 2103). These problems are due to both the difficulty in accessing and carrying out surveys in informal settlements and the inadequacy of the traditional methods used to measure income or consumption poverty (for example, a sharp underestimation of the cost of essential non-food expenditures in urban areas) (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 2013).

The capabilities approach, which conceives development as the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy (Sen, 1999), provides a relevant framework for broadening the understanding of the multiple dimensions of urban poverty and designing policies to improve the quality of life in cities (Frediani, 2007).

The objective of this paper is to provide a close and detailed account of the living conditions of the poorest families living in the informal settlements of Buenos Aires, Argentina and analyse the relationship between deficits in the size and quality of housing and multiple dimensions of wellbeing. The paper aims to contribute to the understanding of how the accumulation of deficits and the links between different dimensions of poverty may, as some authors have suggested (Marx, Stoker and Suri, 2013), generate a poverty trap that limits the ability of the poorest residents of informal settlements to expand their capabilities to live the life they have reason to value.

While Argentina has one of the highest incomes per capita in Latin America, acute inequality and increasing spatial segregation make Buenos Aires a city of sharp contrast in living conditions (PNUD, 2009). A recent study indicates that over 10% of the metropolis’ 13 million residents lives in informal settlements (TECHO, 2016).

The main source of data employed in the paper is a household survey carried out in 2014-2015 by the civil society organization TECHO. The survey collected baseline data on 725 of the poorest households living in the informal settlements of Greater Buenos Aires, which had been selected to participate in the organization’s emergency housing program.

The paper presents three types of empirical analysis. First, it compares the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the poorest residents of the informal settlements with those of the general population living in informal communities and with the total urban population. Second, the paper presents estimates of indicators in six wellbeing dimensions (privacy, sleep quality, health, psychological wellbeing, security and interpersonal relations) and analyses the association with the quality and size of the dwelling. Third, the paper uses the Alkire-Foster (2008) methodology to construct a multidimensional poverty measure in dimensions related to the housing deprivation and then decomposes the measure according to housing size and quality.

The comparative analysis of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics highlights both the stark inequality in living conditions in the metropolis of Buenos Aires and the heterogeneity of living conditions and indicators of education, work and income levels within urban settlements. It also shows that informal settlements are far from being a place of temporary residence: 24% of the poorest households have been living in the settlement for at least 10 years and 12% for at least 20 years. The analysis of the relationship between housing conditions and wellbeing indicators shows that even among the poorest households—all of whom live in substandard housing—the incidence of illness, sleep problems, psychological distress, and the perception of insecurity are higher in households with a more severe deficit in dwelling quality, whereas the level of privacy and the quality of interpersonal relations are lower in households living in more overcrowded dwellings. The findings provide some support for the idea that at least the poorest residents of informal settlements may be caught in a poverty trap in which the accumulation of deficits in several wellbeing dimensions and the interrelation between dimensions (for example, between physical and psychological health and sleep quality) could produce a vicious cycle that keeps the poorest groups from moving to better quality housing in other parts of the city or attaining a better quality of life for their children. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of relevant policies to foster human development and social inclusion in urban informal settlements.

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