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date: 26 September 2020

Slums and Affordable Housing

Abstract and Keywords

By the year 2035, slums may become the primary living environment for the world’s urban dwellers. This entry explores key definitions, causes, and characteristics of slums in the global arena, along with the types of social-work practice and general community development approaches being used to catalyze action to decrease the prevalence of slums. Core strategies include using pro–poor planning efforts that empower slum dwellers, creating affordable housing, and otherwise transitioning urban slums into vibrant communities. Concluding thoughts and further considerations for practice are offered to close the entry.

Keywords: pro–poor planning, empowerment, affordable housing, community development and global practice, slums, favelas

Social work has from its inception in the 19th century given focused attention to the needs of people living in slum communities (Estes, 2009; Karger & Stoez, 2010; Trattner, 1999). During that time slum communities were concentrated in urban centers of industrialization in Europe and the United States. Slum residents were largely immigrants and native-born people—African and Asian Americans (Davis & Bent-Goodley, 2007) and Jews (Wenocur & Reisch, 2001). They came to cities in large waves to avail themselves of the economic opportunities offered by the industrial revolution. Instead, these opportunity seekers found themselves relegated to living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The plight of slum residents was largely ignored by elite power holders who, although generally aware of the condition of slum dwellers, did little to address their most basic needs because of classist and racist notions of worthiness (Hine, Hine, & Harold, 2012) as a result of economic exploitation, culture bias, and racial discrimination (Davis and Bent-Goodley; Lasch-Quinn, 1993), social Darwinist perspectives, and blame-the-victim orientations (Davis, 2006; Wenocur & Reisch).

There have been changes since the 19th century. In the early 21st century, the locus of attention has shifted from Europe and the United States to Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Davis, 2006; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2006). Further, major world institutions such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank now exist and can document, alleviate, or even create slum communities. As an example of this documenting capacity, the UN, as a global monitor of human settlements, gave the alarming assessment that without intervention, the number of people living in slums will double by 2030, growing from 1 billion to 2 billion people living in deplorably unsafe and unsanitary conditions (UN Habitat, 2003). With the attention of these global policy institutions come the assessment tools and intervention resources to help people living in slums to improve their quality of life (UN Habitat, 2013).

Social workers are uniquely prepared to foster the multi-system-level work needed to aid individuals, groups, and organizations to meet this challenge. This entry explores key definitions, causes, and characteristics of slums, along with the types of social-work practice and general community development approaches being used in the global arena, that may help to catalyze action to create affordable housing and otherwise transition urban slums into vibrant communities. The entry ends with concluding thoughts and further considerations for practice.

Scope and Nature of the Problem


Wherever poor people live in large numbers in what is considered substandard housing, these areas have been labeled slums (UN Habitat, 2007). Slums have been identified worldwide; they are labeled barrios in Latin America, favelas in Brazil, ghettos in the United States and Europe, and townships or shantytowns in Africa (UN Habitat, 2003). Slums are commonly considered an urban phenomenon, yet these areas exist in varying forms in the rural, urban, and suburban communities of the world (Davis, 2006). The number of people living in slums began to grow alarmingly fast (Davis; UN Habitat, 2003) starting in the 1980s; growth has been most rapid in the urban areas of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa (UN Habitat, 2007).

This rapid growth was produced by massive urban-to-rural migration—labeled the urbanization of poverty—that began after the implementation of IMF and World Bank lending policies aimed at creating economic growth and modernization in the developing world. Ten policies, called the Washington Consensus, were advanced by the United States (Davis, 2006; Share the World’s Resources [STWR], 2010; World Health Organization, n.d.) and included a focus on financial discipline, deregulation, and privatization, but instead fueled the current urban slum crisis (Davis).


Understanding the intricate political, economic, legal, cultural, and social dynamics of slums, along with the approaches used to address the multiplicity of barriers to creating quality affordable housing, is difficult. As Barjor and Dastor note, “the issue of slums is very complex. It cuts across numerous disciplines. It concerns hundreds of millions of slum dwellers directly—and it indirectly concerns all the local and national economies and societies in which slums exist. It is one of the fundamental global challenges of our times” (2008, p. 7). Conditions within slums vary among the poorer countries of the developing world and middle-income and higher income nations in terms of quality of housing and severity of conditions, particularly with relation to access to water and sanitation (UN Habitat, 2007).

Table 1 Definitions of slums

UN Habitat (2007)

Housing areas . . . which deteriorated after the original dwellers moved on to new and better parts of the city. (p. 1)

UN Habitat (2008)

An area with:

  • Poor structural quality and durability of housing

  • Insufficient living areas (more than three people sharing a room)

  • Lack of secure tenure

  • Poor access to water

  • Lack of sanitation facilities

UN Habitat (2013)

The UN definition of a slum household is a household that lacks “access to sanitary water, improved sanitation.” (Shekhar, 2013, p. 55)

Table 1 shows varying definitions adopted by the UN Habitat program over time. The definitions have core implications for conceptualizing the problem, understanding the scope of the problem, and for the allocation of resources. Using the 2008 UN Habitat definition of slums, the following sections explore the background and prevalence of the manifestation of slums in the developing world. The 2007 definition, which allows the consideration of slums in the nondeveloping world, will be explored later in this entry. The following explores the causes of slums and is mainly relevant to the developing and nondeveloping world.

Contributing Factors

Various factors have been linked to the presence of slums. This is perhaps reflective of differing perspectives among scholars, and in some cases affected persons, as to whether slums continue to exist because of purposeful design, benign neglect, or other forms of intentional inattention to the needs of poor people and slum dwellers. A full exploration of these perspectives is worthy of exposition, but is beyond the scope of this entry. There is agreement among major global institutions and researchers that key causal factors include modernization and structural adjustment interventions, poverty, poor planning, poor governance, and climate change.

Colonialism, De-peasantization, and Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP)

Fox (2013) posits that slums are the product of colonialism. Under colonialism, poor indigenous people were exploited for labor. Their needs were not considered in planning. Slums were viewed as extensions of the ethnic village (tribe) (Arimah, 2011). Some scholars have linked the IMF and World Bank interventions as extensions of colonialism as a causal factor—namely the structural adjustment and peasant modernization programs (Davis, 2006; Murray Li, 2009). Both programs influenced the shifting of subsidies and other resources away from traditional sustenance and small commercial farming to more modern farming methods embraced by larger corporate growers. SAPs require nations that have borrowed from the World Bank or IMF to reduce domestic spending to repay loan debt. This has resulted in deep cuts in domestic spending, including agricultural support. De-peasantization or modernization programs sought to move sustenance farmers to increase efficiency in growing by requiring farmers whose families had for generations used traditional methods to sustain themselves to increase output or leave farming to become rural or urban wage earners (Davis; Oya, 2009). In many cases, modernization coupled with reduced agriculture support had the net effect of creating global food shortages (Arimah; Davis). African countries such as Ethiopia and Ghana were particularly hard hit. Additionally, climate change–impacting rainfall pushed many families beyond the scope of their ability to feed and house their youth. Thus, young people, with no amassed resources, sought out cities for economic opportunity, which they did not find upon arrival. Their exodus to the only low or no-cost spaces available (Oppong-Ansah, 2013) illustrates how SAPs and de-peasantization are driving poverty as a push factor for migration to urban slums.


Seeking opportunity in urban areas is the core connection between slums and poverty. The UN reports that 20% of the world’s population lives in poverty (World Bank, 2012). One the chief consequences of poverty is the lack of access to adequate, permanent, safe, and affordable housing. The global population affected by poverty has sought to access housing where they can and have thus found themselves living on land that has limited value or importance to governmental or private development entities (UN Habitat, 2003). An additional connection is the impact of poverty on educational attainment and social mobility. Worldwide, when people live in areas of high concentrations of poverty, their ability to move into working and middle class is severely hampered (Krishna, 2013). Once a poor person becomes a resident of a low-income area, their exit can only be facilitated with extensive planning and intervention (UN Habitat, 2003).

Poor Planning

Slums are viewed as geographical manifestations of poverty driven by poor urban planning (Arimah, 2011; UN, 2013). The failure to consider the needs of the world’s poor or to engage in municipality-wide and appropriately scaled interventions must be corrected to improve slums and the quality of life for slum dwellers (Galiani, Gertler, Cooper, & Martinez, 2013; UN Habitat, 2003). Urban slums in which active planning and intervention are not in place are growing in scale and the degree of poverty experienced there is worsening. Davis (2006) makes key distinctions between slums where poor planning persists and areas where active planning is in place. The World Bank captures this dichotomy using M. Davis’s conceptualization of slums of despair and slums of hope:

  • Slums of hope: areas in which government bodies, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and in some cases residents are working in partnership to conduct planning and interventions to improve the quality of housing, access to economic resources, and social services. The interventions being applied incorporate self-help approaches and interventions by local government and NGOs (Davis, 2006; UN Habitat, 2003).

  • Slums of despair: areas in which the challenging social, economic, physical, and environmental conditions are worsening, whereas resources and what domestic services exist are deteriorating. This deterioration is further fueled by the continued rapid influx of the poor without planning and action to address current needs or to project future actions required to improve the slum area.

Poor Governance

The UN (UN Habitat, 2003, 2013) and World Bank Institute (2009) identify poor governance as a key factor in the creation and preservation of slums. These institutions assert that poor governance results in the lack of a political will to address the conditions of slum dwellers via planning and resource allocation. Research conducted by Devas (2004) supports these findings and more specifically suggests that the lack of participation by poor citizens in decision making regarding planning and land use for slums has been linked to a greater likelihood that slum conditions will persist. Fox (2013) further asserts that lack of voice and participation is one of several factors that define poor governance. The additional factors include lack of transparency, limited accountability, limited participation, lack of the rule of law, bureaucratic inefficiency, and failure of enforcement to support property rights (Arimah, 2011). It is important to note that participation means having the ability to actively shape and then vet urban planning and development decisions.

Climate Change

As discussed under poverty, lack of rainfall is a critical factor pushing people from rural farms to urban areas. Climate change is also contributing to rising sea levels, a particular threat to slums in coastal areas (Adelekan, 2010). Slums are more likely to be located in areas that are susceptible to flooding and land collapse. Slum housing, because of the use of poor-quality materials, is less likely to withstand earthquakes or storms with strong winds (Saha, 2012). When slum housing is destroyed, residents are likely to resettle in other nearby slums, thus causing further slum growth. Conversely, environmental conditions can provide an impetus for active planning and development (Cronin & Guthrie, 2011).

Each of the aforementioned factors helps to create slums or maintain status quo slum conditions, yet when these factors are corrected, governments can avoid the conditions experienced by residents of slums, which are described below.


Because slums are home to large concentrations of people who are poor, socially marginalized, or otherwise relegated to a low socioeconomic status within their particular society (Davis, 2006; Devas, 2004), these areas are often impacted by a complex web of poor social, economic, health, and spatial conditions. The array of conditions culminates in the lack of political capital to secure safe, sanitary, and affordable housing (UN Habitat, 2003). Additional details on the nature of these conditions follow.

Economic Conditions

Slums are also characterized by other challenging social conditions, including high levels of poverty, low educational attainment, and social stratification resulting in classes of economically oppressed people. These people are often racial, religious, or cultural minorities. Some slum communities have high rates of unemployment. However, some scholars have argued that it is important to consider that many people in slum communities are employed in informal (alternative) economies (Cities Alliance, 2013; Devas, 2004). The types of work can include activities that may be deemed illegal, such as prostitution and drug selling. Other activities may include various aspects of domestics work, mechanical work, textile and clothes making, toilet attending, or gathering and recycling materials or the production of crafts or art (UN Habitat, 2003). In some urban slum areas informal sector work accounts for 40% to 60% of employment; thus, the World Bank has begun exploring mechanisms to formalize informal sector work, as a mechanism for social inclusion (and perhaps as a potential revenue source for the locality).

According to Dash (2013), people employed within the informal sector may work for themselves and others doing work that is undesirable or insufficiently profitable for non slum dwellers. This sector may also include economic activities deemed illegal (such as prostitution and drug selling), and thus are potentially more difficult to draw into the formal economic sector in milieus where these activities violate social norms.


The key conditions that threaten health in slum communities are the lack of access to sanitation and clean water (University of California at Berkeley, 2011). The lack of sanitation causes a myriad of unsafe conditions because people dispose of waste, both human and other types, too close to where they live, resulting in the contamination of water sources (Water Aid, 2008). Although recent upgrades have improved such conditions across the globe, the majority of slum dwellers continue to lack access to sanitary systems within their homes (Nderitu, 2010). Some slums have public sanitation systems that may be accessed for a fee. Some slum dwellers have turned to the use of “flying toilets” (see Mapmathare video) (Ondieki & Mbegera, 2009), which consist of plastic bags used to capture the products of defecation that are then tied closed and flung as far away from the dwelling as possible (University of California at Berkeley). The flying toilets contribute to unsafe water conditions, which increases exposure to water-borne miasmas that cause dengue fever, cholera, and diarrheal diseases. Slum dwellers also face the risk of accidental injury and possible death resulting from unstable land when slums are situated on steep slopes (UN Habitat, 2003). Other types of injury are possible when slums are located in or near dumpsites, including burn injuries, exposure to toxins, and diseases such toxoplasmosis (University of California at Berkeley).

The conditions of slums are particularly impactful with regard to the health of children (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2012) and women. Children’s health is threatened by infectious diseases related to poor water quality, such that thousands of children living in slums die each day (United Nations Children’s Fund; Water Aid, 2008). Children also experience food insecurity, which may lead to poor physical and intellectual development (United Nations Children’s Fund). Women’s health is also affected by disease; however, a bigger threat is the lack of access to toilets (Nderitu, 2010; Ondieki, & Mbegera; 2009). Because the toilet facilities may not be private, women in such areas choose to use these systems during hours of darkness, resulting in both physical discomfort and potential exposure to crime (Yasin, 2012). Cost–benefit analyses show that for every $1 spent on the improvement of water quality, $9 is saved (Water Aid).

Quality of Housing

Slums are characterized by “dilapidated housing, overcrowding,” and lack of durability (Davis, 2006, p. 22). Because housing is produced by each house holder, it is possible to find people living in various types of structures, which are built from available materials (including mud, plastics, cardboard, discarded wood, tin, and aluminum). Structures may also be built using more durable materials, including brick and cement (Arimah, 2011; UN Habitat, 2003). Many homes lack plumbing, electricity, access to clean water, or safe sanitation methods. In the nondeveloping world, a slum might be composed of housing that was once of high quality, but over time has become ruined and poorly maintained and is now substandard because of “redlining” or other forms of limited access to credit (UN Habitat, 2003). In Europe, Canada, and the United States, residents of slum communities may also live in structures built from salvaged materials, particularly if they reside in rural areas or are members of communities of migrant workers (Park & Pellow, 2011; Ramirez & Villarejos, 2012).

Table 2 Approaches to Slums Across the Globe


Key conditions

Past/present strategies

Meets UN 2013 definition


  • Highest portions of the world’s poor (World Bank, 2012)

  • Legacy of colonial ban on indigenous people’s land rights (Davis, 2006)

  • Highest percentages of urban slum dwellers

  • 72% of Sub-Saharan Africans live in slums.

  • 92% to 99% of the populations of Ethiopia and Chad live in slums (McKenna, 2013)

  • Benign neglect

  • Slum clearance/legalized forced removal (Slums Act)

  • Reliance on NGO and global institutions

  • Self-help strategies because of the scope of the problem and limited resources (Arimah, 2011; Ondieki & Mbegera, 2009, Shack/Slum Dwellers International, n.d.)



  • Chinese slum growth fueled by real economic growth

  • Legacy of colonial ban on indigenous people’s land rights (Davis, 2006)

  • Highest actual numbers of slum dwellers

  • 35% of the population lives in slum communities

  • 581 million slum dwellers (Water Aid, 2008)

  • Rural to urban migration heavily controlled in China



  • Ethnic minority immigrants significant proportion of slum dwellers

  • Population composed of Eastern European, Roma, Portuguese, and North African migrants

    Reside in informal settlements (Šabic, et al. 2013)

  • , shantytowns in or near major cities, including London and Madrid (Frazer, 2012)

  • Limited to no land tenure or access to water and sanitation (Edmunds, 2013)

  • Shift from benign neglect to slum clearance as land demand or value increases

  • Material aid provided by NGOs and volunteer social workers

  • Advocacy via groups such as Amnesty International


Carribean and South America

  • Largest slum in the world is located in Mexico City

  • Legacy of colonial ban on indigenous people’s land rights (Davis, 2006)

  • In key capital cities, more than 50% of the population lives in slums (Karra Jose, 2008; UN Habitat, 2003)

  • Favelas in Brazil are located in areas with poor conditions, including steep hillsides or stagnant water, combined with trash such as in the famous Alagados slum of Salvador, Bahia Brazil

  • Benign neglect

  • Individual development accounts (savings program)

  • Slum upgrading (Kara Jose, 2008; Shack/Slum Dwellers International, n.d.)

  • Slum upgrading with technical and social support program


North America (United States and Canada)

  • Experiencing suburbanization of poverty and Back to the City movement (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011)

For U.S. citizens slums manifest as:

  • Rural or suburban problem

  • Isolated incidents of homelessness with dwellers living in cars or other vehicles

  • Homeless populations living without durable shelters or in tent cities in nonaccessible areas of cities (under highway overpasses)

  • Rust Belt cities with high concentrations of vacant and abandoned housing

    Rural agricultural regions; slum residents are primarily undocumented Latin American migrant workers

  • Foreclosure victims

  • Reverse trend: suburbanization of poverty

  • Shift from benign neglect to slum clearance as land demand or value increases (Park & Pellow, 2011)

U.S. citizens

  • Relocation

  • Affordable development and support

  • Rent subsidies

  • Public housing

  • Homelessness support

    Noncitizen laborers

  • Benign neglect in undervalued desirable spaces

  • Slum clearance as land demand or value increases (Park & Pellow, 2011)


Table 2 shows how countries with slums vary with regard to population-level descriptors, perspectives on addressing the needs of slum residents, and whether the nation meets the UN definition of a slum. All nations had a period of benign neglect and slum clearance. Common elements of slums include poor-quality housing and insecure tenure. Slums in the developed world are less obvious and extensive when compared to those in the nondeveloped world. These variations may be easier to understand when using the low-, middle-, and high-income country concepts.

Low-Income Countries

Low-income countries in Africa have the highest proportions of the world’s poor (World Bank, 2012). The poor in Africa are some of poorest of the world’s population, with many surviving on less than $1.25 per day (World Bank). In addition, many African cities host the highest percentages of urban slum dwellers. For example, 72% of Sub-Saharan Africans and 92% to 99% of the populations of Ethiopia and Chad live in slums (Arimah, 2011). Fox (2013) and Davis (2006) attribute at least part of the prevalence of poverty and slums to the colonial ban on indigenous people’s land rights and other policy efforts to create an urban underclass of exploitable labor (Davis). In South Africa, the failure to secure apartheid-based reparations for shantytown residents coupled with violent slum clearance efforts ahead of the 2012 World Cup and corruption/cronyism in disruption of resettlement benefits is fueling organized legal advocacy, resistance, and disruptions efforts centered in the Kwazulu-Natal province (Gibson, 2009).


China provides a unique case in that its current rapid growth does offer jobs as a result of real economic growth. Although the proportion of Asians living in urban slums is relatively lower than that of other nations, Asia has the highest actual number of slum dwellers. This number is largely fueled by Indian cities such as Mumbai (Davis). Among Indian, Pakistani, and other Arab-influenced groups, war became a key push for rural-to-urban migration, and legacy colonial perspectives on the rural poor created disinterest in the plight of slum dwellers.

Higher Income Countries

According to the 2008 UN Habitat definition of slums, no developed countries meet the criteria of slums. However, there is ample evidence from contemporary journalists to suggest that the 2008 analysis has led UN Habitat to draw a questionable conclusion. In European countries including Spain, Great Britain, and France, immigrants reside in informal settlements and shantytowns in or near major cities, including London and Madrid (Frazer, 2012).

Ethnic minority immigrants form a significant proportion of European slum dwellers. These populations are composed of Eastern European, Roma, Portuguese, and North African migrants and immigrants. Slums in these and other cities are characterized by limited or no land tenure or access to water and sanitation (Edmunds, 2013).

Latin America faces a serious challenge with regard to slums, and in many of its key cities, more than 50% of the inhabitants live in slums (Kara Jose, 2008; UN Habitat, 2003). In terms of physical space, the largest slum is located in Mexico City. Favelas in Brazil are world famous for their dangerous land conditions, including steep hillsides or stagnant water combined with trash, such as in the famous Alagados slum of Salvador, Bahia Brazil.

The United States is also home to slums, as defined by both UN Habitat, 2003, and older standards that rely on the presence of substandard housing. Rather than rapid urbanization, the United States is simultaneously experiencing the suburbanization of poverty and a “back to the city movement” (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011). In addition, areas meeting the UN definition of slums manifest as a rural and suburban problem. In rural agricultural or tourist regions, slum residents are primarily undocumented Latin American migrant workers, some of whom live in cars without access to water or sanitation (Park & Pellow, 2011). Homelessness is also a slum problem in that urban populations live literally on the street without durable shelters or in tent cities in nonaccessible areas of cities (under highway overpasses). The United States is also experiencing isolated incidents of homeless family living, in cars or other vehicles, with many accessing water and sanitation via public bathrooms and food and temporary shelter. Finally, Rust Belt cities have high concentrations of vacant and abandoned housing.

Strengths of People in Slums

Although slums are a visible and clear manifestation of poverty and economic oppression, these places also highlight the powerful ingenuity and endurance of their inhabitants (STWR, 2010; World Bank Institute, 2009). Further, slum dwellers contribute greatly ($5 trillion annually) to local and national economies through their consumerism (STWR, 2010) industries such construction and domestic work. Slums also create spaces that are open to and accepting of migrants and the culturally marginalized. Slums have been places of cultural innovation in music, writing, and other art forms as well as multicultural housing innovation, self-help opportunity, and places of artistic expression (Owusu, Agyei-Mensah & Lund, 2008).Women in slums have developed saving schemes as a means to organize themselves to purchase land and thereby gain land housing tenure (Chitekwe & Mitlin, 2001). Residents frequently have high levels of cooperation and a general sense of communalism (Carpentera, Daniereb, & Takahashic, 2004). Slums have also been places of housing innovation and microenterprise (Gulyani & Bassett, 2007).

In all cases, the answer to eliminating slums includes applying interventions to create affordable housing. The following section provides an overview of interventions designed to reduce slums and improve access to affordable housing.


The following section provides an overview of sets of interventions used to improve slums and to develop affordable housing. The first set of interventions examines approaches to slum improvement and increasing quality affordable housing used by national governments, slum-dweller alliances, the UN, and the World Bank in the lower income countries of the developing world. Also included are strategies used in higher income countries, which have been labeled “right to the city” efforts. A second set of interventions centered on the roles and methods used in global social-work practice are included and integrated with systems theory.

UN, World Bank, and Slum-Dweller Interventions—Lower Income Countries

Good Governance, Social Inclusion, and Empowerment.

Good governance means that decision making is conducted in a manner that is open and transparent and requires accountability. Together these factors prevent cronyism, corruption, rent seeking, and less advertent forms of diverting power and resources away from the needs of the public. Diverted resources often go into the hands of policy makers and help to worsen the conditions that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in slum communities (Transparency International, 2013; UN Habitat, 2003, UN Chronicle, 2012), particularly women and children. Social inclusion is the level to which groups with particular characteristics are included in the social, economic, and political life of a society (Arimah, 2011). Groups that are not socially included are unprotected, unconsidered, and otherwise disempowered with regard to having their needs and wants addressed. As a result, such groups are left to develop alternative, underground social, economic, and power systems. In the parlance of exploring slums, this is labeled the informal sector. Much focus is being placed on moving groups, particularly women and children in slums (Cotton, 2009; UN Habitat, 2003; Water Aid, 2008) into the formal sector through social inclusion.

Social inclusion and good governance have been identified as critical factors in improving the quality of life in slums. It is possible to view both governance and social inclusion as forms of empowerment. In particular, legal empowerment is the form of securing legal rights to land tenure, which in turn is linked to enfranchisement and the ability to influence governance (Rashid, 2009). Legal empowerment is defined as “a process of systemic change through which the poor and excluded become able to use the law, the legal system, and legal services to protect and advance their rights and interests as citizens” (OECD, 2012). Without legal empowerment, poor people have been subject to decisions made by corrupt leaders. Many have also been victims of economic exploitation that cause them to pay exorbitant fees for access to basic services including water, toilets, and institutions such as schools. Slum dwellers are exposed to violence, but have limited recourse with law enforcement or judicial systems.

Pro–Poor Planning.

At the global level, major institutions such as the UN and the World Bank have recognized that when poverty exists, creating the economic growth that spurs healthy communities necessitates pro-planning and development (OECD, 2012; World Bank Institute, 2009). Two key features of pro-planning are empowerment and good governance. Empowerment entails ensuring that people from disadvantaged communities participate in development decision making and thus are able help craft efforts to address the needs central to reducing poverty and disadvantage.

Participatory Slum Upgrading.

This intervention includes pro–poor planning to ensure “that families have access to basic social amenities and infrastructure that include decent shelter, water, sanitation, schools and health facilities” (UN Habitat, 2012). The approach used in participatory slum upgrading incorporates empowerment and could build on insights gains from pro–poor planning. The focus is to augment the existing efforts of the people living in slums to improve their shelter or the more general physical environment; such efforts may also include holistic approaches that include economic or social empowerment. The role of NGOs or civic organizations is to mobilize resources to provide technical or material assistance to slum residents seeking to make such improvements.

The approaches, which have been characterized as proactive or reactive, are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3 Models of Slum Improvement/Creating Affordable Housing





Reactive approach

Slum clearance

  • Demolition of slums

  • Forced removal and displacement of slum dwellers

  • Slums moved to more acceptable areas

  • Residents sometimes dispersed

  • Condition/needs of residents hidden or more easily ignored

  • Old slums converted to a higher or better use

  • Negative impact

  • Slums persisted or worsened because of deteriorated social cohesion and social integration

Adaptive approaches

Technical and social support program

  • Support for resident-driven upgrading; slum dwellers provide technical guidance to upgrade their residence

  • Government entities or NGOs highly involved in early stages, absent later

  • Discreet projects improve conditions of slum residents targeted for help

Scale of effort too small to make a significant impact

Proactive approach

City-wide upgrading with sustainability focus

City-wide upgrading uses comprehensive efforts to improve existing slums: Empowerment, pro–poor planning, support for transition to formal sector work

Uses slum dweller methods to guide global sustainability efforts; includes building new housing

Scale of effort better suited to transforming slums into decent communities with safe, healthy living spaces

Higher Income Nations—Right to the City Policies

The right to the city concept is used to explore mechanisms for social inclusion. In higher income countries, it has been a rallying cry for activists concerned with movement building to end urban poverty (Brown & Kristiansen, 2009). Key policies that promote affordable housing are inclusionary zoning and housing subsidies.

Inclusionary Zoning.

Inclusionary zoning is a policy tool that has been used in Canada, Europe, the United States, and Australia (Metro Vancouver Policy and Planning Department, 2007) to ensure that housing development targeting people with moderate to high incomes include a specific percentage of housing units that are affordable to low-income or very-low-income individuals or families (Brunick, 2004; Rusk, 2006; Nolon, 2007). The required percentage is written into the zoning code for a given area, which may be a section of a locality, an entire city, or a county (Chang, 2009; Damewood & Young Laing, 2011; Rusk, 2006). In return, the developer can be granted benefits that decrease the cost to build low-cost units or the development as whole. Developers may also have key fees waived or gain access to faster project review by local officials.

Housing Subsidies.

Creating affordable housing is one of the key strategies to combat slums. Yet in addition to creating quality affordable units, the UN Habitat calls for more comprehensive strategy that employs rehabilitation and prevention. The rehabilitation portion of the approach includes leasing and regularizing land, improving infrastructure and housing through public funding, and relocating slums by utilizing public–private partnerships and transferable development rights, which allows for higher density development (UN Habitat, 2010, 2011, 2012; World Bank Institute, 2009). The prevention portion of the approach aims to keep new slums from developing by building more affordable housing, regulating urbanization, encouraging decentralization, and improving public transport. Building affordable housing also includes a public–private partnership model that pairs developers and governments or NGOs to create housing using charitable or government funds otherwise not available to for-profits. Also included in this approach are remedial efforts. This strategy includes mobilizing the residents of the target slum community to discuss their needs and wants in regard to housing and infrastructure improvements as well as what efforts the residents could complete themselves with the appropriate materials, training, and other resources. Finally, residents would be engaged in selecting key projects to complete using their own effort (Affordable Housing Institute, 2013).

Global Social-Work Interventions

A key challenge in social-work practice is to help those who reside in slum communities gain the power to fulfill their needs for safe and sanitary affordable housing, as well as the regular resources to provide for those needs, while honoring the fact that slums for many residents may be valued spaces where they feel rooted and whole. Removing the barriers that inhibit access to safe, affordable housing is a social justice issue (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2007). The impediments to achieving this goal are firmly ingrained in the social, cultural, and economic power structures of a given society (Fox, 2013). However, in the review on social-work literature on slums, the author did not locate any writing specifically exploring social-work practice in slums. It appears that only normative approaches to addressing needs of slums dwellers have been developed. Table 4 shows global social-work interventions and how these might be directed toward slum improvement.

Table 4 Global Social-Work Practice Methods by System Level, Practice Method, and Correspondence With UN World Bank Slum Intervention Models

Systems level/role

Global social-work practice approach

UN/Word Bank model

Micro resource management and consultancy

  • Provision of material support, direct aid to address basic safety needs

  • Empowerment/conscientization: helping individuals and families understand the causes of their oppression and gain access to the power holders, self-groups, and other institutions they can participate in to make permanent change


  • WHO

  • Empowerment program

  • Micro lending

  • Entrepreneur


  • Conflict resolution and management

  • Efforts to build consensus

  • Create peace among community faction and larger scale institutions

  • Truth and reconciliation processes

  • Pro–poor planning

  • Promoting good governance

  • Peacekeeping


  • Institution building

  • Policy development

  • Program development

  • Shack and Slum Dwellers Alliance


  • Nation building/global world building

  • Cities Alliance

  • Shack and Slum Dwellers Alliance

Table 4 shows the interventions social workers use to address the personal, familial, group, organizational, and community needs of slum dwellers by system levels. At the micro level social workers help clients make changes in their level of personal empowerment via consciousness raising, coaching, and training, while also using advocacy and brokering skills to help secure material supports (relief). At the meso level social workers help clients apply empowerment skills to participation in varying types of self-help groups and also help with conflict resolution between individuals and groups. At the exo level, social workers help clients communicate their needs to power holders (political, cultural, or social). At the macro level they help to formulate domestic and international policy change and consult with domestic and international bodies such as the UN to provide material resources to alleviate the impact of absolute poverty and to create safe, sanitary, and affordable housing (Guo & Tsui, 2010).

In assessing the situation of a particular set of clients, one may be forced to consider whether the inequality of slum dwellers is a natural product of capitalism (Park & Pellow, 2011). If so, social workers committed to achieving social justice may need to choose between notions of empowerment and whether that includes struggling to wrest the power to secure basic resources and rights from power elites and modifications to the social order (Ritter, 2012) or working to build awareness of elites with regard to the conditions faced by people who live in slums, so that they can act to bring resources or other changes to bear to make housing safe, sanitary, and affordable.


The challenge of addressing the poverty and the lack of affordable housing that creates slums has garnered concentrated attention from some of the world’s most influential and well-resourced institutions. Bodies including the United Nations and the World Bank are developing models for planning and economic policy that are designed to include the perspectives of poor people in housing development. In addition, people living in slums have created a variety of creative self-help approaches to improve their quality of life. Yet, although social workers are active in slum communities across the globe, social work practice models specific to supporting slum dwellers in their effort to improve their communities seem to be absent from the literature. As stated in earlier in this paper, this is ironic given social work’s birth in the slums of England and the United States. The lack of models also brings to mind questions raised by Specht and Courtney (1994) regarding social work’s ongoing commitment to social change that transforms the lives of groups marginalized and oppressed people.

As work to meet the UN Millennium Goal of ending poverty and improving the quality of life of slum dwellers goes forward, social workers will need to consider what opportunities may be present to develop intervention models and/or policies that increase access to safe and sanitary affordable housing. A significant contribution social workers working in communities with slum conditions could make is to foster dialogue among slum residents, policy makers, social work practitioners and academics to in order craft models to guide social work practice in slums, and further to assess effectiveness of these models.

In working to develop models, it is essential to keep in mind that slums are not the unfortunate product of too many poor people living in the same area coupled with the lack of affordable housing. Slums result from a multitude of factors including the historical legacies of colonialism, poor planning and economic policy (i.e. structural adjustment programs and peasant modernization efforts). Slums also result from policies of “benign neglect” that do not offer comprehensive solutions to address the tangled web of social, economic and educational challenges facing poor and otherwise marginalized people.

Removing the barriers that inhibit access to safe affordable housing is a social justice issue (NASW, 2007). Thus it is imperative to help those that reside in slum communities to gain the power to meet their need for safe and sanitary affordable housing,

In keeping with the age old practice directive to meet clients where they are, it is important to honor the fact that for many of the people who reside within slum communities these are valued spaces where people feel rooted and whole. Many slum dwellers have developed a host of survival and self-help strategies to transcend the social and economic challenges of living in a slum. For example, some people have made use traditional models of financing with familial or communal groups. Slum dwellers are also using creative and, in some cases, eco-friendly efforts to improve their dwellings and surrounding spaces and have also advocated for and won land rights and other policy reforms that increase opportunities for affordable housing (subsidies, inclusionary zoning and other policy reforms).

In some cases, slum dwellers have used civil disobedience and other measures to try to prevent the destruction of existing affordable housing. The response of governmental bodies has in some cases been severe enough to result in injury of death of protesters and professionals who support their efforts. A key implication here is that working with clients to bring about the necessary change to address their housing needs may involve real personal and professional risk; as the factors that create slums are firmly ingrained in the social, cultural and economic power structures of the various countries where slum communities exist (Fox, 2013). Social workers will need to determine whether they are willing to take the risk of working in this arena, given that it may mean challenging the ingrained power relationships. The position any given social worker takes in response to this concern may literally mean the difference between life and death for people who live in slums.


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Further Reading

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Sumila, G., Bassett, E., & Talukdar, D. (2011). Living conditions, rents, and their determinants in the slums of Nairobi and Dakar. Land Economics, 88, 251–274.Find this resource:

Zeidel, R. F. (2004). Immigrants, progressives, and exclusion politics: The Dillingham Commission, 1900–1927. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.Find this resource: