Why “Informal” Housing Could Be On the Rise

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | April 11, 2017

House in a colonia in south Texas. Courtesy University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

When scholars discuss what’s known as “informal housing” — housing constructed outside the regulatory structure and outside of government control — the focus is usually on places outside the United States. Famous examples include the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the shanytowns in Soweto, South Africa.

But a recently published research article argues that there is actually a “longstanding and widespread tradition of informal housing” closer to home. The colonias in south Texas, backyard dwellings in Los Angeles and even out-of-code apartment buildings fall within the realm of informal housing. Challenging the notion that this is something that happens only in developing countries, University of Texas researchers Noah Durst, from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and Jake Wegmann, from the School of Architecture, say it’s something both scholars and policymakers need to better understand. The issue is particularly important, given rising affordable housing shortages plaguing major cities across the country.

The Urban Edge spoke with the researchers about informal housing and what governments can do to address it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is housing informality and what does it look like here?

Durst: Informality is, in part: failure to comply with, enforce, or adopt certain types of regulations. It is produced in coordination with the state itself.

If you look back historically, some of the types of housing we describe as informal have always existed in parts of urban areas. On the fringe of New York City, there were shanytowns that were eradicated to make space for developments like Central Park. That existed in Chicago and Los Angeles and Philly and south Texas.

One of the things that is unique about housing markets is you have what we in the article call different regulatory regimes that overlap in complicated ways. You end up having this conflation of housing markets where certain activities can run afoul of a particular part of the regulatory regime but at the same time they comply with every other element.

Wegmann: It’s often pretty hidden from view. So the kind of informal housing I’ve studied in Los Angeles, a lot of the backyard shacks are literally just not visible from the street, and that’s deliberate to keep them away from the prying eyes of code enforcement. Even colonias, you can think of them as hidden communities because they’re often at great distances from the cities they’re next to.

Is informal housing increasing here?

Wegmann: I think the short answer is we don’t know, but I suspect that it’s increasing. When you see data on the state of the housing market as experienced in particular by low income renters, and you see these alarming statistics, I think the thing we overlook is that people don’t just sit still. They find other solutions, and I would imagine a lot of those solutions are informal housing arrangements.

Durst: My gut says when it comes to the type of informality you see in premature subdivisions and colonias, that has decreased considerably over time. Historically on the U.S. frontier, on the fringe of urban cities, that has been a primary means by which people have accessed housing. The ramp up in the regulatory state in urban America really sought in many ways to regulate that out of existence.

But you’ve also pointed that when governments try to regulate this, it sometimes actually increases informality just in a new way. Knowing that, how can policymakers respond to this?

Wegmann: In the developing world…they have a broader set of tools to deal with it than we do. So often our conversation just stops with either you’re complying or you’re not complying with the law. So when people aren’t, we say ‘we just need to crack down.’ We have an extremely unsophisticated way of dealing with it. Are there more sophisticated ways to deal with it other than a binary way of ‘yes, you’re complying’ or ‘no, you’re not?’ There are all sorts of options that just aren’t part of our toolbox.

Durst: Local governments view it as a problem, and in some ways the characteristics of informal housing are very problematic. We’re talking about, in some cases, people living in neighborhoods that lack basic services or people living in dilapidated or poor quality housing. But at the same time informal housing often arises because of bottlenecks in other parts of housing markets.

A lot of our affordable housing programs don’t serve all residents, so informality is often a solution. Without it we would have an even more severe urban housing crisis than we do now.

Any examples of governments tackling this issue?

Wegmann: Some cities have had amnesty programs for non-compliant accessory dwelling units, and the most significant one I’m aware of is Daly City, California, which is a densely populated, heavily Asian-American and immigrant suburb of San Francisco. The city created a program to try to bring those units out of the shadows and enforce some basic health and safety standards but relax the rules that weren’t related to health and safety.

In the developing world, NGOs routinely organize informal homeowners to help win titles, infrastructure improvements, and the like. But here in the U.S., a lot of our housing nonprofits are largely focused on churning out subsidized multifamily housing developments. Which is great — I used to work for one myself. But it seems to be that there’s a gap in the nonprofit space when it comes to helping out individual homeowners with things like legalizing their unpermitted accessory dwelling units.

Durst: [Texas] allowed certain counties to adopt building codes. Prior to that, counties didn’t real have much regulatory authority at all. They did that in part to address some of the poor quality housing in colonias and other self built communities.

They made exemptions for self-builders, so they are required to build to standard. But they are exempt from penalties. What the state has done is try to acknowledge self-help — it’s really the de facto affordable housing solution for many residents — and they’re also trying to put in a mechanism to slowly require adherence with codes. Instead of spending billions of dollars on affordable housing they’ve chosen to walk this fine regulatory line. I’m not going to say I fully advocate for this.

The article talks about the fact that informality exists at all income levels, and it’s often a matter of enforcement. Things that might never be tolerated in one neighborhood are deemed acceptable in another. Why? What does the presence of informal housing mean for cities?

Durst: A lot of the challenges would be much easier if people could simply afford safe, appropriate housing, and that’s not the case in many urban markets. And the informal market place is under-regulated. It often has poor quality, and therefore it is cheap. Governments know it, and that’s part of why its not enforced. Governments benefit from the existence of an informal market as long as it doesn’t become politically untenable.

Wegmann: With housing, we say people need to follow the law. But people need to understand if we actually did that, there would be a humanitarian cataclysm I don’t think anyone has considered.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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