Conference Report: Informal housing in Europe and North America

illegal-housingThis is the second of the two conference reports by Dr Steve Millington from the Royal Geographical Society’s Annual Conference 2016.  You can also read the report on the IPM site. You can read the first conference report here.

by Steve Millington

Informal housing is often seen as a defining characteristic of cities in the Global South, but housing problems in US and European cities is producing both practices and policy responses, which begin to question the nature of housing tenure in places where formal housing provision is considered the norm.

This is not to say informal housing is new to the Global North, indeed poorer groups in society have for a long time become subject to informal, illegal and temporary forms of tenure. But, housing shortages and affordability is beginning to expose a broader range of social groups to informal housing. Does this represent this transposition of the culture of informal dwellings form the Global North to the Global South?  In other words, can we expect “shanty” style housing to emerge in European and American cities?

Probably not, but undoubtedly informal housing is a growing issue, although there might be multiple types of informality, from clearly illegal practices (unauthorised house building), to activity which blurs the boundary between the formal/informal. In the USA Jake Wegman (University of Texas) (, for example, reveals four types of informality:

1.       Non-compliance – transgression of formal rules

2.       State produced informality – selective enforcement

3.       Deregulation – spaces where no actual laws are violated

4.       Interwoven – informal adaptions informal integrated into formal housing

Geography is important, because a settlement might fall inside or outside areas of formal compliance.  In addition, Jake reveals hidden housing, constructed for example, in the back gardens of formal construction, but hidden from street view.  Such construction is difficult to monitor.  Interestingly, Jake suggests we shouldn’t conflate housing informality with poverty, as hidden housing often found in back-lots of wealthy middle class households, perhaps as a solution to housing relatives.

Holman, Ferriri, & Mossa (London School of Economic and Political Sciences, Durham Durham University)(, are examining how recent developments such as Air BnB is enabling a broader commodification of short-term lettings.  This may enable ordinary householders to capitalise on tourism.  However, such practices are also enabling some property owners to circumvent regulations normally applied to the formal private rented sector.  In other words, some properties listed on Air BnB (often at a premium) would normally fall in the formal private rent market.  The research reveals, for example, the practice of multi-listed properties on Air BnB, where properties are clearly not owned by a single private homeowner.  One landlord in central London, for example, has over 250 properties listed under their name.  In a city where housing is at a premium, such practices further impinge on housing need for local residents. This situation raises questions about the role of planning authorities in enforcing the legislation applying to short-term lettings, but there are many obstacles to monitoring who uses properties listed on sites such as Air BnB, for example, the lack of resourcing and legal rights to enter properties.  In the UK, there isn’t even a formal register of such properties.

Melanie Lombard (University of Sheffield) ( ) is exploring another facet of housing informality in the UK, to reveal the often illegal practice of using outhouses, such as garden sheds, as accommodation.   Not surprisingly this is difficult to research due to the invisibility of this housing and a reluctance on the behalf of both landlords and tenants to reveal themselves to the authorities.  Lombard is interested in the power of ‘slum dwellers’ to shape and make the places of their dwelling, but questions perhaps the romanticisation attached to informal housing practices in cities of the Global South.  Lombard suggests there maybe 10,000 illegal outbuildings in the UK, where access to heating, light and water (basic amenities) is questionable.  She also examines state response to this perceived practice.  From a landlord perspective, the conversion of outbuildings is a logical response once the opportunities for the internal sub-division of houses has been exhausted, and represents a profitable activity.  Lombard questions media assumptions that shed-dwellers are mainly illegal immigrants.  Instead, her research suggests many are simply low-paid workers, and not necessarily vulnerable communities.  The growth shed dwellers appears to be a symptom of the U.K. housing crisis, where formal housing in places like London is no longer an affordable option for low pay workers. In addition, welfare reforms seem to have exacerbated the problem, enforcing a downward shift, whereby lower paid workers have little option to seek out alternative lower cost properties.  In other words, the romantic notion of agency does not transpose to the UK as it appears the shed dwellers are subject to broader structural change in the UK housing provision and policy.

In Italy Elisbeth Rosa (Aix-Marseilles Universite) is examining the relationship between unauthorised building (abusivismo) and formal planning.  Using Comte’s notion of nomotropism, Rosa’s research explores the grey area between agency and law, in other words, how people might circumvent formal rules and legislation, where there is almost a tacit acceptance of transgression or violation of the rules.  For instance, there are fines and powers to enforce the demolition of illegally constructed properties in Italy, but in practice rarely are these penalties applied.  One state response is simply to ignore the legal status of unauthorised housing by categorising illegally constructed housing.  For example, in Naples an illegally built estate in the 1970s is now recognised as “housing in the park”, which effectively legitimises the practice. Such responses raise questions about the focus and purpose of Italian housing policy in terms of regulation and maintaining standards.

Darinka Czischke, Marja Elsinga and Peter Ho (Delft University of Technology)ask the question whether informal housing presents a potential solution to Europe’s housing crisis.  For instance, the development of self-organised community projects, questions the binary between professional (credible, legitimate) and non-professional (non-credible illegitimate) housing practices.  For more about Darinka’s research: