Lorena Zarate – « Living with Dignity and Peace »

Lorena Zaráte

« Living with Dignity and Peace – Social Mobilization for Housing Rights and the Right to the City »

1. Just One World… with Dual Cities

Habitat International Coalition (HIC) is the global, independent and non-profit network for the defence and realization of every person’ right to a safe place to live with dignity and peace. Established in 1976 in Vancouver, Canada, within the framework of the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (known as Habitat I), it consist today of more than 350 member-organizations in 120 countries, including NGOs, CBOs, professional, research and education institutions, as well as human rights activists working to advance social justice, gender equality and environmental sustainability.

Born during a decade where the environmentalist concern was gaining ground vis-à-vis the imposition of the irrational myth of perpetual growth in a finite planet, HIC emerged to raise awareness of the human rights dimensions and to highlight the need to understand the characteristics and challenges faced by marginalized and impoverished communities. From professionals and academics, to community organizers and faith-based individuals and institutions, hundreds of women and men engaged on long-life commitments to promote human rights and the democratization of their societies. Many among them influenced by the liberation theology and the pedagogy of the oppressed in the context of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, they joined broad progressive platforms and social movements, and some later became local or national public officials.

The struggle for the promotion, defence and realization of housing and land rights and the right to the city in equitable and peaceful conditions continues to be as necessary and relevant as it was four decades ago. Probably more than ever before, human settlements are today a clear expression of the growing inequality, dispossession, discrimination and violence suffered by increasingly larger sectors of the population, both in the South and in the North, with women and girls being disproportionally affected.

Profit is above the well-being, dignity, needs and rights of people and nature, provoking conflicts, gentrification processes and man-made risks and disasters that cause displacement and evictions of traditional and low-income populations; dual cities of luxury and misery; millions of empty buildings and millions of homeless people and people without a decent place to live; tenants suffering inadequate living conditions and that cannot afford to pay the rent; peasants without land and land without peasants, subjected to abuses by agro-businesses, mining and other extractive industries and large scale projects; and massive waves of migrants and refugees condemned to violence and stigmatization, both in their home countries and the countries of passing and destination. We see the privatization of public spaces, infrastructure and basic services, vicious cycles of destruction-construction, extreme income concentration and cuts in social spending and “austerity” policies  for the majority, while corporate, authoritarian and criminal powers grow.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, the value of the global real-estate is about USD 217 trillion and represents nearly 60 percent of all global assets — many unoccupied or underutilized. At the same time, UN-Habitat reports that one third of the global urban population suffers from inadequate living conditions: lack of access to basic services (drinking water and/or sanitation, not to mention energy, waste recollection, and transportation), low structural quality of shelters, overcrowding, dangerous locations, and insecure tenure.

The trend towards population concentration in cities and metropolitan areas is presented as irreversible (our “urban future”), and as the only desirable and possible way of living. From aphorisms that glorify life in cities and their role in relation to rural areas (“engines of development”, “magnets of hope”), to the apocalyptic denunciation that we are headed towards “a planet of slums”, the predominant narratives seems to be trapped between extreme visions that fail to explain the reality surrounding us. In both cases, very little is said about the structural causes, the responsibilities of the various social actors, the interconnectedness between the urban and rural worlds, or about the hues, challenges and possibilities to tackle these processes.

2. International Networking, Local Transformation

For more than forty years HIC members have been actively engaged in challenging paradigms and experimenting with a wide range of alternatives in cities and villages around the world. 

Land and Housing Rights, the Social Protection of Habitat and the Right to the City have become crucial relevant pillars of our conceptual, pedagogical and advocacy work at local, national, regional and international level. These are based on  understanding i) the right to a place to live as a basic human right for dignity and peace ii) nature as a common good for current and future generations and iii) the city and human settlements as collective creations for more just, democratic, inclusive and sustainable societies.

Our work has focused on: proposals for the inclusión of these perspectives in constitutions and legal frameworks in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Mexico and South Africa.  We have also been involved in co-designing, and monitoring policies to support collective efforts to create or improve housing and neighbourhood conditions of disadvantaged groups in Angola, Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Spain, Switzerland and Uruguay. We have challenged regulations that criminalize homeless people and those they help. We denounce and work to prevent forced evictions and other violations of housing and land rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, we strive to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and to implement legislation that guarantees women’s habitat rights, including inheritance rights and access to adequate infrastructure and facilities. While challenging gender-based violence and its linkages with the rights to housing, land and the city, our members  work to strengthen women’s leadership at all levels. Co-organized with UN agencies and other relevant institutions, multiple consultations and policy recommendations have been incorporated in regional and global programmes that address these topics, aiming to create more inclusive and safer homes and cities where everyone can thrive.

The linkages between the environment and the human habitat, including critical issues such as just access to and sustainable use of land, water and food, as well as responsible management and recycling of waste, are also critical part of our concerns. HIC members have been active in developing risk prevention tools, and in rescuing traditional building techniques that recognize the knowledge of the communities and that prioritize the use of local materials. We document and denounce the impacts of climate change faced by the most vulnerable populations and defend the rights of all people affected by disasters to emergency relief and temporary resettlement, the right to remain in their place, and the right to their genuine and effective participation in reconstruction processes.

From its origins, our Coalition has been aware of the relevance of coordinating local and national actions with regional and global presence. Our strategy seeks to strengthen the social actors and processes, while influencing medium and long-term changes through advocacy. This takes many forms including: capacity-building, peer-to-peer exchanges, social mobilization and networking, research collaborations for policy-development, strategic litigation and human rights sensitization of lawyers and judges.

3. Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Denouncing, resisting but also proposing and experimenting are common verbs for organizations affiliated to the Coalition worldwide, and in this path we are not alone. The defence of the territory, the collective management of the commons, the deepening of democracy and the construction of another economy are core concerns and convictions that we share with many voices, who are outraged and concerned about the present and future of life on this planet. HIC has a long history of engagement and active participation in spaces like the World Social Forum, the World Urban Forum and other international UN agendas, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, the Habitat and the New Urban Agenda. The recent publication “HIC and the Habitat Conferences, 1976-2016” provides reflections from our institutional memory as well as lessons and inspiration for the new generations.

Seeking to effect meaningful and long-lasting change requires great efforts that  involve different dimensions and in this regard we must be able to modify our ideas in order to (re)build a (truly) common-sense around these issues and their possible solutions.

From a human rights perspective, housing is much more than four walls and a roof or a property tile. It is then crucial to promote proposals that prioritize the security of tenure, rethinking the importance of public and non-profit rental housing and consolidating cooperatives and other forms of collective or mixed use and ownership. It is also necessary to delineate the substantive differences between the social production of habitat (processes generated by habitable spaces controlled by self-producers, spontaneous or organized, who operate in a not-for-profit manner) and the production of social housing (promoted, build and administrated by public bodies —almost non-existent these days— and/or the private sector).

At the same time, integral housing and habitat policies must be conceived from a territorial scale and take into account the right to the city’ strategic principles: the full exercise of citizenship (guaranteeing all human rights for all people in the city, despite their legal status); the social function of land, property and the city (against speculation, evictions and displacement); the democratic management of territory (through direct, participatory and community-oriented democracy); the right to produce the city and a productive habitat (social production and management of habitat); the responsible and sustainable management of the city’s commons (including natural and cultural heritage, with an ecological and territorial approach of the city-region and the connection with the rural areas, beyond administrative boundaries); and the equal and democratic enjoyment of the city (access, co-creation and co-management of public spaces, community centres and other such facilities).

The right to the city seeks to create the right to an urban space for solidarity, one that questions agendas that promote the “competitive” and “smart” city, which is driven largely by and for corporate interests and political elites. In a context of increasing misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, cities are proclaiming themselves to be “sanctuaries” that welcome migrants and refugees.  They “rebel” in the face of policies that seek to impose austerity and greater social injustice.  They  denounce the abuses of the big transnational speculative lobbies and they propose ideas like “human rights cities”, “cities for equity” and “cities of care”, and propose a feminist urbanism and a transversal policy approach that takes into account the material, political and symbolical needs and characteristics of everyday life.

To denounce setbacks, make governments accountable and connect the narratives and practices that are working to build a different world, HIC and its allies, like the Global Platform for the Right to the City, are promoting and supporting initiatives such as the Human Rights Habitat Observatory or the International Meeting on Equal Cities (Buenos Aires, October 2018), as well as  the Municipalist Declaration for the Right to Housing and Right to the City and The Shift Campaign, launched by the UN Special Rapporteur and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

Cities are the concrete places where most of the acute challenges of our times have to be faced and solved. They are also the places of active social mobilization and innovation, indignation and hope.

References and Resources

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing, (New York: United Nations,1991)

Habitat International Coalition, Habitat International Coalition and the Habitat Conferences 1976-2016, (Barcelona: HIC, 2018),

International Meeting for Equal Cities, Buenos Aires, 28-31 October 2018,

Ortiz, E. y L. Zárate, Vivitos y Coleando. 40 Años Trabajando por el Hábitat Popular en América Latina [Alive and kicking. 40 years working for people’s habitat in Latin America], Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and HIC-AL, 2002.

Ortiz, E. y L. Zárate, De la Marginación a la Ciudadanía. 38 Casos de Producción y Gestión Social del Hábitat [From Marginality to Citizenship. 38 cases of social production and management of habitat], Barcelona: Forum Universal de las Culturas, HIC y HIC-AL, 2004.

Sassen, S, ‘Who Owns our Cities – and Why this Urban Takeover Should Concern us All, The Guardian, 24 November 2015,

Schechla, Joseph, Anatomies of a Social Movement. Social Production of Habitat in the Middle East/North Africa (Part I), (Cairo: Housing and Land Rights Network-Habitat International Coalition, 2004)

Sugranyes, A, and Mathivet C., (eds.), Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City. (Santiago de Chile: HIC, 2010)

United Cities and Local Governments,  Municipalist Declaration on the Right to Housing and the Right to the City, 2018, 

UN Habitat,  Slum Almanac 2015-2016 – Tracking Improvement in the Lives of Slum Dwellers, (Nairobi: UN-Habitat,  2016)

United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, (New York: United Nations, 2015)

United Nations,   UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Annual Report February 2017,

United Nations,   UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, The Shift Campaign,

United Nations, The Habitat Agenda, Istanbul: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, June 1996,

 United Nations, The New Urban Agenda, (Quito: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, October 2016)

United Nations,   The Paris Agreement, (Paris: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2015),

United Nations,  The Vancouver Declaration and Action Plan, (Vancouver: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements,1976),Zárate, Lorena, ‘They are Not Informal Settlements – Thy are Habitats Made by People’, The Nature of Cities, 26 April 2016,


Lorena Zaráte studied history in her hometown of La Plata, Argentina. Since 2000, she joined Habitat International Coalition (HIC) in Mexico City and is currently HIC President at the global level. She has been involved in work on the World Charter and the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City. She collaborates closely with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing and is currently co-coordinating an international project to promote the Global Platform for the Right to the City.

Address: Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Huatusco 39, Col. Roma Sur – 06760 México D.F.