Policy Brief 1: Reducing Community Tensions Through Housing

July 15, 2009


Executive Summary

Housing in the long term, as distinct from temporary shelter, is a development goal entrenched in both human rights and national policies. Lack of, or inadequate housing may represent not only physical deprivation but also, to a degree, injuries to human dignity. The economic worth of such assets alone provides strong impetus for intervention in this sector, but the additional value in terms of social and cultural cohesion makes for a necessary investment. The centrality of the home to status and belonging is especially vital to promoting resilience in post-conflict nations.

In Timor-Leste, housing is back on the policy agenda after a long period of being overshadowed by more immediate humanitarian concerns. This aligns with a more general move from emergency- oriented aid toward programming designed to promote sustained recovery and development. Given the relative youth of the country, there has yet been little time to consider and implement government programming, though various possible interventions have been proposed. Regularising land tenure will be a critical part of such advances.

One major change to the social landscape with which an updated housing policy will need to grapple is the phenomenon of internal displacement. Many of those uprooted by the violent events of 2006 are being assisted to move to new locations outside the capital. Data from sample areas across the country reveals a significant number establishing themselves in different districts from those in which they lived prior to the crisis. Despite consistent attempts by various actors to mediate between returnees or new arrivals and their host communities, a degree of conflict has inevitably been reported, with 54% of locations monitored by BELUNai??i??s EWER program (an introduction to which is attached as an annexe to this policy brief) reporting tensions between IDPs and other inhabitants.

Migration in the opposite direction is also producing housing pressures. A significant number of individuals and families are moving into urban areas, many of them without work (a reported incidence of 31% at surveyed locations). Based on data collected, 23% of these urban migrants are intending to rely on accommodation to which they maintain a prior claim. Given that few assets and opportunities are left to waste in Timor-Leste, this is bound to precipitate challenges. Accordingly, this trend can be expected to raise both the frequency and urgency of claims to homes and property.

There can be little guarantee of ownership, whether in urban or rural areas, making housing currently a precarious asset on which to rely. Reporting shows that in the target areas of Ermera, Liquica, Covalima, Manufahe and Viqueque, individuals and families are understood to be selling their homes and property as a result of encroachment and intimidation. With 65% of EWER monitors confirming that house and property transfers in their sub-district are most often undertaken informally, few formal options are open to vulnerable groups guarding themselves from dispossession.

Both housing sufficiency and adequacy are of concern ai??i?? in 73% of sampled areas, homelessness is a stated problem, with families and individuals relegated to living in fields and marketplaces. Homes are often shared by two or three families, producing a situation whereby conflict is almost as common within the household (81% incidence in target areas) as between neighbours (88%). This competition over housing stock is made more desperate by the widely reported inability to repair or rebuild poor quality homes. Intimidation and outright conflict are being triggered in monitored subdistricts almost as much by construction efforts (54% incidence) as by disputed ownership (73%).

With the stakes so high, and so much potential gain, implementation of a coherent and country-wide housing program is vital to Timor-Lesteai??i??s development. Regularisation of land tenure will be central to reform in this area, but beyond that, the Governmentai??i??s study of social housing options could be bolstered by a housing upgrade program and in the longer term, public-funded rent-to-own schemes.