How much land does a family need?

slum homes in manila after demolition
Demolition of slum housing near my homestay

My first slum homestay was in a large, decrepit house. The entrance was split into narrow hallways by particle boards. I followed my homestay “brother” down one of the makeshift paths to the right, then left, right then two more lefts, shuffling between flimsy dividers that didn’t leave enough space for my shoulders. We arrived at his family’s home, a room small enough that I could have laid down and touched every wall. When they slept the four of them took up their entire floor space.

Suffice it to say that my three-day “home stay” was daytime only. They didn’t have any additional floor space to sleep on. I later learned that the original middle-class residents had abandoned the house at some point, and over time it had been subdivided by squatters. Ten families were living in the amount of space meant for just one.

Peregrine in a difficult room to stay in
Our first slum room

Years later Peregrine and I moved into a slum ourselves. There were 60,000 people living on 1/4 square kilometer of land. I had to do calculations in my head to verify that was even possible. Yet there it was, families crammed into small rooms stacked five stories high, many of the buildings separated by alleys no wider than I am.

Can 60,000 people thrive on just 60 acres of land? My parents back home in America currently live on about an acre of land…while in some slums we’re talking a thousand people per acre.

How much land does a family need?

Slums emerge when people move into a city without legal authority to develop their own land. So they squat wherever land is available. This might be in an empty lot, under a overpass, along a riverside, on the edges of a railroad right-of-way. Some options are naturally space-constrained due to narrow dimensions, others only become constrained due to the number of people moving in. And people WILL move in. Not only is the rural-urban migration continuing with no apparent slowdown, but wealthy persons and governments looking for profit tend to demolish slum homes whenever they have political capital to do so, forcing the evacuees to bunch up in the ever-fewer remaining spaces.

This room was 7 feet long and 8 feet wide. At one point there were 9 people sharing the room next door.

Our little family has lived in homes ranging from about 5 square meters in size to 20 square meters, with a median of 9-10 square meters. That might sound small to you, but at least we’re just two adults and a baby (our older daughter Shadia sleeps in our rented literacy classroom in another building). Imagine what it’s like for the families who have 5-8 members in rooms of that same size.

Of course, not the “entire” home is inside that space. In most cases there is also a latrine and water tap, though those might be shared among any number of families. We also make as much use as possible of outdoor space, including clothes washing and drying, dish washing, and even cooking in some cases.

There are perks to living in a small room. A lot less house to clean, of course. There’s no space for clutter, so you are quick to get rid of things you don’t need and slow to buy things you can do without. From a sitting position you can reach half the room without getting up. Activities that require more space are done out in the community, facilitating more time interacting with people and less time alone, a factor that reduces depression. There is much to be said for simplicity.

One of our largest rooms, it was the only one that had its own indoor latrine. There was even enough space for Peregrine’s bicycle!

Of course, you do sacrifice privacy. The inability to spend time apart can lead to more conflict in the family. There’s little room for adults to exercise or for kids to engage in physical play. Guest numbers must be limited (we once had 14 administrators visit us from an educational program and three were forced to stand outside). And it’s difficult to provide emergency living space for a friend or stranger in need in the sense of Isaiah 58:7, Matthew 25:35, or Hebrews 13:2. .

So how do we answer the question of how much land a family needs?

I’ve come to believe that simplicity is a good thing, but there are limits. Ideally, a home should have at least one room for each adult – meaning a studio is fine for a single person but a separate bedroom and living room is to be preferred for a couple. Every two kids you add should be another room. So a family of 4 can make due with 3 rooms (two bedrooms and a common room), while a family of 6 probably should have four.

westerners americans living in a slum room home
Our current home. It’s not particularly large but we do cook outside which helps immensely.

And how big should the rooms be? While our little 55-square-foot home was adequate for the 15 months we lived in it, that probably wasn’t healthy in the long term. Even when we had two such rooms for a couple years there were drawbacks. So let’s splurge and say 10 square meters (~100 sq. ft.) per room. That means that our little family of 3, ideally, would live in a 20 square meter home.

Very few slum families are so lucky.

A 20 square meter home (just over 200 square feet) may sound shockingly small to a Western audience. In the USA, the average size of a new single-family home has been well over 200 square meters (about 2100 square feet) since the 1990s. They keep getting bigger. Even back in 1950, when Americans lived more simply, the average new family home was still about 90 square meters.

Large homes take more resources to build. They can take more energy to heat and cool, more time to maintain, and end up filled with more possessions. All that makes them more expensive, meaning you spend more time working and less time with your family. The larger plot sizes add to urban sprawl, extending commutes and increasing residential segregation.

But that’s all an issue for another time.

For now I want to ask – how small a home are we willing to tolerate for others? If we feel a 1000 square foot home would be intolerable for our own family, are we okay with many poor families living in 100 square foot homes? Do we think their kids don’t deserve as much space to play as ours do?

There are several root causes to the crisis of space for slum families, but the most basic is this: we created a system of property whose basic principle is the belief that wealthy people should have the authority to dominate the Earth’s land and decide who else gets to use it. We treat control of land as their birthright. The wealthy didn’t put the land there, they didn’t make it, God did. It is GOD’S land. But because those people have money and power, they have been allowed to claim most of it as theirs.

“’But whom do I treat unjustly,’ you say, ‘by keeping what is my own?’ Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common—this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.

Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets for your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?” – St. Basil the Great in Homily 8, In Time of Famine and Drought

Leviticus 25 states, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” Along this principle, Israel was founded with a system where every family got adequate land, and the regular “Jubilee” ensured that no family could ever lose their land. By the time of Acts 2, when such a system was no longer in place, the Church instead had people voluntarily sell off their extra land to benefit the poor in their community.

As Christians we are ripe for a new Jubilee. We need a way for ensuring that everyone has adequate land. To say, “It’s your fault for being poor, it’s your fault for being oppressed, I deserve 20 times as much space as you” demonstrates a lack of love for neighbor. Yet slums continue and I do not know of any meaningful programs from the church looking to give the slum dwellers adequate space to live in.

This, for me, is one of the most basic and yet most ignored foundations of slum development. How can you provide a good life for your family if you don’t even have enough space to live?

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