Recent studies on informal settlements have revealed that they are not as disorderly and chaotic as previously perceived (Jones, 2019; Nkurunziza, 2007; Rakodi and Leduka, 2003). With respect to accessing land and housing, the research has revealed that a form of spatial organisation and order guides how residents interact with one another to fulfil their housing needs. This has generated interest for both policy and academic researchers in understanding the nature and structure of this order. Still, research is in its infancy, and several aspects of housing and its exchange in informal settlements remain underexplored. As a result, policy prescriptions are still aimed at formalising informal settlements using legalist approaches that integrate them into formal governance structures. 

In response to this inadequacy, this study aimed to uncover the structure of informal housing markets by providing detailed empirical and theoretical conceptualisations of market operations. It explored markets' emergence, structure, actors, and institutions guiding their operations. With a focus on the rental submarket, the study showed that informal institutions that guide how actors interact with one another have emerged and evolved in response to changes in the institutional environment. The data presented in this paper was collected through in-depth interviews with 26 landlords and 8 tenants and a survey of 132 landlords and 283 tenants.

The study was undertaken in Kanyama, the largest informal settlement in Lusaka, Zambia's capital city. Kanyama emerged from squatting on private agricultural land during colonialism in the 1950s. Different stages of its development have shown the influence of various factors on its spatial organisation. Customary processes such as determining plot sizes using steps and boundaries using trees and shrubs guided plot allocations in the early stages of development. Similarly, land registration patterns were not individualised and involved the registration of every member of a household in the settlement register. Since the legalisation of Kanyama in 1999, formal processes have altered these practices by introducing metric measurements of land sizes and individualised registration of landowners through the issuance of occupancy licences. Also, population growth has increased the demand for land and housing, transforming land and housing accessibility and leading to the emergence of a housing market.

Kanyama's housing market

This research revealed that the housing market in Kanyama comprises both private owner-occupied and rental housing. There is a high proportion of rental (68%) compared to owner-occupied housing. The rental structure involves either a resident landlord renting out rooms in their house or an absentee landlord renting out an entire house to one or more tenants. The research also revealed a general resistance to selling housing in Kanyama. 78% of the homeowners are the settlement's original settlers, meaning that renters moved in the last 20 years and are generally younger than landlords (70% are aged between 20 and 45). Due to more activity being observed in the rental market, the rest of this paper analyses its organisation and the processes that structure its operations. The analysis is divided into five stages: landlord and tenant matching, rent setting, contractual agreements, rent collection, contract enforcement, and dispute resolution.

Landlord and tenant matching

Information is an essential factor in bringing landlords and tenants together. The use of posters guides Kanyama's information exchange processes. A poster, an A4 piece of paper advertising a house or room for rent, is prepared by a landlord when a room falls vacant. 96% of the landlords interviewed indicated that they use posters for advertising vacancies. This approach makes information 'centrally' available to prospective tenants. The posters are often placed on the wall of a house, at the gate, or on an electricity pole in the neighbourhood. In other instances, landlords will place the posters in more public places, such as notice boards at a church, hospital, or the local court. In the quote below, one landlord explained how this process allows him to find tenants in a short time and at a low cost:

"When a room falls vacant, I stick a piece of paper saying 'Room for rent' on the wall. Those interested come to me, and I interview them to find out where they are moving from and what they do for a living. From that interview, I then decide to offer them the room or not.' (WM, resident landlord)

Tenants also explained how posters are an easy and low-cost mode of information acquisition about vacant rooms. Although some agents are present in Kanyama, their services are rarely used in the house or tenant search process. Intermediaries are usually in the form of family or friends who pass on information about a vacancy within their social networks.

However, although accessing information on vacancies is straightforward, finding a house that suits a tenant's needs is not always easy. This is because of the variability in housing quality and available amenities in Kanyama. Older houses are lower in quality, having been built using mud bricks, than newer concrete-built homes. Further, settlement upgrade following the legalisation of Kanyama has been inadequate, and thus, amenities such as water and electricity are not available in every home. Hence, there is a high demand for good quality housing where landlords provide water and electricity. This is reflected in the rent setting process taken by landlords. 

Rent setting

Although landlords consider several factors when setting the rental price, the availability of water and electricity on the property is a key determinant of the rental price. Where these amenities are available, landlords will charge a premium and often include the monthly cost of these services in the rental price. However, landlords ensure that their prices are competitive and do not display aggressive rent setting behaviour. This is because, even though houses with water and electricity are more attractive, tenants are willing to forego their availability to pay lower rents. They will then use alternative energy sources, mostly charcoal, and communal water points, to access water. 

In the absence of external interventions, this system of setting rents has created a mechanism where rental prices are uniform across the settlement. Units of a similar size and quality will often be priced within the same price range, varying only when the location and amenities are different.

Contractual agreements

When selecting tenants, landlords make two important considerations: the tenant's ability to pay and household composition. Landlords interview prospective tenants before deciding to rent out their house. The ability to pay is determined by the prospective tenant's employment status or occupation. Landlords will not usually accept tenants whose source of income they have not established. Also, where landlords are resident on the property, they will not take in a household with more than four or five members, like EN, a resident landlord explained:

"I interview tenants before they move in. I will ask if they're married and if they work or run a business. I also ask if they have children and, if so, how many. I can't take anyone with more than two children. I also have a big family here. This interview allows me to assess whether I will have a good relationship with them or not. I can't take in anyone without interviewing them. I don't want to bring in a thief." (EN, resident landlord)

The tenancy terms, such as when rent is due, how rent and other bills are paid, and what happens when rent is overdue, are agreed upon between landlord and tenant. These agreements are primarily verbal, as only 5% of the landlords sign contracts with their tenants. Landlords explained that they trust their tenants to pay rent when due and adhere to the tenancy conditions even in the absence of a signed contract. Only 4% of the landlords keep a record of identification information about their tenants.

Rent collection

At the beginning of the tenancy, landlords do not collect any deposit from their tenants. However, rentals are due and collected in cash every month on an agreed date; usually the date the tenant moved in. Only 5% of the landlords record rental payments, and none give receipts to tenants. Landlords give an allowance of one week for late payments, before reminders, mostly verbal or through text message, are communicated. 

About 55% of the tenants pay rent on the due date, while 45% pay within a week of rent falling due. The flexibility of tenancies in the settlement allows tenants to pay rent in instalments. Although this is not desirable for landlords, they exercise leniency, especially where the tenant is elderly and has lived on the property for a long time.

Contract enforcement and dispute resolution

A complex relationship between tenants and resident landlords makes contract enforcement difficult. Sharing common spaces such as bathrooms and sometimes sharing meals leads to the creation of familial bonds. Faced with the difficulty of demanding their rent and not wanting to evict 'family', some landlords often wait months before approaching the tenant for their rent:

"I have a tenant who hasn't paid me for six months, but he's still here. I can't chase him; he's like family now. I need the money, but what can I do?" (RM, resident landlord)

However, some tenants will move out before getting an 'official eviction'. Those who share a house with the landlord will move out in the middle of the night to avoid a confrontation, while those whose landlords are non-resident move out and leave the key with a neighbour. Some tenants shared experiences where the landlord would change the locks or remove their personal property from the house.

In these cases, dispute resolution, through formal and informal channels, is sought. Community organisations and local leaders often act as mediators and work with both parties to reach an amicable solution:

"We try to reconcile them. We tell them that they need to respect each other's rights and then work to reach a mutual understanding. If we fail to reconcile them, we advise that they go to the subordinate court, and we help facilitate that." (Concerned Citizens for Justice and Human Rights, community organisation).

What does this rental process tell us about interventions in informal settlements?

Residents of informal settlements have devised mechanisms for accessing land and housing within the context of high house prices and increased demand for shelter in urban areas. Notably, due to its affordability and flexibility, renting has emerged as an important, and sometimes only, tenure option for most residents. Information exchange is centralised through posters, landlords set prices based on the utility offered by the house, tenancy agreements and rent collection are based on trust, while informal and formal dispute resolution processes are used to resolve conflicts between landlords and tenants. 

Despite recognising that delivering housing that responds to the needs of residents of informal settlements is key to addressing the urban challenge in developing countries, policymakers still take a top-down approach that mirrors formal processes. In 2014, the Ministry of Lands in Zambia embarked on a National Land Titling Programme to place all land in the country on title (Tembo et al., 2018). This means individualising tenure by issuing 99-year leaseholds to landowners. This policy focus on titling excludes renters from policy design and implementation, but as shown in this paper, renters represent a significant proportion of residents of informal settlements. Therefore, devising policies that aim to supply good quality rental housing should be a priority, as should the provision of public services accessible to all residents of informal settlements. 


Jones, P., 2019. The Shaping of Form and Structure in Informal Settlements: A Case Study of Order and Rules in Lebak Siliwangi, Bandung, Indonesia. Journal of Regional and City Planning 30, 43.

Nkurunziza, E., 2007. Informal mechanisms for accessing and securing urban land rights: the case of Kampala, Uganda. Environment and Urbanization 19, 509–526.

Rakodi, C., Leduka, C.R., 2003. Informal Land Delivery Processes and Access to Land for the Poor: A Comparative Study of Six African Cities. International Development Department, University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

Tembo, E., Minango, J., Sommerville, M., 2018. Zambia’s National Land Titling Programme- challenges and opportunities. USAID.

About the author

Chilombo Musa is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge. Chilombo received a bursary to attend the Housing Studies Association Annual Conference 2022. As part of the bursary, recipients are expected to contribute to the HSA blog, and this blog post is based on the paper presented at the HSA conference. 

Find out more about the HSA conference bursaries

The Housing Studies Association (HSA) is a limited company registered in England and Wales under company number 13958843 at 42 Wellington Road, Greenfield, OL3 7AQ.
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