Tenure is a relationship involving the holding of something such as a position or a property. (See “secure tenure.”) Land and housing tenure comes in various forms, including freehold (ownership), leasehold (rental), or other legal forms, and could be held singly (private tenure), jointly or collectively.
The term ‘tenure’ is derived from word tenir in both Latin and French, whichmeans ‘to hold’ when referring to the act, fact, manner, or condition for someone who is keeping a job permanently, or holding a property.
Within the context of the human rights, tenure rights are often described as “bundle of rights” comprised of entitlements to access, use, manage, control, exclude others from, develop, exchange, or otherwise dispose of land, housing, or other assets and resources. The recognition of legitimate tenure, in this context, implies a relationship with the effect of formalizing, through law or de jure processes, protection of those entitlements that are already being held also through customary, informal or de facto relations and mechanisms. However, such legal recognition and protection often do not apply to informal tenure systems, common in both rural and urban areas.
Security of tenure is a central component of human rights to land and adequate housing, and human rights law mandates that all persons possess a degree of security of tenure. The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing defined tenure to be “understood as the set of relationships with respect to housing and land, established through statutory law or customary, informal or hybrid arrangements” and “’security of tenure’…of land and/or housing…ensures a secure home and enables one to live in security, peace and dignity.”
The various types of tenure derive from four main systems, (1) statutory systems, established by law or statutes, (2) customary systems, referring to the communal possession, (3) religious systems, whereby all or some land is owned and managed by religious authorities, (4) informal tenure systems, most common in urban areas.
A recognition of the complexity and diversity of forms of tenure is illustrated by a linear diagram proffered by Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) and is called “Continuum of Land Rights.’ It aims to show the registered individual freehold tenure (ownership) is an ideal type or ultimate goal in a progression, despite the fact that many other categories in other tenure systems offer equally high levels of legitimacy. This linear diagram does not reflect the diverse social and economic contexts and changes of tenure type that do not necessarily follow a linear progression. (See image 1)
HIC-HLRN has developed an alternative conception, in order to convey the sense of a true continuum and the potential movement in any direction across it, using a Möbius strip (plane), as distinct from a line. (see Image 2.)
In order to depict the fact that no tenure type is absolute, including freehold tenure (registered ownership), the diagram accommodates mitigating conditions that apply across all forms of tenure, namely, social function and public purpose. Theoretically, any type of holding should fulfill its social function, which means rendering the optimum service to society and avoiding deprivation of the rights of those other than holder (e.g., through real-estate speculation). Akin to the common use and benefit of land and property, the further recognition of its social and environmental functions is as a feature of all forms of land and property at all times. Likewise, any holding could be subject to acquisition to fulfill a public purpose (e.g., ‘eminent domain’ acquisition for a school, hospital, public infrastructure, etc.). In that case, both the commons/public-purpose and the social function of land and property form aspects that are consistent with, and, hence, axes running through land and property of all tenure relationships along the continuum.
Image 1: A linear depiction of a progression of tenure types. Source: GLTN, “Continuum of Land Rights.” Image 2: HIC-HLRN conception of a continuum of housing, land and property rights based upon a Möbius strip, allowing for nonpolar movement on a plane spanning numerous points (types of tenure). Housing and Land Rights Network, Cairo, 2015.