Then I'll Huff, and I'll Puff, and I'll . . . : A Natural Experiment on Property Titling, Housing Improvement and the Psychology of Tenure Security


  • The editors congratulate the author of this article, an earlier version of which was awarded first prize in the FURS (Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies) 2010 Essay Competition for the Best Essay on Urban and Regional Themes by Young Authors. For details of the Foundation's activities, including eligibility criteria and application forms for studentships and research grants, visit

  • The author gratefully acknowledges the help of the following people with gathering the data for this study: Estela Gutierrez, Gaspar Torrez, Mirian Montenegro, Hugo David Obregon, Daiana Garcia, Marcela Torres, Ezequiel Lapera, Cristian Carlini, Facundo Ezquieta, Fernando Ostuni and Maria Cristina Cravino. I thank Gustaaf Reerink for his assistance with the dependent measure and Reinout E. de Vries for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. This research was funded by a generous grant from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Jean-Louis van Gelder (, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, De Boelelaan 1077a, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



The provision of tenure security for residents of informal settlements has been among the highest ranking and most debated topics on the development agenda. Some have fervently argued for the distribution of property title to establish security and generate incentives for investment in housing improvement. Others have argued that it is the security as perceived that determines whether and how much dwellers invest. This article examines the psychological pathways through which titling is supposed to work, hypothesizing that they operate largely through increases in perceptions of security. This is done by capitalizing on a natural experiment in which half of the residents of an informal settlement in Buenos Aires received property title, while allocation to the other half was delayed due to a legal restriction. The results show that perceptions of security partially mediated the titling–investment relationship and shed new light on the debate by laying bare the psychological mechanisms of dweller decision making.


Apporter la sécurité d’occupation aux habitants des logements informels fait partie des sujets prioritaires les plus débattus en matière de développement. Certains ont ardemment défendu la distribution de titres de propriété comme moyen de fournir une garantie et d’inciter à investir dans l’amélioration de l’habitat. D’autres avancent que c’est la sécurité subjective qui détermine la décision ou les modalités d’investissement chez la plupart des occupants. Ce travail examine les cheminements psychologiques grâce auxquels l’attribution de titres de propriété est censée fonctionner, en supposant qu’ils opèrent le plus souvent via un accroissement du sentiment de sécurité. Pour ce faire, il se sert d’un cas expérimental naturel dans lequel la moitié des habitants de logements informels de Buenos Aires ont reçu un titre de propriété, tandis qu’une contrainte légale retardait l’attribution à l’autre moitié. D’après les résultats, le sentiment de sécurité a facilité en partie la relation propriété-investissement et a éclairé le débat en dévoilant les mécanismes psychologiques qui interviennent dans la décision des habitants.