Homes for India’s urban poor

  • March 24, 2016
Homes for India’s urban poor

The Indian Government's attempt to address the country's lack of affordable urban housing, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, is bold, but traditional urban housing programmes in India have met with limited success.  Could we perhaps approach the problem more strategically?

A policy that houses families first without the infrastructure and services they need being in place mimics the slum experience where housing is built first and everything else comes much later.  It is no surprise that such initiatives do not succeed.  Shelter Plus aims to create affordable houses built at speed at the same time as providing supporting services and amenities by involving communities in decision-making over housing and its location and offering flexible tenure options, including rent-to-buy.

Another point to bear in mind is that design matters.  People want homes not just houses.  Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker prize recently for designing affordable housing in Chile. In 1969 several Peruvian and 13 international architects, including India's Charles Correa, congregated in Lima to develop housing for the poor. Getting architects involved could help the development of homes rather than just houses.

Sustainable development

Linked to design is sustainable development. The production of cement concrete, the mainstay of house-building, uses nearly one-quarter of the world's energy resources.  The case for green construction is compelling and for housing that can be built at speed. If we do not deliver, and at speed, the scale of urbanisation and housing problems will outstrip supply.  The result will be more slums.  At a time when two thirds of construction components can be assembled off-site, it cannot be so hard to deliver housing projects on time.

Dr John Snow’s discovery of the cause of cholera in 1854 drove global investment in public health infrastructure.  However, that infrastructure takes two generations to reach cities in developing nations.  Off-grid innovation such as bio-digestion and earthworm driven compost toilets, along with water and energy off-grid solutions, will immeasurably aid housing development.

Another important way of improving the delivery of affordable housing is to boost the capacity of all those involved, not merely government – that means private sector builders as well as community engagement in building projects.  Those involved in housing projects also need to keep their skills up to date.  In Singapore, public officials engage in at least 100 hours of learning every year.

Moreover, unlocking land can reduce housing costs significantly.  India needs 4,000 square kilometres of land to address the current housing shortage.  This can be done, for instance, by land pooling – bringing together land from multiple owners and giving them a portion of any profits from housing developments – and inclusionary zoning – earmarking a portion of land for housing for the poor.  It makes no economic sense to have land that is not being used – in China, land is not allowed to lie idle for longer than two years.

Mobility is equally important in the fight against poverty and efforts need to be made to develop links between housing and the places people work. In Caracas and Medellin, elevated metro cable lines connect slums with metro stations.  Hong Kong has strategically developed housing along rail lines.

As Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat, observes, those cities which have a 50:50 ratio of open to built area – such as Barcelona and New York – have the best results for walkability, density and mobility. These cities benefit from visionary plans such as the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York.  This can be done by using all necessary planning levers.

Open government

Another problem is barriers to participation in everyday urban life such as procedural delay and cumbersome paperwork which impedes access to cooking fuel (LPG) and essential services. These barriers must be overcome.

We could also map and disclose information on job options linked to the siting of housing projects and have industry/commerce, both in the formal and informal economy, offer employment opportunities to complement housing projects.

In addition, public disclosure could lead to a wider movement for open government and to a ‘suburbanisation of jobs’ to avoid the congestion associated with commuting to work in busy city centres.  Creating a system where people can exchange vouchers so they can swap their houses for those nearer where their jobs are can also help in large cities.

Public disclosure may encourage co-building projects such as in Uruguay or usher in transparency such as in Surat, India, where houses are allocated via an open lottery process. At the moment, allocation (often with preferential treatment for some) happens behind closed doors.

Changing the mindset

When it comes to funding, there is a need for further reform. Income from housing development and the sale of affordable housing is now exempt from taxation in India.  What more could we do?  We could get the private sector to develop inclusive mixed income housing and combat the long held analogy of low income shelter and poor quality construction.

Mixed-income development will aid slum prevention.  The affluent, however, despise sharing the same buildings as poor households.  The biggest impediment to life without slums is our mindset.  We must change now for a more sociable, harmonious and egalitarian future.

Preventing slum formation is challenging.  We need to steer new city entrants at rail stations, bus terminuses and other entry points toward mainstream housing options, including organised rental housing or small plots with services. Communication is the key.

I have briefly discussed ways we may depart from previously deployed housing only strategies that have succeeded only partially. This is what I call the  PPP2 approach. It's a six-point plan which embraces shelter Plus, urban Planning levers, the Private sector, mainstream Participation, Public disclosure and Prevention of slum development. However, even if we use this approach we will have to find ways of doing more with less and financing housing for people in largely insecure employment.

*An urban planner by learning and alumnus of Cambridge University, MS Raghavendra [2002 – PhD in Architecture] teaches at Administrative Staff College of India. He did his PhD on water supply for poor settlements in India and Peru. 

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