Affordable Housing: The Art of City Integration

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Dr Renu Khosla, Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence

Poor people who migrate to the cities to earn better, seek abode in slums. While these slums are illegal establishments, for the poor it is the location that matters – close to their workplace. The poor choose to save their income, sacrificing the quality of life, and a share of the same is remitted back home, writes Dr Renu Khosla, Director, Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence.

One in five persons lives in slums, in jhuggis (temporary housing), sharing taps and toilets. These areas have poor quality water supply, inadequate drainage, and poor waste management. As per Census 2011, India has 65.5 million slum dwellers in 2613 large and small cities. The informal settlement and organic nature of slums make delivering city services complicated. Also, as the land under slums is un-owned and deemed ‘illegal’, there is extreme local reluctance to invest for its improvement.

An effective solution to this is affordable housing with the provision of quality basic services to all. These houses may be kept open to own or to rent, as many seasonal migrants may not wish to own a house. People choose to buy, build or rent according to their family’s needs and resources. As urban land values have risen, land in the inner city areas for large scale social housing has become unavailable. The high land values have made land lucrative as an instrument of public finance rather than a basic need. Consequently, housing for the poor can only be delivered at the periphery of cities.

Locations & Localization of Housing

Considering sustainable urban development, cities must focus on living spaces, clean piped water in taps, toilets connected to trunk sanitation systems and access to government schools and health care systems. This principle has formed the basis of SDG 11 – Building Sustainable Cities and Communities.

The peri-urban housing is often far from the workplaces. Therefore, it makes commuting to work a costly affair. As a result, daily wage workers are unable to reach labour mandis in time to find work and end up earning less. For women, the job market shrinks as there are fewer jobs they can deliver in these far-off locations. So instead of a ‘good’ house with secure tenure that is supposed to create wealth for the family, far away housing imposes many new costs to the poor. Unsurprisingly, many poor people shift back to slums.

During the implementation of the beneficiary-led, in-situ housing project in Tajganj area of Agra city, the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), began to work with communities, the city and the contractors on localizing housing designs to family needs. Room walls were rearranged to allow more light or better space utilization, working corners were created near windows for women seamstress, rainwater harvesting systems were connected to toilets, etc. Retail customization is not always possible, practical or even permitted by local governments, who lack the capacity to work with communities.

Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence

In the resettlement colony of Savda Ghevra, New Delhi planned on a sites and services model, CURE curated the core house – a house with pillars, beams and shared outer walls to be infilled by the family as per need. Families were able to create space for businesses or toilets or add features to improve indoor air quality. However, all the secure tenure and pucca house, formalization and a registered address could not take away the fact that Savda Ghevra was 40 kilometres from the city’s core and that for nearly a decade it was without access to good public transport, labour markets, roads, piped water supply was delivered after 14 years, the sewer system is still being contracted. Poverty deepened among nearly 8500 households post-relocation and many children with basic education dropped out of school. Moreover, women lost work and found none in the nearby areas that matched their skills. It took nearly five years for the families to stabilize and begin to earn better, but they are still not eligible for formal housing finance.

Is affordable housing affordable for the city? Can ecosystem approach deliver improvements?

Clearly affordable housing that comes at the city’s fringes has costs for poor families. But how affordable is it for the cities? When cities move houses to the edge, cities must also move up to these edges – extending the connecting basic, social and transportation services, without which the benefits of good housing may not flow.

Sprawl is expensive while compact is cost-effective. The cost to shift every slum household into social housing at the city’s edge is ginormous, nearly Rs 6,73,565 crore is a one-time investment. No city or State will ever have much money to invest all at once or even in parts over time. On the other hand, if each city prepares sites with integrated infrastructure and leave the house building to the poor, all this money will be recovered in just over seven years through Rs 94,046 crore annual additional tax collections and income increases.

Poor to build their own abodes & cities be ecosystem curators

While social housing is a desirable goal in achieving SDG 11, location and good quality infrastructure is the key to sustainable and inclusive cities. It is best to follow the wisdom of the people who have always built their own housing, incrementally, as per need and when they have the money, and to widen these options by:

1. Curating spaces with good quality infrastructure that enable poor people to build their own houses. These sites could be developed with private sector initiatives, involving small private entrepreneurs. Backyard housing is picking up in many African and South American cities as a viable option to create distributed housing in very small units for rental purposes, that are close to job markets. However, they need regulation, formalization without adding to the cost and access to quality services.

2. Majority of people belonging to this poor sect of society are masons, plumbers, carpenters etc. They can be enabled to build their own houses in formal spaces by lowering the entry-level requirements and costs, and by improving access to low-cost formal housing finance. Despite many schemes, the poor are still unable to provide the complete documentation that makes them eligible for loans. Hence, changes are needed to be made in the urban planning and building norms to enable such housing.

3. Each poor family with a formal house can rent rooms to migrant workers, if possible. With adequate rent regulation and oversight, it could help increase the supply of good quality housing and enhance incomes for the owner. The model was recommended to the first-ever in-situ housing project approved under the Rajiv Avas Yojna in Bhubaneswar.

4. Community groups can develop a good quality and low-cost housing at a scale provided that the local government help them with access to land, finance and infrastructure and recognize the importance of community-driven solutions.

Affordable, safe and adequate housing is significant for the poor. It needs to be mandated at right locations and local integration will make it an effective solution.

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