Who can build Housing for All?

Policy slogans are usually fragments of a sentence. Make in India. Housing for All. Swatch Bharat. What’s usually missing in the fragment is that the verb has no subject to agree with. For slogans to become statements, missions, policies and actions, someone has to make in india, keep it swachh and build the housing. The big elephant in the room is: who?

For housing, this is a particularly important challenge. The numbers are daunting: a shortage of 18.78 million housing units in 2012. Over 95% of this shortage is for low-income households that make less than Rs 2 lacs total household income per year. Taking the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation’s own formula that a household can afford a house five times its annual income, this means “Housing for All” needs to make nearly 17 million houses all under Rs 10 lacs. That’s the finish line.

So: who should build this housing?One way to answer this question objectively is to see who has build affordable housing at scale and under Rs 10 lacs thus far. Three candidates emerge: the government, private developers, and communities of the urban poor themselves. Government output has risen in the past two decades but remains woefully inadequate. In Karnataka, one of the better functioning states, all arms of the government under both state and central schemes built 360,000 dwelling urban units or sites in the last fifteen years. The current urban shortage in that state stands at 1 million units. Even if shortage didn’t move an inch and no new demand appeared, acting alone, the government would need nearly 30 years to catch up.

What about private developers? There has been an increase in the production of affordable housing by private developers in recent times whether unaided in the market or through PPPs with the government in exchange for incentives such as transfer development rights. Studies of the market by firms such as Monitor Inclusive Markets and KPMG suggest, however, that private developers cannot enter the market unaided below Rs 5 lacs, and will require significant incentives to build units between Rs 5 and 10 lacs. Most of the market, they argue, is between Rs 10-20 lacs. This is undeniably an important category of housing, one arguably under-served in the current housing market. Yet it cannot make a significant dent where it needs to in order to make a dent in “Housing for All.”

Where developers can reach below Rs 5 lacs is through slum rehabilitation schemes such as in Mumbai or Ahmedabad building vertical re-housing. Let us leave the debate on the efficiency or appropriateness of that verticality for a minute. The more important obstacle for housing policy is that these schemes can work at scale only in large metropolitan cities where markets for trade-able development rights exist. The majority of housing shortage, however, lies outside these major metros. Private developers have a role to play in affordable housing, but the limits of the market must be recognized clearly so that policy can regulate and direct this market effectively.

This leaves us with our final category: communities and urban poor residents themselves. In Karnataka, the example we took earlier, even if we just count the official category of “slums,” they stand at 750,000 in 2012. Housing built outside the official category of slums could well be of an equal quantum. The figure is worth pausing to think about: people themselves have built nearly three times as much housing as the government and at price points that are affordable and accessible for the poor. Wall by wall, brick by brick, usually over 10-15 years and often on land they do not own but claim. Electricity, roads and water came after, layers of a slowly emerging urban life. For years, to be sure, this housing is deeply inadequate matrially and vulnerable to eviction. Yet it is also dynamic. It may not meet the paper standards of our planning norms immediately, but almost all of these neighborhoods get there if given time and support. From slums, they become neighborhoods. A generation of migrants begets one of urban residents.

We thus reach the paradox of India’s urban housing shortage: affordable housing when built at scale is done so best by people themselves but is often inadequate and vulnerable both materially and legally in terms of its security of tenure; adequate housing built by formal state and market actors is deeply insufficient in its quantum and almost entirely unaffordable precisely for those who need it the most.

Recognising this paradox must change the way we approach the idea of “Housing for All.” The slogan’s fragment must become not one but a set of complete sentences that recognize different roles for different actors. Private developers must be enabled as well as mandated to build houses below Rs 15 lacs but we must recognize that they cannot address the majority of the shortage that is for houses below Rs 10 and Rs 5 lacs. The Government must continue to play a strong role in providing low income housing but recognize that it is unlikely that it will, even with the best of intentions, be able to scale its capacity to deliver enough units.

This leaves us with trusting the only actors that have so far performed at scale: people themselves. If the inadequacy of self-built, auto-constructed housing can be reduced, housing shortage can be drastically eliminated without building a single new unit. Upgrading existing but vulnerable and inadequate housing has a long history in global housing policy. It is indeed the only way that many countries that share our income profile and inequalities – Thailand, Brazil, Egypt – have made a significant dent in their housing shortages in one generation. Upgrading has several advantages. It’s significantly cheaper than building new housing units. It can be done with low-cost and easily available technology. It changes the role of policy and the government to simply provide settlement level services like internal roads, sanitation, drainage, and electricity that it is mandated to do anyways. The multiplier effects of such upgradation for human development outcomes is enormous, let alone the economic gains of a city that reaches new households with networked infrastructure and services.

Most of all: working with existing settlements means that no new land has to be found for most of them. The work of occupying land and slowly making it habitable has already been done. The challenge is making that land legally available for use. There are many ways to do this whether the land is publicly or privately owned but it requires an enabling national policy framework that sets a precedent to find ways to protect what people have made rather than seek to evict them in order to maximize economic rent from the land. It is this that “Housing for All” must do if it is at all serious about turning the fragment of the slogan into a statement of effective action. It must secure the land under the feet of those who have built our cities and their own homes so that another generation can inherit the gains of their sacrifice rather than the continued vulnerability of their lives.

A version of this piece appeared in the Hindu here.


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