Barriers and Opportunities

IHC is focusing on important pathways to inclusiveness and economic and environmental sustainability in cities.

Affordable, decent housing is scarce in many countries around the world.

In low and middle income countries, this lack is often manifested as slums or informal settlements.  The woeful conditions of these slums impact the economic and social well-being of poor families, and also the environment, safety and health of the cities.  They also have trans-national health and other implications.  While the physical manifestation of the lack of affordable housing tends, in higher income countries, to be different from the sprawling informal settlements in lower income countries, many of the impacts are similar.

While specific actions on specific problems are important, it is also important that these not occur in isolation.  A comprehensive vision of the city reflected in a people-oriented spatial and financial plan is important to break down silos that can perpetuate inequality.  Such a plan engages all citizens, incentivizes investment for job creation, provides for more equitable development and service delivery, and addresses sustainability and climate resilience.  Then, such a plan is implemented through and by partnerships with all stakeholders.

Current Situation:  What is Important to Know

Basic Facts 

  • Lack of affordable and decent housing perpetuates urban poverty and hampers the achievement of greater urban equity. By the same token, investment in housing within a comprehensive framework guiding equitable development can be an economic driver that will help a city to generate employment, attract investment, achieve more equitable growth and become more generally prosperous.
  • Urban growth and its increasing concentration of poverty poses both a threat and an opportunity.
  • Urban population is growing at an accelerating rate. The fastest growth is in the cities of the developing world (low and middle income countries).
  • Worldwide 880 million people live in inadequate housing and by definition are slum dwellers.
  • The United Nations defines a slum as any household or settlement having at least one of five characteristics. These are (1) over-crowding; (2) lack of improved sanitation; (3) lack of improved sanitation; (4) insecure tenure and (5) inadequate structure.
  • The United Nations estimates that $929 billion is necessary to improve the housing of those living in slums – who number 130 million more people than were living in slums just 20 years ago!
  • Current financial resources are neither available nor forthcoming at the global or national levels. Clearly policies and investment opportunities have been inadequate to the task of enabling acceptable housing delivery worldwide.  New strategies, partnerships, incentives, and resource flows are required.
  • In October 2016, the global community will come together in Quito, Ecuador in the United Nations-convened conference on housing and urban development, Habitat III. One of the outcomes of Habitat III will be a New Urban Agenda that will guide urban development in the foreseeable future.
  • The United Nations specialist agency in the area of housing and urban development, UN-Habitat, has issued a call for “Housing at the Centre” of the New Urban Agenda.
  • The United Nations estimates that housing for two billion additional people will be needed by 2030.
  • In September 2015, 193 signed the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, composed of 17 goals intended together to eradicate poverty by 2030. One of these goals is focused on urban settlements and cities, calling for cities to become “resilient, safe, sustainable and inclusive.”  The first indicator to measure progress towards that aspirational goal is related to housing.

What is at Stake and How it Impacts Urban Equity

 In preparation for Habitat III, the United Nations convened a team of experts to develop a proposed housing policy as input into the New Urban Agenda (HabitatIII.org)   This paper asserts that “every country will need more options for affordable, adequate and safe housing” (p.1) and sets out a framework for their development.

One of the issues with respect to housing delivery is that many people understand it to be a “bricks and mortar” and financing issue solely.  Important as these are to any housing delivery system, the intersections with land availability, a city’s spatial configuration, the transportation network and integration of all communities into the service and economic networks of a city all bear on the adequacy and availability of affordable, safe and decent housing.

  • For example, if housing is in an unplanned settlement, not recognized by the local government, it in all likelihood will not ensure the provision of clean water and sanitation services, including solid waste management. By the UN’s definition, this makes such housing a “slum.”
  • As another different example, if housing is located in a perceived “dangerous” area in some countries, it may well be located in a “food desert,” as shops and supermarkets are not attracted to invest there. In this instance, food availability does not “define” the adequacy of the housing, but it does affect equity and the fairness of opportunity in the city.

These two examples underscore the point that a housing delivery system has to be seen within a comprehensive framework, not just of urban planning, albeit that is important as well, but within a shared vision of the city itself.

The inter-relationships are complex and are deeply rooted in the sense and character of each city.  However, at a global level, the United Nations has posited in its Housing Policy Paper (ibid., p. 6) draft still under review) some linkages between Housing Policy and elements of the New Urban Agenda.

IHC has identified key barriers to greater urban equity – one of which is housing.  The other barriers, such as food security, sanitation and water, secure tenure, resilience and inclusion, are all very much related to where a person lives.  In short, when UN Habitat says “Housing at the Centre” it is saying also that building more equitable cities depends in large measure on housing as a catalyst and key component.  It is central not only to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable (as it is to the lives of most of us) but also to the ability of cities to achieve the Results envisioned under Global Goal 11 for resilient, safe, sustainable and inclusive cities.   See also “Challenges and Potential of Informal Settlements” here IHC.org Home Page and here CITITSCOP.org Achieving Inclusiveness

Who is at Risk?

  • The Urban Poor:

    Lack of affordable, safe and decent housing is an incredible barrier that locks  those living in poverty into a cycle that is extremely difficult to break through.  In addition to impacting health and safety of the poor, lack of decent and affordable housing limits their economic prospects – both by inability to get onto the “property ladder” and by impeding access to jobs.  For example, in many informal settlements, there is no such thing as a recognized “address” thereby complicating the employment process.  Similarly in the US and other countries “no fixed address” is a certain sign to some that a person would not be a reliable employment investment.

  • The Young, the Old, Vulnerable Renters (including women-headed households) and Everyone Not on the Property Ladder:

    The lack of available, affordable housing is at a crisis point.  Strategies adopted by New York City to encourage developers to build affordable units and by Montgomery County, MD take some steps towards filling the gap in those markets.  However, more needs to be done.  FIABCI, the international real estate federation has identified the development of affordable housing as a key issue as well as an important opportunity.  It has launched a campaign, echoing that of the World Urban Campaign’s “The City We Need 2.0” called “The City We Need is Affordable,” which it launched in April 2016.  FIABCI.org News  The campaign is sponsoring a competition to engage the private sector to share successful strategies.

  • The City and its Other Residents:

    In some ways abandoned housing is the reverse of lack of housing.  But in other ways it is not.  Being unusable and uninhabited it contributes to the lack of available housing.  Also, derelict and abandoned housing vacated often because owners no longer can afford their investment for many possible reasons, including but not limited changing neighborhood characteristics such as safety, ballooning mortgage payments and the lasting effects of the Great Recession.  Regardless of underlying cause, existence of such “blighted” neighborhoods affects the city as a whole.

This is scarcely a new phenomenon but it has not been grappled with successfully to date.  However, there have been important efforts that have yielded results.  These range from the local government sponsored re-purposing of housing to revitalize neighborhoods in Chicago DNAINFO.com;  the renovation of neighborhoods in Detroit by an entrepreneur Detroit Gallery, and the “Empty Homes” initiative in the UK (Empty Homes.com).

In an article “From Eyesore to Assets,” Allan Malloch put the risks and their consequent implications for equitable development (NHI.org Online Issues ) in this context:

As Pat Morrissy, executive director of Housing and Neighborhood Development Services, Inc. (HANDS), a community development corporation in Orange, New Jersey, tells people, vacant lots and abandoned buildings “can suck the life out of a neighborhood.” They impair the health of neighborhood residents, encourage criminal activity and raise the risk of fires. They reduce property values and make already struggling neighborhoods less appealing to prospective homebuyers who can choose where they live. Of all the physical factors blighting the lives of inner-city residents, abandoned properties may be the single most destructive, because they affect so many other conditions, making these other challenging problems that much worse.

Because vacant properties have such an impact, a strategy that focuses on them can transform an entire neighborhood, building the opportunity to create vibrant, economically diverse communities. As a result, as CDCs have looked at conditions in their neighborhoods and worked with residents to frame rebuilding strategies, vacant and abandoned properties have increasingly become a major part of their efforts. As Morrissy says, “to save a neighborhood that’s in danger of going down, you can’t simply add new homes. You have to put the process of decline in reverse.”

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Why this Situation?

There are many complex, inter-related underlying reasons.  Key among them and shared by many countries are:

  • Rapid urbanization outstripping ability to develop infrastructure and supporting services
  • Complex land transactions and registry
  • Income inequality
  • Skewed market with a dominant informal sector providing insufficient incentive for formal development
  • Impacts of the Great Recession
  • High cost of urban land and high cost of construction
  • Non-bankable clients
  • Lack of mortgage or secondary mortgage market constraining credit availability
  • Spatially divided cities with de facto exclusionary practices

 What is to be Done?

There are a range of tools that can be used to make housing more affordable on the one hand and to encourage its development or upgrading.  There is not a “one size fits all” approach.  However, principles and approaches that have been developed can inform practice and policy elsewhere.  Key elements are land/tenure; financing; and cost.

  • Land for Affordable Housing and Secure Tenure: See also IHC Issue Topic

Strategies include community land trusts, planning tools, policy-supported incentives for private development.

A word of caution:  Location (and so land) is critical for acceptability of housing equally in low income countries where residents of informal settlements prioritize access to employment over amenity in houses that are uneconomic in the sense of the access to employment.  Reducing costs of housing by going “further out” (contributing to sprawl in many areas) does not always end in a net gain of better affordable housing acceptable to consumers.

  • Financing:

Financial resources are a critical barrier in many places and access to finance is constrained by income levels, liquidity of banks, bankability of clients, and land registration and cadastral issues.

With the preceding being noted:  Strategies that promote public private partnerships (including both non-profits and private sector) have enjoyed some success and are encouraged by US Department of Housing and Urban Development  (HUD) (HUD.gov in the US and, for example in Australia, Housing News.gov.

Other positive and promising examples include various municipal level financing schemes (including mortgages and rentals) see for example, Centre for Affordable Housing in Canada (CMCH-SCHL.gc.ca); micro-finance for informal housing upgrading in Africa (Housing Finance Africa.org); and social housing (Best MSW Programs.com) which is purpose-designed for specific household income levels;  and other programs, such as those offered by HUD, which cover the gamut of rental assistance, homeownership and home-buyer assistance, and vulnerable group assistance to individuals as well as grants to states such as HOME for affordable housing (HUD.gov)

  • Reducing construction costs

Costs (outside of finance and land costs) are governed by labor, materials, size, technology and design.  Approaches to cutting these costs can be found in a variety of places.  See for example:

Green Space NCR.org   and also HJCMN.org.

Some of the costs are by necessity driven by market forces and scarcity (materials, for example) and some by the competition for skilled labor.  All things being equal, however, size of the housing units and footprint (i.e,. building up) can contribute to overall affordability as can choice of material.  In low and middle income countries, however,  for example substitution of “appropriate” technology and external imposition of “vernacular” architecture have in some cases provoked a “backlash” where potential customers reject “housing for the poor” approach that would be signified by such materials and architecture.

Role of the Global Community

The energy and momentum generated by the adoption of Global Goal 11 and the preparations for Habitat III provide a unique opportunity for the global community to reflect on the multi-dimensional nature of the urban housing deficit and its far-reaching implications and to emerge from Quito with a New Urban Agenda that engages the energies of all segments of society, locally, nationally and globally, to work together to address the situation.

An integrated framework is important, as the Habitat III Housing Policy Unit is calling for but so too is local ownership and engagement, practical approaches, and within a cohering city-level vision of the future smaller actionable initiatives that can be undertaken by local actors working individually and in partnership.  CMHC-SCHL.gc.ca

The Global Community can also, very importantly, consider resource flows and ways to incentivize investment in better housing.  It will be an investment in the future of the planet itself.