Lessons from Latin America’s 50 Years of Housing Policy

by Eduardo Rojas

In a research paper for IHC Global, former Principal Specialist in Urban Development and Housing at the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) and IHC Global Technical Advisor Eduardo Rojas examines 50 years of Latin American housing policy, and applies the lessons learned to rapidly urbanizing countries.

The Lessons

The first lesson, based on the review of the data and the literature, shows that not all government interventions work equally. Thus, the type of housing policies and programs also matter. This assertion is supported by the fact that countries with similar levels of development exhibit differences in the quality of housing available to their populations. While it can be expected that the housing situation of a particular country should correspond to its per capita income, this relationship not always holds. In Latin America there are countries with relatively high income per capita that have qualitative or quantitative housing shortages larger than countries with lower per capita incomes. Rojas and Medellin (2011) found that the housing conditions related to the materiality of the houses and access to infrastructure in Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, and Uruguay are better than what could be expected given their per capita income. It is also remarkable that Brazil, Argentina, Panama, and Mexico—with relatively high per capita incomes—have higher percentages of dwellings lacking infrastructure than what their income suggests. It can be argued that the housing sector of countries with housing conditions above the prediction line are doing worse than what their income level would suggest and those below are doing better. The study by Cuenin et.al (2012) suggests that housing policies and their impacts on housing affordability play a role in explaining these deviations.

The second lesson from the Latin American experience emerges from the incapacity of most countries to deal with the urban consequences of housing production. The new houses built in Latin America cities either by public housing entities, private developers or incremental builders, are located in poorly served peripheries, the result of their desire to minimize the incidence of the cost of land in total housing costs and the availability of land for greenfield development or invasion (Rojas 2016). In peripheral locations households often lack many of the services required for a good quality of life, particularly in terms of access to employment centres, health and education services, and recreation facilities, which are assets provided by the neighbourhood and the city. A shortage of urban amenities forces households to pay more in transportation, face longer commuting times, and have limited access to essential urban services. Many are abandoning these new houses as the effects of these location-related shortcomings become unbearable. It is estimated that in 2012 nearly 20% of the housing stock in Mexico was underused, remaining empty or under temporary use (CIDOC 2012). Similar figures of underused housing come from Argentina, Chile and Colombia. The main reason for the abandonment of the houses is the lack of the infrastructures and amenities provided by the neighbourhood or the city (Rojas 2016).

Although these lessons in their general formulation may sound fairly obvious, the reading of the available studies on the Latin American experience shows that their negative consequences can be avoided, and the ways to avoid them are not entirely obvious. This conclusion is of great importance for today’s rapidly urbanizing countries like those of South Asia (SA) and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) that have an opportunity to achieve better outcomes than Latin America if they take into consideration these lessons. These lessons are also a reminder for Latin American countries that are lagging behind in addressing their housing problems or need to make policy adjustments to mitigate the negative urban consequences of their housing policies.

Lesson 1: Housing Policy Matters, but Not All Policies or Programs are Equally Effective

Isolated low-income housing programs do not work and housing policies must promote the effective functioning of the whole housing sector

Most governments in Latin America initially attempted to solve housing shortages through the direct provision of affordable houses by public entities. To finance the new houses they used resources from a variety of sources: the national budget; allocations from specific sources (for instance a per cent of the gas tax yield in Argentina); or worker´s savings in the social security system. Housing ministries, housing banks, or public housing corporations produced limited quantities of new houses or subsidized mortgages but never attained the scale and sustainability to fully address the housing problem created by rapid urbanization. These public housing entities faced endemic shortages of resources due to competing demands on the public budget and high arrears in their loan portfolios. In the mid-1970s many countries produced serviced lots to accommodate the growing demand for housing by low-income households but beneficiaries of these programs never got support to expand and improve their shelters, preventing these programs from achieving the intended results (Rojas 1995). In most cases public housing entities were inefficient producers of houses or serviced lots and often miss-targeted the allocation of their products due to political pressures that funnelled the new houses to middle-income households affiliated with strong trade unions or working in the civil service. In the majority of cases, low-income households were left to solve their housing problem in the informal sector. The Latin American experience proves that the provision of finished houses and financing by public entities does not satisfy the needs of the growing urban population. There are no reasons to think that SA and SSA countries that are building new houses directly would do better as the volume of new houses thy manage to build is very small in relation to needs a situation that leads the majority of households (over 80 per cent in some cases) to self-build their shelter informally (World Bank 2016, UN Habitat 2014).

This finding confirms one of the assertions of the “enabling markets approach to housing policy” that to effectively reach the poor with good housing, the housing sector of the economy must be capable of satisfying the needs of all social sectors simultaneously, otherwise higher income groups displace lower income households in their access to housing. Recommendations for moving to a well-functioning housing sector were put forward by the World Bank (1993) and several countries in Latin America followed this advice including Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay in addition to Chile and Costa Rica, the pioneers. The policy concern shifted from isolated projects serving a specific section of housing demand to a concern for the functioning of the entire housing sector. Governments designed policies and programs that addressed the market and government failures that were preventing households from all income levels to access quality housing. This led countries to adopt a wide array of programs ranging from those based on the most orthodox prescriptions of the enabling markets approach—where governments assist households to access private housing solutions via private financing according to their financial capacities (one-off and up-front subsidies)—to the direct construction of basic expandable houses for the very poor that have no capacity to access privately produced housing. A survey of housing programs by Cuenin et.al (2012) shows that most countries have a combination of ‘demand oriented’ programs that support middle and lower-middle income households in accessing housing supplied and financed by the private sector and ‘supply oriented’ programs that focus on low income households that cannot afford privately produced homes. However, no country in the region managed to address all the issues affecting the entire housing market and many still require programs to address key issues emerging from how urban land markets function and the underdevelopment of housing finance systems. The lesson from the Latin American experience is dual: great progress can be achieved from adhering to the ‘enabling markets approach’ provided that the housing needs of all households are met, but also that significant problems result from not implementing the totality of policies and programs required to make the housing sector work for all households. This is the most probable outcome of single-sided direct government new housing construction programs currently implemented in some SSA countries that are not simultaneously addressing the provision of infrastructure, and reducing the cost of production and financing new houses (World Bank 2016). Another shortcoming of focusing mostly in new house construction is highlighted by Buckey et.al. (2016:128) “…a more effective way to address housing concerns would be to look at the existing housing. Policies that allow the existing stock to be used most efficiently can have far larger effects on supply, and hence on affordability, simply because of the enormous difference in scale between new and existing housing.”

Governments alone cannot solve the problem; it is necessary to mobilize the resources of all social actors

Public housing programs that fully subsidize housing supply proved incapable of achieving the scale required, mostly because they did not mobilize the beneficiaries’ full capacity to contribute to the solution of their housing problem. The policies and programs of the countries that saw the largest reductions in their housing deficits (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama) share two key characteristics. Their housing policies and programs addressed the needs not just of low-income households but also of the underserved, non-poor low-income, lower-middle- and middle-income households and assisted them to access private financing for their homes thus engaging their capacity to pay for the solution of their housing problems. The best designed programs mobilized the resources of the beneficiaries in proportion to their capacity to pay through a variety of financial mechanisms including: repayment of mortgage-based loans to purchase finished houses; programmed savings to partially finance the highly subsidized solutions they received from the governments; micro-credit for incremental construction and improvement of houses.

The public resources thus liberated (compared with public programs that subsidize equally housing for all households) allow governments to better serve low-income households facing the most acute difficulties in accessing quality housing. The active participation and resources of all actors—including the capacity of low-income families to self-build their houses and the participation of private capital for financing mortgages for households capable of servicing a debt—expand the volume of resources flowing to the housing sector with direct effects on housing supply. Complementary financial reform policies and programs facilitate the convergence of resources from all actors by promoting long-term savings, the development of private mortgage financing, and micro-credit for home construction and improvements. The development of a strong and sustainable private housing finance system is still a major challenge and critical to mobilizing more private resources to the housing sector. Reducing the significant gap in the reach of private housing financing that exists between even the most advanced countries in Latin American and the United States and some European countries is still a challenge. This underscores the significant difficulties faced by countries in the early stages of developing private housing financing a problem expressed in the very small participation of private sector financing in the housing sectors of most SA and SSA countries (World Bank 2016, UN Habitat 2014).

The best performing countries in Latin America have a diverse set of public programs that complement each other: up-front subsidies assisting low-middle and middle-income households to access mortgages supplied by private banks; direct government provision of highly subsidized basic expandable houses to low-income households that cannot access mortgage financing for a finished house; micro-credit and technical assistance for self-builders to incrementally complete and improve basic homes; and urban upgrading for sub-standard informal settlements. Achieving the right balance of policies and programs is not easy. It took Chile—a leading adopter of the approach—almost ten years to complete the transition from a government-driven housing sector to a more diversified structure with public and private actors cooperating in assisting households with different financial capacities to access good housing and the country still have not dealt effectively with micro-finance and technical assistance for self-builders  (Rojas, 2001).

Incremental housing is part of the solution

As stated earlier, between 30 to 60 per cent of the housing stock in Latin American cities is incrementally self-built by low-income households (Rojas 2016). This can reach 80 per cent in several SA and SAA countries (World Bank 2016, HABITAT 2014). Household investment in expanding and improving the quality of materials of their houses, assisted by urban upgrading programs that bring basic infrastructure and services to informal settlements, allow self-built houses over time to attain most of the attributes of a house built by the formal sector, although the process forces families to live for a long time lacking services (Greene and Rojas 2008). The capacity of low-income households to devote resources to expanding or improving their houses cannot be underestimated. Acevedo el.al. (2012:221) reports ratios of family investment in their houses equivalent to 2.9 times the cost of a basic house in incremental housing programs in Chile.

The absence of programs supporting incremental housing construction (but for a few exceptions) is one of the major shortcomings of the Latin American housing experience and a missed opportunity in allowing households to play a larger role in solving their housing problems. Not only households must live for extended periods of time in sub-standard houses but also low quality construction materials and poor building expose the dwellers to significant natural hazards risk including earthquakes, hurricanes and landslides. The fact that most houses are incrementally build and that the incremental construction process can be greatly improved with adequate support including: the provision of expandable core-houses; technical assistance to self-builders; micro-finance for building materials and to contract specialized help; adequate building materials; and security of land tenure (Greene and Rojas 2008) offers SA and SSA countries one of the most significant opportunity to improve the housing conditions of their populations. Micro financing provides households with resources for small, incremental improvement projects without overtaxing their savings and repayment capacity (Ferguson 1999). Furthermore, a large number of municipalities and local nongovernmental organizations are active in providing technical cooperation and assisting homebuilders to more effectively improve their homes (Herzog 2016). Most of these activities are small scale and community-based, two features that pose a challenge for central governments to channel resources and technical support to this form of home construction.

Acevedo et.al.  (2012) discuss several successful programs assisting self-builders in Latin America proving that the challenges discussed above can be confronted effectively. Many are decentralized efforts run by municipalities, non-governmental organizations or private sector suppliers of building materials. Examples include programs like: FUNDASAL a Salvadorian foundation that provides technical assistance to low-income families; the ‘Patrimonio Ya” [Today’s Assets] Program financed by CEMEX—Mexico’s largest cement production corporation—to supply materials under a micro-credit scheme that also includes technical assistance managed by the company’s extensive network of retail distributors; and Habitat for Humanity’s support for self-builders accessing micro credits for home improvements in Paraguay. The ‘Piso Firme’ [Solid Ground] program in Mexico, Argentina’s ‘Vivir Mejor’ [Living Better] and Chile’s ‘Fondo Solidario de Vivienda’ [Shared Housing Fund] are examples of programs financed and managed by central governments that support incremental building and improvement of self-built houses. South East Asia offers many examples of government and donor supported programs helping communities to improve their neighbourhoods and households to incrementally build and improve their houses (Boonyabancha and Mitlin 2012). Scaling up these experiences is one of the best investments governments of rapidly urbanising can make to improve housing conditions.

Rental markets play an important role in the housing sector and require development and diversification

Well-functioning housing markets need a sufficient supply of rental properties to satisfy the needs of households that do not need, do not want, or cannot afford to own a house. The distribution of home tenure between ownership and rental varies significantly among countries and between cities within a given country. Variations among countries with similar levels of development can be quite significant: among developed countries the housing stock for rent can represent as much as 55% in Switzerland and as little as 15% in Norway. Similarly in Latin America, 50% of the housing stock is for rent in Bolivia and only 15% in Venezuela (Blanco et.al. 2014). In market economies the distribution between rental and owned houses changes with the economic cycles, the evolution of financial markets and consumer preference. Circa 2010 in developed economies around one third of homes were rented (33% in United States and Canada, 30% in Western Europe) contrasting with Latin America where only one fifth of homes were rented.

Most housing policies in Latin America favour home ownership and some countries over-protect tenants, a problem reported long ago by Gilbert (2003). These policies, together with the reluctance of governments to finance public rental housing due to negative experiences in developed countries, result in underdeveloped rental markets in Latin America. This is a poorly researched area of housing in most of the developing world (Peppercorn and Taffin 2013) however, for what it is known; a few stylized facts can be presented. The formal rental market in Latin America is dominated by individual property owners that own the rental properties as a safe investment that provides a complementary income or as a form of retirement income. There is hardly any commercial residential renting in the region possibly because the risk-return equation is not favourable. In many Latin American countries residential renting is a risky business mostly due to the time consuming and costly process needed for repossessing properties, a product of legislation that over-protects tenants or of slow functioning judiciary systems. There is, however, a very dynamic informal rental market represented by homeowners in informal settlements renting rooms or plots of land. In large cities and in rapidly developing intermediate cities there is high incidence of sub-letting of deteriorated properties to recent migrants and very low-income households unable to find any other type of housing. These forms of rental are almost completely unregulated with many negative consequences for tenants including high rental prices, sub-standard services, and lack of protection from arbitrary eviction. 

The rental market is an area of housing policy that Latin America needs to develop further. There is a need to support rental housing to cater to the needs of an estimated one third of the households that at different phases of their family cycle prefer housing rental to ownership. This is an area where SA and SSA countries can do much to improve housing conditions given that rental is a common source of affordable housing for middle- and low-income households in SSA (UN HABITAT and Cities Alliance 2011) and that “…the majority of rental housing in Africa is held by self-help landlords in informal settlements and private subdivisions.” (World Bank 2016:35). This support must also seek to make informal renting by low-income households more efficient and less onerous for the tenants. After reviewing the cases of 13 countries, Peppercorn and Taffin (2013) suggest several areas of improvement to make rental markets more efficient, inclusive and fair, including: landlord-tenant regulations, adjustments to the tax system, simplification of the process by which multifamily properties are registered, and adjustments of the overall system of housing subsidies. Rapidly urbanizing countries of SA and SSA will be wise not to repeat Latin America’s neglect of rental markets.

Lesson 2: It Is About Building Cities, Not Just Houses 

Coordinating the construction of new houses with the provision of urban services and amenities

Overall, housing policies in Latin America have focused on creating entitlements supporting individual households to access owner-occupied houses under the assumption that this would improve their quality of life. Although quality houses do so in significant dimensions, not all of the housing services required by households are provided by the individual structure of a house. The set of services directly provided by the house—protection from the weather, privacy, access to potable water and sanitation—are only a fraction of the services required by households to live. Households also require: good transportation; healthcare, education, and recreation facilities; community parks and services; citizen safety; and employment opportunities. These are services or resources provided by the neighbourhood or the urban context within which the house is located (Rojas 2016 Table 10:11). In most cases in Latin America these services are not available at the time the new houses are received by users and it is increasingly common that good houses located in underserved subdivisions and neighbourhoods will lie empty, as their occupants cannot satisfy all of their daily needs in these locations.

This is one of the most costly lessons of the Latin American experience with housing: the failure to closely link efforts to improve housing conditions with the provision of city and neighbourhood amenities, services and infrastructure. Rapidly urbanizing countries of SA and SSA would do better to link the production of new houses with the provision of urban amenities breaking away from the traditional sector-focused housing programs and moving instead to a more urban-focused set of policies aimed at improving the living conditions and livelihood of the urban population. For Buckey et.al., (2016:125) “…housing programmes should be part of a broader urban social contract, which should focus on the inclusiveness and social cohesion outcomes to be achieved through access to more affordable housing, rather than myopically on housing production”.

The convergence of the different institutional and financial mechanisms available to provide cities with a good quality of life is a pressing need in most countries of Latin America. The consolidation of institutions and financial mechanisms to produce affordable serviced land for housing is the most immediate priority in SA and SSA as it is still a priority in Latin America. Investment in urban infrastructure and services need to be implemented in synch with residential expansion. This is also the best way to enhance the resilience of new and existing neighbourhoods improving their capacity to made good use of land and other natural resources and to adapt to the negative consequences of climate change. There is no lack of planning and policy tools to ensure the integrated planning and implementation of new housing developments; they just need adequate institutions and human resources to be applied. Rapidly growing cities need to plan their expansion areas with a long-term perspective that will protect the environment and enhance the efficient functioning of the city. Plans can identify the lands needed in the long term to guide the supply of infrastructure and urban services, and local authorities can make provisions for acquiring them in advance (Angel et.al. 2011). Only a handful of cities in Latin America have done so including the well-known cases of Curitiba in Brazil, Medellin in Colombia, and Rosario in Argentina. SA and SSA countries should not make the same mistake and guide long-term urban growth to the most suitable lands acquiring in advance the development rights needed to supply the infrastructures and urban services.

It is also critical for city governments to have the resources to provide urban infrastructure and services. Much progress has been made in the provision of sanitation services with both the consolidation of well-run and well-financed public utilities and the direct government support given to low-income households to ensure they can afford a minimum level of consumption of these services. There are SSA governments using the sale of public and community lands to finance infrastructures thus raising the price of serviced land out of the reach of the majority of households. The provision of healthcare and education is still a challenge for city governments and for relevant central and regional government institutions. Housing policies that contemplate in their budgets funds for the urban investments needed to allow a house to provide all the services required by a household could greatly contribute to the mitigation of these problems. Governments will do well balancing the priorities of building new houses with the need to provide urban amenities in close proximity to the new housing in addition to continuing the efforts to improve the quality of the existing housing stock and the infrastructure and urban services available to these houses. Housing policies and programs should include in their budgets sufficient resources for the provision of the urban infrastructures and amenities required by the beneficiaries. The governance challenge is to ensure that these investments coincide in time and in the territories where they are needed. Highly centralized and sector-focused structures of government are particularly challenged to attain this outcome in cities (OECD 2013). Greater decentralization in the provision of these services must be balanced with promoting more transparent and accountable local governments.

It is cheaper to prepare for rapid urbanisation than retrofitting informal settlements

 Lack of access to quality housing produced by the formal sector drove large numbers of households to build their houses in informal settlements that lack basic services. Latin American countries have gained experience in dealing with this problem. After years of allowing informal settlements to grow in the hope that they were a temporary stage in development to be overcome in time by economic development, they changed gears in the mid-1990s and actively implemented upgrading informal settlements programs in order to retrofit them with basic infrastructures and urban services (Brakarz et.al. 2002). However, the Latin American experience shows that retrofitting is always more expensive and socially disruptive than planning and investing ahead of land occupation. Brakarz et.al. (2002) report expenditures of USD$4,000 to 7,000 (1998 USD) per lot to improve informal settlements in projects financed by the Inter-American Development Bank. These amounts represent three times the cost of regular land development figures confirmed by a study by Abiko et.al (2007) that estimates the cost of providing basic infrastructure to informal settlements in Brazilian cities at USD 4,100 per lot compared with the estimated cost of USD 1,700 per lot to provide the same infrastructure in regular land developments.

Increases in per capita income lead to higher demand for housing and urban services, whose supply requires more serviced land, which in turn increases urban land prices. With the exception of short-term and isolated periods of economic crisis, urban land prices tend to increase over time making it unaffordable for large portions of the population. Private developers and government agencies paying more for the land thus make adjustments. Private developers produce houses for higher income households that can afford the higher land prices and public entities build houses in the periphery of cities where land is cheap but more expensive to service (Iracheta and Smolka 2000). A study by Trivelli (2010) documents the systematic displacement of social housing projects to the periphery of the Santiago metropolitan area (Chile) in search for land at prices compatible with the availability of public funds for the highly subsidized government housing programs. Families are forced to live in neighbourhoods with few services and far away from areas of economic and social activity. Similar issues are reported in Mexico where new housing built by the private sector are routinely located in poorly served areas in the periphery of cities (CIDOC 2012).

A more efficient strategy to deal with the growing demand for residential land is in Angel et.al 2011 that recommends preparing land before urbanization pressures materialize. Preparing land with basic infrastructure for orderly occupation is a strategy that can significantly reduce the volume of resources needed to provide good living conditions and basic services. This strategy complements and does not substitute the interventions needed to upgrade informal neighbourhoods and improve self-built houses, which were successfully implemented by most countries in Latin America. The challenge is to increase access to affordably priced land for future neighbourhoods. Basic economic logic indicates that one way of moderating land price increases is for governments to invest in trunk infrastructure to put more land into residential use (Glaeser 2012). However, this strategy requires complementary measures to: reduce land development costs generated by land use and registration regulations (Bouillon et.al. 2012b); prevent inefficient speculative behaviour by landowners; promote public-private cooperation in the development of residential areas; and facilitate the efficient use of underused land in inner cities. These measures can include capital gains taxes, special assessments that capture unearned land price increases to help defray infrastructure costs (Smolka and Iracheta 1999, Sandroni 2011); and other tax measures that enable the government to transfer to landowners the social costs of their decisions like idle-land taxes that can help prevent owners from keeping land off the market for speculative purposes. This is a lesson that SA and SAA countries can benefit from by aggressively pursuing land development programs aimed at housing the new immigrants. Letting informal settlements to proliferate as a ‘de facto’ housing policy would be very costly. Furthermore, upgrading informal settlements when not combined with preventive measures can fuel more uncontrolled informal urbanization by promoting the illegal occupation of land by households in need with the expectation that their informal settlements will in time receive infrastructure and tenure security from the government.

Latin America has some successful experiences in expanding the supply of affordable land. Colombia´s Macro-Proyectos [Large-scale Projects] is a government-sponsored land development scheme involving cross-subsidies from the sale of large-scale lots to commercial developers in order to finance affordable housing by retaining a proportion of the developed land for that purpose. Public-private cooperation is also possible, as successful land readjustment projects in Bogotá and other cities show (Torres and García 2010). Under the right political and institutional conditions, even informal land developers can be induced to cooperate in the construction of better cities, as demonstrated by the ‘Social Urbaniser’ scheme implemented by the municipality of Porto Alegre in Brazil that induced illegal land developers to produce better-quality residential subdivisions (Smolka and Damasio 2005). Another strategy is to put on the market more serviced land in infill areas and other suitable expansion areas. To do this, cities need to establish institutional mechanisms that promote fruitful cooperation among private and public stakeholders in urban land management. As discussed by Garay et al. (2013) and Rojas (2004) public or mixed-capital land development institutions, as well as other forms of strong public-public and public-private partnerships, have had good results. These models should be adapted and incorporated more broadly into the urban land management mechanisms of cities.

The solution to housing problems is mostly a local challenge

 Housing policies in most Latin American countries are designed, financed, and implemented by central governments and conceived mostly as a social policy providing support to individual households. In Latin America there are a few large and rich municipalities with active housing programs (Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Medellin) but in most of the region only the central government is capable of commanding the volume of resources needed by policies that transfer wealth among different groups in society. However, the urban impacts of these polices are felt locally as most national programs rely on city governments to provide the additional urban services required by the new population placed in their jurisdictions either directly by the central government housing institutions or by private developers responding to central government incentives. Oftentimes, municipalities are eager to approve new housing subdivisions in their territories in the expectation of increased revenues from property taxes and economic development but lack capacity or intention to provide the urban services required by the new subdivisions.

In Latin America, most municipalities rarely have the financial resources needed to supply all of the neighbourhood and urban services required by new developments, or at least to do it in time for the arrival of new populations. The financial weakness of local governments is underscored by Bahl et.al (2013:11) which reports that in the years 2000s and for a sample of 20 developing countries, subnational government expenditures represented 18.8 per cent of total government expenditures, or the equivalent of 5.1 per cent of GDP (compared with 27.8 and 13.9 per cent respectively in a sample of 26 developed countries). The situation in Latin America varies significantly from country to country. In the more decentralized countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador) sub-national government expenditure can range from 40 to 50 per cent of total government expenditure. In less decentralized countries (Chile, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica) it represents less than 20 per cent. Also the assignment of responsibility for urban services and infrastructures can be highly decentralized (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador) or highly centralized (Chile, Peru, Venezuela). The consequences of these shortcomings are evident in Latin America’s municipalities incapacity to guide urban development according to social and environmental needs and whose long-term consequences are also emphasised for Africa by UN HABITAT (2014:7) that states “Ubiquitous urban poverty and urban slum proliferation, so characteristic of Africa’s large cities, is likely to become an even more widespread phenomenon under current urban development trajectories, especially given the continuing and significant shortfalls in urban institutional capacities.”

Although there still much room for improvement, the Latin American experience suggests that there are gains in transferring the responsibilities for detailed design and implementation of housing and urban development programs to local governments if these responsibilities are accompanied with financing and technical support from the central government. Housing policies designed to ‘build cities’ should include the financial and technical support needed by city governments to provide the services needed by the new housing development. Failure to do so produces negative impacts on quality of life and, in extreme cases, in the abandonment of the new homes, as reported in Mexico and is also becoming a common occurrence in other countries in the region.


This analysis of the Latin American experience—its successes and shortcomings—provides lessons for the design and implementation of housing policies in rapidly urbanising countries. It proves that it is possible to confront the root causes of housing shortages commonly faced by these countries and that lead to high levels of informality in the housing and urban sector. The countries that show the greatest advances managed to expand formal housing production and made them more affordable by promoting private sector participation in the production and financing of new houses. However, the Latin American experience also shows that the private sector based solution does not work for everybody. The housing policy experiences discussed in this paper show that government policies that aim to improve conditions for the poor must focus on expanding the flow of affordable housing to households in all income levels as well as improving the living conditions of existing informal housing and settlements. Achieving this objective requires the mobilization of large volumes of resources that government alone cannot afford. Housing policies must improve the functioning of the entire housing market including the private, public and informal components so that households in all income brackets find a housing solution and can contribute to the production and financing of their homes according to their capacity to pay.

The Latin American experience also highlights the significant problems created by not coordinating urban development with housing development. Housing policies conceived and implemented as social policies directed to individuals or households in need were not capable of ensuring that the residents of the new houses had access to all the services they need from their homes. The lack of coordination in the provision of these services—a combination of sector-based allocation of responsibilities and resources with a fragmented structure of decision-making—led to construction of houses in peripheral locations lacking the neighbourhood and city services that they required. The abandonment of new houses that is growing in many cities of Latin America is a painful remainder of the cost of not caring for the needs of the households in an integrated manner. The lack of widespread and up to scale support for incremental housing construction is another shortcoming of the Latin American approach to housing in the last 50 years. Households’ contributions to housing is a critical component of the long-term solution and it should be tapped in any possible way from the repayment of a mortgage to the sweat equity contribution they can make through self-help or community help efforts.

Improving the quality of housing available to the population is a complex undertaking that requires time, perseverance, the growth of the economy, and political will to implement reforms that are complex and must be comprehensive affecting housing and urban development policies and institutions. 

US Foreign Assistance: Change is in the Air

by Karly Kiefer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti. Photo by: USAID

Changes are in the air

The new U.S. Presidential Administration has vowed to shake up Washington—with plans to slim down the government and reorganize federal agencies to maximize efficiency, to pursue an ‘America First’ agenda and boost up national security efforts, and to run the government with a business mindset, change is in the air for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In the past few months the Agency has seen a proposal for a greatly reduced budget, has begun drafting a new mission statement, has heard reports of federal agency restructuring that could change the nature of the relationship between USAID and the State Department, and—as of last week—has a new Administrator, Ambassador Mark Green. Efforts to reform foreign assistance in the United States are not new, and in fact, USAID has seen significant changes during the last few Administrations—many that have helped strengthen foreign assistance for the better. Many questions, remain, however, on what direction the Agency will go in under the new Administration, and how exactly to turn a period of uncertainty into one of opportunity.

In March, the Administration proposed massive cuts to foreign assistance that would slash USAID’s budget by one third, and at the same time would increase the defense budget by roughly ten percent. While the budget as proposed is unlikely to be passed by Congress, where bi-partisan support for foreign aid is strong, it reflects a changing attitude towards foreign policy that emphasizes defense over diplomacy and development. The President’s budget proposal also states the need for “State and USAID to pursue greater efficiencies through reorganization and consolidation in order to enable effective diplomacy and development,” and reports have circulated that the Administration is considering folding USAID into the State department entirely.

In this new era of impending change, a renewed commitment by the development community to improving the efficiency of foreign assistance has emerged.

While these potential changes seem to predict dismal prospects for U.S. foreign assistance, there is reason to hope that this period of disruption to the normal order can be a catalyst for constructive and necessary change. There has been a broad understanding by stakeholders both internal and external to the government that U.S foreign aid programs and agencies, while having helped millions and remaining key leaders in the international development community, do not operate as efficiently as perhaps they could.

In this new era of impending change, a renewed commitment by the development community to improving the efficiency of foreign assistance has emerged. More than 100 organizations (IHC Global included) have signed on to the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) guiding principles for effective foreign assistance, advocating, among other things, for diplomacy and development to be upheld as distinct but equal, for the creation of a Global Development Strategy to guide U.S. foreign assistance efforts, and for an independent lead aid agency in the U.S. that is headed by a Cabinet-rank official.

MFAN has been advocating for changes in U.S. foreign assistance structure for some time, and with their recently released discussion draft for a new U.S. foreign assistance architecture, they builds upon the guiding principles, laying out a proposed restructuring that would consolidate four aid agencies and several major State Department units into two new focused agencies—the Global Development Agency and the Development Finance Corporation. While reducing overlap and decreasing inefficiencies in the current foreign assistance structure, MFAN’s proposal also recognizes the distinction between development and diplomacy, and elevates development as equally important to foreign policy and national security.

How we see things

Cities are living, breathing organisms, and no one sector exists in a vacuum; rather, they are increasingly dependent on each other.


IHC Global is a strong proponent for a foreign aid restructuring solution that breaks down silos and allows for comprehensive development efforts—and we are therefore enthusiastic about MFAN’s proposal, which would organize the new Global Development Agency by goals and objectives, rather than by sector or region. An agency siloed by sector does not lead to the most efficient foreign aid programs and policies, especially when coming from the urban perspective—a perspective that cannot be ignored, as 2050 will see 66 percent of the global population living in cities. Cities are living, breathing organisms, and no one sector exists in a vacuum; rather, they are increasingly dependent on each other. IHC Global advocates for comprehensive and integrated urban development solutions, recognizing that you can’t think about housing in a city without thinking about WASH; you can’t think about economic opportunity without thinking about transit, and you can’t think about urban planning without thinking about climate resilience.

Restructuring the Agency’s internal infrastructure to maximize efficiency is a critical step towards improving the Agency’s ability to effect positive change in the world; equally important, however, is ensuring that U.S. foreign assistance programs move forward with an agenda that promotes the fundamental building blocks of strong economies. This includes focusing efforts on helping to build strong, transparent, and accountable institutions, such as property rights. It is also critical for an effective foreign assistance agenda to include an urban-specific strategy that plans ahead for both the challenges and the opportunities posed by the rapid urban growth that the next century will see.

The Agency’s recently released draft mission statement shows encouraging signs that it is thinking critically about its role and its agenda. Upon request from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Acting USAID Administrator Wade Warren released the new draft statement, meant to guide the Agency at the start of the new Administration. The statement emphasizes USAID’s role in advancing national security, fostering inclusive economic growth, reducing poverty, and helping other countries progress beyond the need for development assistance. While the statement is being circulated for feedback and will not necessarily be adopted exactly as currently written, IHC Global is glad to see the acknowledgement that economic growth must be inclusive in order to be truly sustainable, and that development is an important aspect of fostering global security.

Substandard housing on the water in Guayaquil, Ecuador. (2004)

Another encouraging sign for the future of the Agency is the recent confirmation of an experienced and well-regarded Administrator. While so many issues in the U.S. remain gridlocked by bi-partisan politics, the confirmation of Ambassador Mark Green to lead the Agency received overwhelmingly bi-partisan support. With a long history in the development sector, serving as Ambassador to Tanzania, and most recently as President of the International Republican Institute, Ambassador Green’s confirmation brings with it hope that the Agency will be led by someone who believes in the importance of development assistance to fostering peace and prosperity worldwide.

IHC Global will be closely tracking the forthcoming changes to U.S. foreign assistance, and will actively advocate for solutions that maintain development assistance as critical to U.S foreign policy and global stability, that allow for comprehensive and integrated policies and programs, and that recognize the importance of urban specific strategies in bringing forth a sustainable and inclusive future.

Three Lessons the Xiongan Project Can Learn from Tianjin

by Eric Rosenthal

Pollution in Beijing, China.


Urbanization in China has been a phenomenon of unprecedented scale, improving people’s lives but also presenting massive challenges to the country and its people. There are over 100 cities in China with a population exceeding 1 million today, and the number of major urban areas is expected to double by 2025.1 Pollution, affordable housing, and public transportation are just a few of the challenges an urbanizing China has faced in the last couple of decades, but the People’s Republic has demonstrated it is prepared to achieve international objectives as a developed country. As part of China’s comprehensive sustainability efforts, China’s government has been constructing eco-cities around the country, the most famous and successful project being the Tianjin eco-city. In an effort to meet carbon emission and pollution targets, as well as achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, China’s eco-city projects will create comprehensively sustainable urban spaces for hundreds of thousands–in some cases millions–of new residents. The newest eco-city project which Beijing has unveiled is called Xiongan and will house approximately 500 thousand residents in an area outside of Beijing. While the Tianjin eco-city has proved itself a qualified success, there are 3 important lessons which the administrators of Xiongan can learn from Tianjin.

Lesson 1: Mitigating energy produced by coal can help reduce pollution, but is not the end-all-be-all

National Animation Industry Park in Tianjin, China.

While there are a wealth of issues which eco-city projects are designed to address, by far the most significant of these is pollution and smog in urban areas. Beijing’s smog is a well-documented public health issue that continues to plague the capital city.2 Dozens of other major metropolitan areas across China struggle with significant air pollution from factories or even dust from the Gobi Desert.3 Tianjin’s eco-city solved air pollution problems in part by mitigating energy production from coal, something that is otherwise the norm in Chinese cities.4 Because the Tianjin eco-city is primarily powered by geothermal and natural gas, and also because of quality public transportation, air pollution has not been a problem in Tianjin eco-city.

For Xiongan, it is essential to avoid using coal for energy or heating as much as possible, but this alone cannot prevent air pollution. First, city planners should move away from the car-centric urban planning that has pervaded Chinese metropolitan design and opt for a less drivable and more walkable city to reduce air pollution. Second, Chinese city planners need to get very creative about preventing or resolving high particulate counts due to the Gobi Desert. Xiongan is not being built in a bubble, and city planners must deal with superficially distant environmental issues, because the ramifications are going to land extremely close to home. Desertification threatens the air quality of several urban areas in China’s northeast, and a resolution is imperative for Xiongan to be successful.

Lesson 2: Human Sustainability and Social Inclusion are necessary for the Eco-City Vision

A city is as much buildings as it is the people who live in them. While there have been token efforts to make Tianjin and other eco-cities inclusive spaces, it is clear who the preferred residents of these futuristic cities are. Tianjin’s planners sought to create a home for a “wealthy and harmonious future society,” something which clearly excludes the poor.5 Furthermore, the use of the word ‘harmonious’ in official documentation in China has in the past implied the exclusion of ethnic minorities, malcontents, and activists.6

While parks and other sustainable public spaces aiming to bring people together are under construction in Tianjin, the extent to which these architectural feats will represent true social inclusion is yet to be seen.7 Tianjin’s eco-city lacks actually-existing sustainability, collective ownership of the city by residents and a human-oriented built environment.8 By fabricating city blueprints with profit and carbon output reduction exclusively in mind, Tianjin eco-city’s planners have inhibited the organic development of culture and personality. For Xiongan to succeed in social sustainability, an effort must be made to bring in ethnic minorities and heterogeneous class groups.

Lesson 3: Affordable housing is key to an eco-city’s long-term viability and inclusivity.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

Broad debate surrounds the socio-political implications of eco-cities, and critics have questioned whether their development could further exacerbate urban inequity and environmental injustice. Do eco-cities constitute the creation of utopian enclaves on the fringes of urban areas, accessible only to those with means? In an effort to finance eco-cities, particularly Tianjin, eco-city planners have routinely sacrificed affordability of housing for a liberal market and investment attractiveness.9

Criticism has been levied at the new Xiongan eco-city for destabilizing the local housing market, and the Tianjin eco-city has long suffered from volatile and expensive housing prices.10 A city which does not have affordable housing can hardly be an equitable one, so ensuring a stable and affordable housing market in Xiongan is essential. While officials have placed emergency stops on real estate transactions in declared eco-city areas when speculation has destabilized markets, such measures are only a poor substitution for the careful cultivation of a stable and equitable housing market.

The primary objective of Xiongan may be to mitigate the carbon footprint of Beijing, but by neglecting to ensure housing availability for lower income individuals wanting to escape the capital’s smog, developers may differentiate health outcomes and segregate communities along class lines. Furthermore, housing market speculation and low availability of affordable housing has produced “Ghost Cities,” home to nobody but with apartments that have already been purchased.11

China’s eco-cities are some of the most ambitious sustainability projects in the world, testaments to how seriously China is taking climate change and urban air pollution. However, as can be seen with Tianjin, there is much more to creating a sustainable city than merely minimizing its carbon footprints. In areas such as comprehensive carbon output, social sustainability, and affordable housing markets, the developers and administrators of Xiongan eco-city can learn a lot from both the failures and successes of Tianjin eco city.

3 The Guardian
4 The World Bank
5 ‘Eco for Whom?’
6 Al Jazeera
7 Global Construction Review
8 Reuters
9 Financing Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City
10 The Economist
11 CityLab

Five things to know about the New Urban Agenda

by Rebekah Revello

It has been eight months since the New Urban Agenda was adopted by the United Nations at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. Key elements of the NUA and the Sustainable Development Goals are being adopted in countries around the world. Here are a few key things to know about the New Urban Agenda.


It’s a United Nations-Adopted Resolution

A 29 page document designed to ensure progress in global urban sustainability, it was passed at the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. Along with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it serves as a guideline for nations, civil society, and the private sector to achieve inclusive urban development.

It’s a step towards global urban sustainability

The New Urban Agenda has nine key commitments: providing basic services for all citizens; ensuring that all citizens have access to equal opportunities and face no discrimination; promoting measures that support cleaner cities; strengthening resilience in cities to reduce the risk and the impact of disasters; taking action to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions; fully respecting the rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons regardless of their migration status; improving connectivity and supporting innovative and green initiatives; and promoting safe, accessible and green public spaces.

Anyone can be involved

From government to civil society to the private sector, everyone can do their part to implement and to advocate for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Funding across sectors is more important than ever

In a world where global development funding is in a precarious spot, investment in the SDGs and the NUA from the private sector and civil society is necessary to achieve global urban sustainability by 2030.

It embraces the city as a whole

The New Urban Agenda aims to do something different than its predecessors: look at the city as a living, breathing organism. Previous efforts to create sustainable cities have looked at issues like poverty, sanitation, climate change and infrastructure as separate mountains to climb. Instead, the New Urban Agenda strives to look at these issues as part of an integrated system, and sees that the success of the city and all urban people depends on the success of the whole.

Think famine is only a rural issue? Think again.

by Karly Kiefer

According to the U.N, the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the organization’s founding in 1945.  For the first time in modern history, four countries are on the brink of famine:  —Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia—threatening 20 million people. The images that often come to mind upon hearing ‘famine’—and indeed, the images that come up from a quick google image search—are distinctly rural–cracked earth, fields full of dried and dead crops, subsistence farmers and their families starving and skinny. And indeed, while famines usually disproportionately affect rural dwellers and those who live off the land, this is not the whole story by any means.  It is important to understand the linkages between famine and cities. Failing to understand how cities can be affected by famines means an incomplete understanding of the complex, interconnected nature of the issue.

Here are three important urban-rural connections that show the urban face of famine, defined as the extreme scarcity of food:

1. Urban Migration

Historically, famines have been responsible for mass migrations—often from rural to urban areas—as people temporarily or permanently relocate in search of food. The Irish Potato Famine, which occurred from 1845-1849 and was responsible for the death of 1 million in Ireland, caused a massive wave of rural to urban movement, not only within Ireland itself (the percentage of Dubliners born outside of Dublin increased from 27 to 39 percent between 1841 and 1851, for instance), but cross-nationally as well.  Over half a million Irish immigrated to the United States during that period—most of them settling in large cities such as New York and Boston.[1]

Many of the countries experiencing famine today are experiencing mass rural-urban movement. The graph to the right shows how the percentage of urban population has changed over time in the four countries currently experiencing famine. Increasing urbanization is a long-term trend beyond the scope of any specific short-term cause, and it is difficult to pinpoint one specific explanation for current urban migration trends in specific countries—indeed, most migrants move for a combination of reasons that may be linked to economic opportunity, escape from violent conflict, and weather related crises. However, there is reason to believe that today’s famines could exacerbate urban migration in certain places. After Somalia’s last drought and famine of 2011, for instance, “rural people migrated in large numbers towards urban centres, particularly Mogadishu, in the hope of accessing humanitarian assistance.”[2]

In many cases, those experiencing famine emigrate from the country completely, settling in refugee camps or cities in neighboring countries, as is currently happening with South Sudanese fleeing to Uganda to escape violence and famine. Uganda recently became fifth on the list of top refugee-hosting countries, with over a million refugees—800 thousand of which are South Sudanese[3]. While the majority of refugees settle in the refugee camps in rural areas of Northern Uganda, many are beginning to take advantage of Uganda’s progressive Refugee Act of 2006, which gives refugees the rights to live, work, and start businesses in Uganda’s towns and cities.[4] Kampala city now houses 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers, nearly 11,000 of which are South Sudanese.

2. Urban disease outbreak

As reported by Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation, and hygiene specialist for UNICEF, in a recent New York Times article, “During Somalia’s last famine, the deadliest areas were not the empty deserts where there was little food, but the displaced-persons camps near urban areas where, comparatively speaking, there was plenty of food”.[5] As those plagued by famine and drought in rural villages fled to makeshift settlements in and around urban centers such as Mogadishu, inadequate water and sanitation, coupled with increasingly crowded living conditions, led to the spread of communicable diseases such as cholera. While traditionally, IDP camps in urban areas may have been thought of as ‘separate’ from the rest of the urban fabric, the lines are becoming more blurry, especially in places like Mogadishu where IDP camps are so overcrowded that displaced persons are often forced to resettle many times.[6] Many of the IDPs who migrated to Mogadishu during Somalia’s 2011 famine have chosen not to return to their rural homes, and Brookings reports that differentiating between internally displaced persons and permanent urban poor residents in Mogadishu is increasingly difficult.[7]

Similarly, in Nigeria, the city of Maiduguri has recently become a disease hub, as the influx of internally displaced persons fleeing from famine and violence in the Northeast has nearly doubled the city’s population.[8] The capacity of cities to respond and adapt to an influx of displaced people—both with immediate, humanitarian aid, and with longer-term integration solutions for displaced persons who may never return to their rural homes—is critical to lessening the impact of famines.

Indeed, well-planned and resourced cities that can respond to the housing, service, and economic needs of ever-increasing populations are a crucial preemptive measure for all types of humanitarian crises and disasters.

3. Urban impacts of conflict and the destruction of supply chains dependent on cities

Not all famines are caused solely by nature and climate—political and social strife can cause or exacerbate famine, particularly when access to food is cut off, either as an inadvertent consequence of physical destruction and infrastructure decimation, or intentionally, as a strategy of war. Each of the four countries facing famine today is engaged in prolonged violent conflicts which have directly caused or exacerbated their famines.[9] Particularly for countries that depend on imports for food, urban and rural dwellers alike are reliant on complex supply chains that span across countries and cities. In Yemen, for instance, 90 percent of food is imported, most of it through the port city of Hodeida. As the civil war in Yemen drags on, Yemen’s President and his coalition of support from Saudi Arabia have blocked imports to Hodeida to stop militia groups from accessing imported arms.[10] This, as well as other blockades that have made highly populated areas inaccessible, has cut off supply chains and caused millions across the country to face food shortages and malnutrition. Infrastructure—specifically supply-chain infrastructure– in cities, thus, can be used both as a lifeline—and as a weapon—in human-caused famines.

This humanitarian crisis represents a convergence of many of IHC Global’s key policy topics—food security, urban water and sanitation, migration and its impacts. IHC Global is critically concerned about the global famines and will continue to advocate for a holistic understanding of their causes and increased funding to assist those affected.  Continued understanding of the urban-rural linkages and inter-connections that affect and are affected by famines are crucial to both responding to the famines facing the world today, and to preventing future famines.

[1] Sources: O’Grada & O’Rouke, 1997; PBS
[2] Source: Forced Migration Review, Feb 2014.
[3] Source: IRIN, 2017.
[4] Source: Refugee Livelihoods in Ugandan cities, IIED. March 2017.
[5] Source: NY Times
[6] Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, March 2015.
[7] Source: Internal Displacement in Somalia, Brookings. 2014.
[8] Source: Washington Post; Thomas Reuters Foundation
[9] Souce: Washington Post
[10] Source: Washington Post

IHC Global Event: Implementing the New Urban Agenda: Can We Really Have It All?

by Karly Kiefer

“The Habitat III conference in Quito… felt a little like a zoo.” This unconventional metaphor that was shared at IHC Global’s “Implementing the New Urban Agenda” event resonated with panelists and audience members, not because of the visual it may bring to mind of chaos or confusion, but in the way it characterizes a conference that felt electric, frenzied, exciting–the result of a process that brought together stakeholders from all sectors, backgrounds, and regions, and the outcome of which was an all-encompassing new vision for urban development that included the perspectives and priorities of so many different participants.

As an active participant in the Habitat III conference and the processes for drafting the New Urban Agenda, IHC Global has a keen interest in seeing the inclusive urban vision that was agreed to in Quito translate into practical action. To stimulate continued conversation and to help accelerate the move from ‘envisioning’ to ‘actualizing’, IHC Global convened a panel of experts on April 12th to discuss how to move forward from Quito and implement such a broad-ranging New Urban Agenda. The event asked the question, ‘How can implementation of the New Urban Agenda move forward in a way that addresses the numerous priorities of various sectors?’

Judith Hermanson, President and CEO of IHC Global, kicked off the event noting the sense of energy that permeated Quito, and asking how we move forward with that same energy and urgency in order to secure a sustainable and inclusive urban future. Following introductions came the screening of a short film by Next City, “The Moment to Get Cities Right: Inside Habitat III, The Urbanization Summit of a Generation”, shot over the course of the four-day Habitat III conference in Quito. Tom Dallessio, President and CEO of Next City, shared Next City’s inspiration for creating the documentary—to continue the conversation initiated in Quito and remind us all of the imperative to act now.

After the film screening, panelists from the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities shared their perspectives on the New Urban Agenda and the path forward. Ellen Hamilton, Lead Urban Specialist at the World Bank, spoke of the importance of recognizing the various scales for implementation—the global scale, the country scale, and the city scale. The city scale is crucial—“In terms of actually getting things done”, Ellen noted, “Cities are very critical.” Michael Donovan, Senior Housing and Urban Development Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank, echoed the importance of driving implementation at the local level. He also pointed out how significant it was for the New Urban Agenda to talk about climate change, and noted the importance of connecting the NUA with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement, and other international agendas, moving forward. Ani Dasgupta, Global Director of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, continued on this point, noting that the New Urban Agenda was able to synthesize three connected goals—the climate agenda, the agenda around informal settlements, and the SDG agenda—all in one place.

Judith Hermanson, President and CEO of IHC Global, moderated a rich discussion with the panelists that touched upon the balance between an all-encompassing urban agenda and an ‘implementable’ agenda, the need for locally driven strategies for implementation, and the role of the private sector. The conversation kicked off with an examination of the merit–and potential pitfalls–of having a ‘universal’ urban agenda. Ellen Hamilton noted that the Habitat III process has helped us move from a standpoint that sees cities as the cause of many of our global challenges (and halting urban growth as the solution), to one the recognizes that the future is inevitably urban and cities can be a key part of solutions to global challenges. The New Urban Agenda has helped us to define collectively what ‘good urbanization’ entails. As Michael Donovan put it, the New Urban Agenda is not a strategy document; it is a vision that needs to be translated into local strategies that are specific to each context. Ani Dasgupta reminded that for many cities in the Global South, urban growth is not occurring in conjunction with economic growth. For these cities, which face numerous challenges at once, it will be important to focus on a few core systems—such as transportation, affordable housing, and financing–that are necessary to ‘get right’ in order for urban growth to continue in a prosperous and sustainable way.

The conversation also touched upon the role of the private sector and whether or not there is an inherent tension between private sector incentives and more inclusive, equitable cities. Judith Hermanson noted that one criticism of the Habitat III process—which was generally lauded as being an inclusive one—is that the private sector was insufficiently represented. Panelists commented on the need to ‘unpack’ the term ‘private sector’—noting that the role of a small, private housing firm in the Caribbean, for instance, is very different than that of a large, multinational corporation. As 65% of investment in cities comes from the private sector, all agreed that its role in determining the course of urbanization is crucial. Tom Dallessio noted the difference in private sector involvement when it came to the COP21 in Paris, where many leading corporate executives were present and showed that their companies are committed to achieving climate goals. While common perception may be that the private sector does not have the same motivation or incentive when it comes to goals around urban development, Ani Dasgupta argued that successful urban development is of intrinsic value to the private sector—private companies will do better when their employees face limited traffic congestion getting to work, for instance, and when they can breathe clean air.

Following the moderated discussion, audience members asked questions and provided comments. The event closed with an affirmation of the importance of the conversation around translating the spirit of the New Urban Agenda into practical implementation, and an appeal for the conversation to continue.

Exclusive interview with the winners of the 2016 Reducing Urban Poverty Paper Competition

by Rebekah Revello, Frances Goyes, Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Sera Tolgay

From left: Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay


The 2016 winners of the IHC Global sponsored* Reducing Urban Poverty Graduate Student Paper Competition are Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay. The MIT Masters in City Planning students come from three very different backgrounds- 26-year-old Alvarado is from Lima, Peru, 26-year-old Goyes is from Quito, Ecuador, and 25-year-old Tolgay is from Istanbul, Turkey- but they have pooled together their expertise and experiences to create a project focused on something that they care deeply about. As the refugee crisis remains one of the most pressing global issues at hand, much attention is paid to the journey; where the refugees go, how they get there, and if they’ll be allowed in. Much less focus is on what happens to these families after they receive sanctuary. Their research project does just this; Refugees, Incremental Housing and Shelter in the 21st Century seeks to examine the design and implementation of the incrementing housing model of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s Urban Shelter Program in cities in Northern Jordan, and provide recommendations on how it can improve. The paper was selected out of hundreds of entries as the winner of the competition, and Alvarado, Goyes and Tolgay were given the opportunity to present their findings in front of a captivated audience at Habitat III in October, in Goyes’ hometown of Quito, Ecuador. IHC Global International Communications Officer Rebekah Revello interviewed the three researchers about their project, what it means to them, and what they hope it will do for refugee communities around the world.

Can you give a brief summary of your project?

FG: The NRC program intends to provide adequate shelter for vulnerable Syrian refugees by supplying grants to Jordanian homeowners to increase rooms or floors to their existing houses. Syrian families are then allowed to live in these expansions rent-free for up to two years. After the two year period is over, Jordanian homeowners can decide if they want to continue to renting to Syrian families or use the expansions for a different purpose. 

VVA: There is a lack of adequate and affordable rental housing stock to accommodate the increasing number of Syrian refugees, which has put a strain on the capacity of cities in Northern Jordan such as Jerash, Ajloun, and Irbid. Through surveys with participant homeowners, semi-structured interviews with NRC and UNHCR officers, and mapping of social and public infrastructure, we have found that NRC’s Urban Shelter Program increases the total housing stock available in Northern Jordan cities, ensures minimum building standards and quality of materials, and supports the local economy. As opposed to cash-for-rent programs that can add pressure to constricted housing markets, NRC’s approach provides adequate shelter for refugees without disrupting existing urban systems    

What initially drew you to your project? Why did you choose the subject?

FG: I was interested in this project for a number of reasons. Having lived my entire life in Ecuador, I was accostumed to the incremental housing  approach the majority of families practiced – houses are built informally, and expanded through time based on the growth in family members and the financial resources they have access to. I was very curious to understand how NRC could draw inspiration from incremental housing to then use it as a solution for housing refugees.

Furthermore, the NRC program was also interesting to me from a city planning perspective. Much attention is drawn to refugee camps like Zaatari and Azraq, yet the majority of Syrian refugees live in urban areas, as there they have greater access to economic opportunities, as well as social infrastructure and networks. However, many cities are unable to accommodate the increased demand for housing, and many refugees are forced into substandard living conditions. Urban programs for housing refugees that provide cash-for-rent assistance intend to solve this condition, yet in turn increase rental prices in cities and saturate the market. NRC’s program increases the housing stock, thus bringing more equilibrium to the housing market.

Given the enormity of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, I also wanted to use this opportunity to draw attention to this innovative program in the hope that it can be adapted in other countries that have also opened their doors to refugees.

VVA: The possibility to make a small contribution to solving the refugee crisis, understanding why projects work, whether these can be replicated or adapted in many other parts of the region that are currently facing a similar problem was the reason why I became interested in this project. Dr. Reinhard Goethert, Professor at the Department of Architecture at MIT was the one who pointed out the great potential that incremental housing, slowly expanding the houses over time, could have to help the refugee crisis which then led me to further investigate if this was a strategy already being taken advantage of. 

ST: As part of our research group, Special Interest Group on Urban Settlements at MIT, we had been studying incremental housing models around the world, trying to understand the factors that make housing projects successful. We really took a “shelter plus” approach, where housing is not just a roof over your head but also the accessibility to a bundle of services like transportation, education or markets that make day to day life possible. The NRC project is very interesting because it acknowledges the reality that the majority of refugees in fact live in urban areas (this number is close to 85 % in Jordan). In Turkey, for example, the government has responded to the crisis by setting up state-of-the-art camps, but this has not been a sustainable solution as people have left the camps to go to cities, where they have more access to services and jobs. We thought that the NRC problem recognized this dynamic from the start and could provide a model for providing shelter for urban refugees.

Alvarado and Goyes look on as Tolgay presents.
What sort of feedback have you received about your project, from colleagues to the international community?

FG: We’ve received very positive feedback from our university and other colleagues. I’m particularly happy that other NGO’s and government organizations that didn’t know about the program before have become aware of it through our presentations at Habitat III.

VVA: The team has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about our project. Many fellows students, Professors and international organizations have reached out to read our paper, further discuss our analysis as well as request us to make presentations. It has been quite touching to know that we are able to have this experience inspire others to learn and work on the issue.

ST: It was also interesting to hear reactions from audiences about how the refugee crisis is typically associated with camps, so our research in urban areas gathered a lot of interest.

What do you think presenting at Habitat III has done for your research?

FG: It’s definitely increased awareness of NRC’s program, especially for people from private and public sectors that work in the humanitarian sector.

VVA: Presenting at Habitat III has opened a lot of doors for me. From giving me more exposure in the school on the potential and quality of my work as a researcher, to networking with organizations I would love to work at as well as meeting many other people who are as passionate as I am about the issue to further collaborate on research.

ST:  Through our presentations at Habitat III, we got to exchange ideas with a number of organizations, such as the Project for Public Spaces, Affordable Housing Institute and Habitat for Humanity, who are all working on the issue of housing for refugee populations from a shelter plus approach as well. Given the enormity of the current crisis and the shortcoming of traditional humanitarian approaches, we saw how critical it is to develop flexible models that can bring the host communities and refugee populations together rather than creating silos.

What do you plan to do with your research going forward?

FG: I’m excited to see it published in the Wilson Center’s annual Urban Paper Competition book. I also hope others continue researching this and other innovative intiatives in Jordan and other countries.

VVA: I hope that the research can continue to be disseminated in different ways. The analysis of the research has also prompted Dr. Reinhard Goethert to continue with this line of work looking at another case study in Lebanon that could potentially be used for comparison and the  exchange of best practices. 

ST: One key takeaway from our research in Jordan is the fact that employment opportunities will directly affect the sustainability of any kind of housing model in the coming years. While the Jordanian government has announced that they will be giving work permits to a portion of the refugee population, many are still forced to take low-wage, low-skill jobs to provide for their families. To re-think employment in this context, I will be taking part in a long-term initiative through the Art, Culture and Technology group in our department, called Future Heritage Studio. It is currently at a very nascent stage, so I cannot provide a lot of information yet, but through a collaborative design workshop with the refugee population and local partners in Jordan, we are hoping to identify ways in which art, technology and design can be combined with existing know-how, crafts and skills to provide alternative livelihoods.

How do you want your research to be used to help the communities you studied and others like them?

FG: I intend this research to serve NRC and other governmental and non-governmental organizations that are interested in creating humanitarian programs that are urban, creative, and site-specific.

VVA: In the most practical way, the research can be used to duplicate NRC’s Urban Shelter Program in other areas of Jordan or neighboring countries that have a similar housing ecosystem. At the same time, the analysis of the research has highlighted that it is quite expensive to keep up such a comprehensive program. In this regard, the research can provide insight and pin point certain areas that have the potentially to become more cost saving.

ST: Additionally, we hope to draw lessons for other contexts regionally, like in Lebanon, which has an even larger urban refugee population than that of Jordan. At a larger scale, globally, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has surpassed 60 million for the first time in history, so as people are forced to flee their homes due to conflicts or natural disasters, these innovative models will be especially critical in the years to come.

Alvarado listens to questions from the audience at Habitat III.
What do you think the New Urban Agenda will do for urban refugee communities?

FG: I hope the NUA increases awareness of urban refugees and internally displaced populations. I particularly wish that the NUA emphasizes the need for a human rights approach to projects intended to help urban refugee communities, and more data about urban refugees is gathered and shared with the humanitarian community.

VVA: I believe that the New Urban Agenda helps urban refugee communities by setting the issue at the forefront of the international community. This then is able to spark discussion and more allocation of funding to help with the different issues such as housing that refugees have to deal with. Creating awareness of the urgency to address this use, as well as setting the guidelines and priorities to do so, is definitely the first towards more concrete solutions, such as funding research, to fund programs like NRC’s Urban Shelter Program as well as do evaluations of such, which is as extremely important as just designing and implementing the project. The evaluation phase helps to keep the program aligned with the changing needs of the refugees. 

ST: Similarly the people-centric approach called for in the NUA can also be applied to the humanitarian field, where the complex and multifaceted problems faced by urban refugees require going beyond providing baseline needs.

Given your research and the current trajectories, what do you think will happen with urban refugee communities over the next few years?

FG: I think urban refugee communities will continue to grow around the world, especially as more vulnerable populations have to migrate from the negative effects of climate change. I hope that lessons learned from the Syrian refugee crisis and others before it provide the humanitarian community with expertise for these changing times.

VVA: This is quite a tough question to answer. As the current situation is going, the number of urban refugee communities will only keep increasing. However, we are seen positive programs like the NRC helping to alleviate the problem, at least one of the problems, safe and reliable shelter. The refugee crisis problem is quite complex and sensitive subject to address, both from a refugee and host country perspective. However, I think that as long as we know that we are doing the best to help families who have been forced to flee from their homes until it is safe to come back, I’m sure we will be able to learn how to best adapt our built environment and our attitude towards the issue.

What have you personally learned from this project?

FG: This project has given me an incredible opportunity that I am immensely grateful for. Academically, I have grown tremendously through this experience, learning much more than I did before about humanitarian work and the ongoing refugee crisis. The project has also expanded my professional network, particularly through our presentations at Habitat III. Personally, I have developed new friendships with people that I would have never had the opportunity to meet if I had not participated in this project.

VVA: I have learned many things from this project. I have been fascinated by the passion and dedication that people have towards solving this issue. This project has also brought hope that there are good stories to share about programs that are helping refugees and positive experiences between refugees and homeowners who rent their spaces to them. As it was my first time in the Middle East, this research trip served also as a very rich cultural immersion. This project has absolutely helped me grow as a person and a professional; it exceeded my expectations in various ways. I think what made our project special was that we had the unique opportunity to be in the field for about three weeks not only analyzing the project technicalities but also learning about people’s lives, their stories, their struggles and their favorite meals. The personal connections we made throughout our research were the most rewarding and memorable parts of this project.

ST: Seconding Francis, this project has shown us the importance of taking the leap to do fieldwork in a new and challenging environment and the power of teamwork to make this happen. It was a great privilege to meet in person the Syrian families and also to hear from the Jordanian homeowners, some of whom came to Jordan from Palestine as refugees themselves. Despite the gravity of the situation in Syria, I hope that sharing these positive stories can inspire us to go beyond the immediately possible.

Judges and the winners: Allison Garland of the Wilson Center, Tony Piaskowy of USAID, MIT Professor and project adviser Reinhard Goethert, Alvarado, Laura Lima of Cities Alliance, Goyes, Tolgay, IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson, and Victor Vargas of the World Bank stand together for a picture


*Sponsors for the competition include Cities Alliance, IHC Global, The Wilson Center, The World Bank and USAID

Report: IHC Global at Habitat III

by Karly Kiefer, Rebekah Revello, Judith Hermanson

Habitat III, the global conference on housing and urban development held once every 20 years, just concluded in Quito.  The major outcome was the approval of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) which provides a vision and points a direction for urban development over the coming years.  IHC Global was an active participant and we want to share with you some of our impressions, let you know about our activities while there, and engage you in our thinking as we move beyond Habitat III to implement the NUA and support Global Goal 11 to create cities that are sustainable, inclusive, resilient and safe. 

IHC Global will be pursuing an agenda to advance greater urban equity and equality


Solar panels at the Habitat III Village
Solar panels at the Habitat III Village

Impressions:  In shadow of the Andes in northern Ecuador, thousands of people queue up in various lines in El Ejito Park, waiting to enter the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, the city of Quito’s premier conference venue dedicated to the preservation of culture and dissemination of knowledge. As they wait in line they are surrounded by eccentricities ranging from bamboo houses, to lampposts made with solar lights and recycled plastic bottles—all part of the Habitat III Village, a showcase of the latest urban innovations and solutions staged throughout the city. Inside the venue grounds, old friends and new meet up for coffee or sushi on the lawn to discuss and debate the soon to be passed New Urban Agenda. Ecuadorians mingle with participants from 167 countries in the vast Exhibition tent, where organizations and governments stage their latest urban projects and initiatives, and host outreach events and musical performances. A glance at the schedule on the Habitat III app shows hundreds of events occurring each day—dozens at any given time.

Thirty thousand people gathered in Quito from October 17-20 for the Habitat III conference. After a near two-year process of drafting and revising, the New Urban Agenda (NUA) was adopted by nearly 170 countries.  Notable in the lead up to the NUA was the inclusion of civil society in the negotiations—a platform known as the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) was created in order to enable the participation of non-governmental partners, broken into fifteen “Constituent Groups” including grassroots organizations, children and youth, and research and academia. In addition, multiple online and offline platforms, official and unofficial events, and mechanisms for public comment were enabled in order to sustain a truly participatory process in the drafting of the NUA and the lead up to Habitat III.

Conference-goers lounge on the Habitat III grounds
Conference-goers lounge on the Habitat III grounds


IHC Global Engagement with Habitat III:  IHC Global was a key supporter of Global Goal 11 and has been engaged in the dialogue and drafting process for the New Urban Agenda, including participating in PrepComm 2 as a member of the GAP’s Civil Society Constituent Group. We have been active in many lead up events, including an Open Forum held in May, as well as keeping our members informed.  IHC Global is also a Lead Partner with the World Urban Campaign. Our delegation, which included IHC Global staff, Board members and senior advisors, was accorded special accreditation, and maintained a very active and robust presence throughout the conference.

The exhibition tent at Habitat III
The exhibition tent at Habitat III

Key Activities in Quito:  IHC Global kicked off its Habitat III line-up on Saturday, October 15th, when Communications Officer Rebekah Revello spoke at the Civil Society Panel for the Children and Youth Assembly, a parallel event that focused on the role of children and youth in implementing the New Urban Agenda. Revello spoke about how young people in the United States are advocating for inclusive cities, and the various movements that have arisen regarding urban issues such as racial equality.

IHC Global Communications Officer Rebekah Revello speaks at the UN Working Group for Children and Youth panel on Civil Society
IHC Global Communications Officer Rebekah Revello speaks at the UN Working Group for Children and Youth panel on Civil Society


On Monday, October 17th, IHC Global President and CEO Dr. Judith Hermanson moderated a panel called Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Leveraging Partnerships, hosted by the government of Canada’s Employment and Social Development division, with Minister Yves Duclos serving as one of the panelists, together with Suranjana Gupta, Senior Specialist and Advisor with the Huairou Commission and GROOTS International, Greg Moor, Mayor of the City of Port Coquitlam in Canada, and J. Nealin Parker, Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Judith framed the discussion in this session, which focused around innovative approaches to housing partnerships that go beyond physical buildings and structures and focus on linkages to community and the city – in other words a theme of inclusion and inclusiveness which was carried through by the presentations of each of the panelists as they presented programs, policies and evidence supporting the underlying premise. Also on Monday, IHC Global board member David Wluka spoke at a side event called Evidence from Practice to Action: Ensuring Informed Implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson speaks at the Canadian Government event Beyond Brick and Mortar

On Monday afternoon, IHC Global hosted a networking event called Triple Win:  People, Public, and Private Partnerships for More Livable Cities and Communities, where a diverse group of panelists discussed how their organizations have been involved in successful people-public-private-partnerships (PPPPs), and how the inclusion of “people” in these partnerships can help cities become more equitable and inclusive. The perspectives of civil society, private sector and local governments were brought forward and the underlying principles that have applicability beyond the specific examples cited.

IHC Global CEO Judith Hermanson, participate on the IHC Global-hosted panel Triple Win
Panelists participate in a lively discussion at the IHC Global-hosted event Triple Win
Eduardo Rojas and Judith Hermanson stand with the panelists for the IHC Global-led panel No Time to Waste
Eduardo Rojas and Judith Hermanson stand with the panelists for the IHC Global-led panel No Time to Waste


On Tuesday, October 18th, IHC Global marked the official release of a new publication entitled No Time to Waste: Applying the Lessons from Latin America’s 50 Years of Housing Policies to Rapidly Urbanizing Countries authored by Eduardo Rojas, former lead urban specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. At the Next City World Stage, IHC Global assembled a panel of experts to discuss key findings in the paper and their potential applicability to countries that are rapidly urbanizing.  IHC Global Senior Technical Advisor Roger Williams moderated.  The paper had previously been peer reviewed at a session hosted by Ford Foundation in New York and is intended to inform policy discussions under the NUA which has “housing at the center.”

IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson and IHC Global Boardmember David Wluka speak at the Habitat for Humanity International and Government of Dubai-led event Housing at the Center
IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson and IHC Global Boardmember David Wluka speak at the Habitat for Humanity International and Government of Dubai-led event Housing at the Center

Later on Tuesday afternoon, IHC Global President Judith Hermanson spoke at two events. At the Government of Dubai-hosted Housing at the Center: Establishing a Community of Practice that will engage in M&E, Hermanson emphasized that inclusiveness has spatial dimensions, as well as economic and social dimensions, and stressed that housing can be a driver of greater equality and inclusive growth. Hermanson then spoke at FIABCI’s The City We Need is Affordable Campaign meeting about IHC Global’s work to bring together private sector and non-profit organizations around the mission of promoting inclusive housing and sustainable cities and the importance of including housing as part of a comprehensive urban planning process.

This year's urban essay competition winners present their research on urban resettlement of refugees
This year’s urban essay competition winners present their research on urban resettlement of refugees

On Wednesday, IHC Global hosted an outreach event in the Habitat III Exhibition Area to provide information to prospective members and to promote a new student membership campaign that offers networking and mentoring benefits to students and recent graduates as a way of facilitating the entry of new scholars and practitioners into the field. Also on Wednesday, IHC Global President Judith Hermanson served as a discussant during a presentation by the winners of the 7th Annual Reducing Urban Poverty Graduate Student Paper Competition Presentation, which IHC Global initially conceptualized with USAID as a way to encourage innovation and engage new scholars and which it now co-sponsors with USAID, the World Bank, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and Cities Alliance. The three student winners shared their research on incremental housing solutions for refugees in Jordan.

Panelists answer questions from the audience at the
Panelists answer questions from the audience at the IHC Global and Habitat for Humanity International-led event Intersections


Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, IHC Global hosted its final event called Intersections: Bringing together necessary elements for Inclusive, Sustainable Sanitation Strategies in Cities. Judith Hermanson moderated as panelists shared best practices and lessons learned on implementing comprehensive sanitation projects that recognize the intersections of technology, infrastructure, market development, community engagement, and gender equity.

Post-Quito Next Steps:  While the Habitat III conference has ended, the important work of carrying forward the vision and delivering on commitments made has just begun. IHC Global will remain engaged and active in the post-Quito discussions and in supporting the translation of conversation into action through advocacy, education, research and dialogue.  This blog is only the beginning of our synthesis and analysis of the conference. Keep an eye out for our “Humans of Habitat III” commentary, and other material from this extraordinary gathering of people and organizations from around the globe. 

The major outcome, the NUA, is important and significant in part for the light that it shines on the critical issues of urban development; the other important outcome is the inspiration and knowledge gained by those who will help to bring about change in communities, cities and countries around the world.