Museologia Social e Urbanismo

Lecturer: Gautam Bhan, Lead, Academics and Research, Indian Institute for Human Settlements

Discussion prompts:

  1. What are the components of affordable, adequate and viable housing?
  2. Who can provide this housing for all?

My name is Gautam Bhan. I teach here in Bangalore at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and i’ll be talking with you today on the connection between housing and poverty, and we’re going to look at it particularly through three kinds of connections: One is the idea of Affordability, a key determinant on who accesses housing and of what kind.

The second is the idea of Adequacy which is what kind of house do we consider enough and the third is the question of Viability. And I think it’s very important that we keep these three together, because if we do affordability or adequacy without viability or vice versa, we lose the key way in which housing connects to both the experience of urban poverty and the ways to be able to move out of poverty and overcome them. So we look three things in the lecture today.

First, we’ll talk a little bit about what housing is. So in light and homage to Raymond Carver, thinking about what we talk about when we talk about love or if you prefer a Murakami reference and what we talk about when we talk about running, we’re going to think a little bit about what actually it means to talk about housing and we’ll come back then to our three key terms of Affordability, Adequacy and Viability to talk about them.

Then we’ll talk a little bit about who has built this house. So who has provided the current mode of accessing affordable, adequate and viable housing. Then, when we have this framework in mind we’ll move to the third part of the lecture which is to think a little bit about how is it that these actors are doing today and what does that mean for what we need to do to help them get where we need to get for cities that are truly inclusive and use housing as a key part to get to that inclusion.

So, what is housing? One of the ways that you can think about housing is its most intuitive; a housing unit, a dwelling unit, actually just a house. There, two of the first of our concerns are very clear. Is the unit affordable? Can you rent it? Can you buy it within a reasonable ratio of your income?

The second is, are they adequate? Now the debates on adequacy are the debates of norms and standards. So, how many square feet?

How many square meters? What materials? What constructions? We’ll come back to this question as we go through.

But no house can become housing until it’s connected to services. Now here the question of what makes housing viable comes back in its first form which is that housing without water, sanitation, sewage and drainage exist and lived in every city in the world but cannot be part of our understanding of what minimal housing should be. So when we think about the dwelling unit and we think about services, we begin to further move from the house to housing. To this we add a key debate for both UN-Habitat, as well as any question of inclusive development which is questions of Tenure.

Now this term is specific. When we speak of secure tenure, what are we talking about? What we’re talking about is the ability to remain in the house that you currently inhabit and not be fearful or anticipate forced eviction.

Now this is a phenomenon that impacts millions of households and cities across the world. Precisely, because of the way in which their housing has been built in a tension, with these formal regimes of law and planning. When we think a little bit about the question of secure tenure, the question we’re asking is – are households able to grow with and within formal logics of law and planning?

The next part about what makes housing very critical is that where housing is, is just as important as what kind of housing it is. Location shapes housing’s viability in a very key way. Most people determine their housing choices especially income poor urban residents not by the quality of the dwelling unit, but by its viability and proximity to employment. Many urban poor households will compromise on the adequacy of their dwelling unit, the materiality of their house, on the amount of services they have, in order to make it viable and proximate to employment.

Many urban migrants make decisions to migrate not for better shelter but for better life opportunities. Therefore housing cannot be created without a connection both in land use and planning to employment but also very critically to transportation. We then get another life. we’ve already complicated it lot so far. Right!

We started with dwelling units. We thought of services, we added tenure, we’ve looked at location. Two more to complete our distinction between house and housing.

The first is that housing is an economic asset. Now this determines very much why people want housing, what they see housing playing a part in their lives.

You can think of two ways: the first is that housing especially at the lower income level is never just a space for shelter, never just a space for use, housing as a space for work.

The image of seeing on your screen right now is an image that comes from has been Ezbet El-Nakhl in Cairo. It reminds you that the layer that you’re seeing doesn’t look like housing but it is deeply part of the settlement. It’s a waste recycling site. It’s a site for animals, it’s a site for storage, it’s a site for in-place livelihood construction where part of the settlement that is also housing people, must also make space for the way they make their livelihoods.

Now these are very important in particular connections. This kind of work which you can also think of is flexible informal, vulnerable is also deeply resilient and it takes place in these kinds of informal housing conditions for a reason. This is not a spatial coincidence. It is a determination because of the flexibility of an informal settlement, new kinds of work are possible that can shift with the lives of the residence. So particular forms of housing, allow and enable particular forms of work that are not possible in other formal or other planned areas of the city.

When we think about what housing is you must also think about housing as a spatial built-form that enables and hosts certain economic circuits, but when you scale this exact relationship up – housing is then also an economic sector. It is not just that for the household but also for the city which means that for many cities, the economy of the city, the region, the state and as we scale up into global economic flows is determined by the economic vibrancy of the housing sector.

Now this (a) means that we have many actors deeply invested in shaping this economic sector at multiple scales from big real estate capital to small municipal governments. It also means that we cannot look at housing just as the micro practices of one particular place but also as a multi-scalar, multi-geographic economic sector that is being shaped at multiple scales. Housing can never be just a public good or just a real estate condominium, it is always both and those markets shape each other.

So once we understand that we have to think about affordable, adequate and viable housing as something we must protect as a public good in a basic need, but something we cannot isolate also from its role as a commodity in a deeply global and multi-scalar market.

This is the context in which the actors who produce this housing negotiate, act and intervene and what will turn to next then is to think about who these actors are, who have been building affordable housing in cities across the world. Very briefly, there’re three types of actors that produce and supply affordable, adequate and viable housing.

The first is the State. Now within this there’s an enormous variety of institutions both at scale and of type. There is local governments, there’s national governments, technical authorities, housing authorities. So, there’s no one identifiable state but within it all of these institutions represent a certain commitment to building housing and affordable housing in particular as part of public action through public purpose understood as part of the state-citizen compact. Now this may be through direct construction.

It may also be through different kinds of regulation of the state intervening into structure in the private market, the housing market through land use, through planning through various kinds of laws and different controls. The market that they are addressing can be referred to then as the private, unaided, formal market for delivering housing. This is the space that we recognise. Housing developers, private companies again astonishingly diverse from international, transnational real estate companies working in multiple geographies to very local city-based developers building a small amount of units. But these are actors that are responding and working primarily within the logics of demand and supply. The third and final actor, however, is one that we talk about the least especially in housing policy which is that most existing affordable and viable housing stock. It is in fact been built by people themselves.

This is a process that we call Auto- construction following from the Latin American tradition. An auto-construction represents a very different logic and way of building housing through slow incremental occupation often in tension with law and planning, housing that grows with and takes along the households that are within it.

So these are the three actors: the state, the market and the people : that are able to supply this housing. What we must ask now today is what are they able to do in 2016 and what are the challenges that stopped from answering the call for meeting the unmet need for affordable housing across the world. Let’s turn to that next.

Let’s take five cities across the world and think of what they tell us about the possibilities of state action in the contemporary urban political economy. First is London, a city in the (global) North with an established capacity of the state to build such housing but a debate on what the role of the state should be and whether the state should engage in such construction in the first place, a history of public built-housing that has been deregulated, privatised many would say and a shift from public ownership of those assets and that responsibility to private terms. Here the question is not the capacity of the state but on whether a social and political agreement exists on what the role the state should play vis-à-vis housing. If you shift to a different place like Singapore, here you see an example of an agreement on the state role performed and delivered at scale.

Singapore and Hong Kong represent the iconic examples of city-states that have been able to construct large-scale housing supply at multiple affordability scales that is both adequate and viable because it’s linked also to city infrastructure over time but is directed very much by public agency. The counter example of this story is a city like New Delhi in India where the intention of the state to invest and build large-scale housing supply met the challenge of capacity.

And therefore from the 1950s, a city that tried to build public housing and deliver it and structure the market, instead created massive distortions and artificial scarcities because it was unable to deliver on the promises it itself made, unable to build enough housing and thereby creating distortions that saw unauthorised elite construction as much as it saw the rise of slums and therefore one sees the distinction of intention without capacity.

Another city that gives us a different perspective on this is Johannesburg, a city on the African continent where the capacity of the state again is not in question and indeed South Africa’s public housing program has managed to build over a million housing units but still not impact its housing shortage, and there the question of whether the state is able to build the right kind of housing even if it has the capacity, whether we know what to deliver in order to transform our challenges, whether that knowledge can be applied and used.

And my last case comes from Sao Paulo taking us to a state that is choosing  not to act in terms of direct building construction, but actually act through other ways of improvement and regulation. Brazil’s ‘Right to the City’ statute to the Federal City statute passed in 2002, represents a landmark state commitment to furthering the occupational rights especially of income poor residents in the city and one of the many ways in which that statute moved, was to work with existing already built housing and improve it.

This range of example shows us that the challenges faced are of very different kinds. From ideological agreements on the role of the state, to capacity to deliver on those outcomes but also to know even with ideological will what outcomes to deliver that will match the existing demand and not create the white elephant of housing that is built-in adequate, but unoccupied and unviable versus a state that steps back and takes a much more regulatory indirect approach to improvement and incremental transformation that respects the affordable housing landscape, as it currently exists in these cities. What is it then that the market can do?

Similarly to how we thought about the State. The questions vary and they vary about how we ask them where we ask them. So, let’s take two important differentiations. The first is, in emerging and transitioning economies in the global South, several questions come up with questions of market access. The first is “What is the nature of demand?” ‘Who is able to demand, what kind of affordable house?’ A very important study by Monitor Inclusive Markets, part of an international firm looking at the demand for affordable housing in India and what private, unaided developers could do to fill that demand in Indian cities found that the private developer cannot intervene unaided below 600,000 INR equivalent of about $10,000.

The question is that the income landscape of urban Indian residents mean that 60% of urban poor households cannot afford a house of about $10,000.

Therefore even though the affordable housing unaided market exist, it exist for the upper 40% of the market and not the bay 60%. This doesn’t mean that the market agents don’t have a role but that role must be particular and the particularity has to be recognised. The second question is ‘When the market is building what its building?’ The image you’re seeing on your screen right now is an image of Cairo, a city in which vacancy rates for already built housing are estimated between 18 and 23% which means that one in every five houses in Cairo is empty, even though the shortages are documented to be in much larger quantities. This represents a certain disjunct in the market between the nature of supply and it’s connection with the demand that we were describing earlier. But this is a very different kind of demand-supply disjunct because it represents an over building at the upper income scale responding to market logic in some sense, but not creating the supply that is required in the city to meet its challenges for affordable housings.

Market actors are therefore pivotal parts of this housing puzzle and they have a role to play in it but that role has to be nuanced and located in the realities of the structure that housing market instead of only our imaginations how the upper half of those markets work. So now let’s take our third actor. We’ve said earlier that one of the largest builders of existing affordable, adequate and viable housing is actually people themselves through auto-construction. Can we rely on auto-construction to answer the challenge of affordable housing posed to us in the Sustainable Development Goals?

There are several challenges that people face: the first and the most prominent is the one we know and recognise the most. That insecure tenure often related precisely to the processes of auto-construction leaves households vulnerable to forced evictions. Now the scale of these forced evictions isn’t something that we cannot ever underestimate in what it does to life slowly and incrementally built. The mode of forced eviction and resettlement is not just an occurrence that happens in a site or two, but actually is a way in which our cities are constantly restructured. How eviction erases a life of incrementally build development? It takes away, critically, what is represented by informal settlements : the idea of development time, the idea of time for a household’s income to grow, a child to go through education, new set of skills to come, possibly new kinds of economic opportunities. As services come into settlements the potential in speed of this development time increases and eviction turns the clock back. It starts households precisely back from where they started and remember these are precisely the households that are the most vulnerable and often unable to restart. But even without an eviction the question of how long it takes for incrementally improving household to reach adequate levels- levels the Sustainable Development Goals would consider acceptable in its metrics.

Is that time too long? The question of how long incremental improvement takes is one that we cannot evade. If we are looking at 20 years for a settlement to come to adequate standards, that’s one generation that has lived a life that is too vulnerable, too inadequate and too prone to other kinds of exclusions and shocks. So therefore even if people are to lead the process of housing by auto- construction, the State in the market must step in to reduce the time it takes to reach viability. The last is a more contemporary challenge. Now the image of screen on the screen right now is from Caracas, but it’s an image that could be from many places in the world that shows a very particular correlation. The geographies of environmental risk and hazard in our cities match almost precisely the geography of low income habitation. Precisely, those lands that are marked by risk are those that are open to occupation and building.

So therefore when we think about questions of auto – construction, much of what we are discussing is not just that people have through resilience built and survived in certain ways, it is that they should not need to be so resilient and the cost of that resilience should not fall upon the most vulnerable of our city residents so strongly as it does. So, to end this lecture where we must think about as we move forward is to recognise, first, that there are many ways to improve housing. Building new dwelling units is only one of them. If a housing is not just a house, then service improvement, planning improvements, universal access to provision of infrastructure, improved transportation and indeed, an inclusive and balanced overall economic development are necessary for housing to improve.

Housing cannot improve in isolation with other aspects and sectors of urban development. The second is to realise that debates that pit the State against the actor, against communities and seize the opportunity of policy intervention as one or the other are mistaken.

No single actor- the State, the Market or People can address the scale of this challenge alone. The question we must ask is ‘What are the synergies that bind them?” “What are the ways in which they can add upon each other?” Especially given that a new set of risks, a new set of condition is going to inevitably come upon them. As is recognised by both the evaluation of the new Sustainable Development Goals, their integration with each other, their indivisibility and the fact that we are in a new time when new answers and new practices must come to us but they must take root precisely in the foundations of existing practices, existing cities and the reality of how people live in most of the world today. That is the way in which we’ll be able to move forward and with this we end this lecture for today.


Sobre Pedro Pereira Leite

Investigador do Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra onde desenvolve o projeto de investigação "Heranças Globais: a inclusão dos saberes das comunidades como instrumento de desenvolvimento integrado dos território".(2012-2107) . O projeto tem como objetivo observar a relevâncias no uso da memória social em quatro territórios ligados por processos sociais comuns. A investigação desenvolve-se em Portugal e Espanha, na zona da Fronteira; em Moçambique e no Brasil. (FCT:SHRH/BPD/76601/2011). É diretor de Casa Muss-amb-iki - espaço de Memórias. Intervém no âmbito de pesquisa de redes sociais de memoria.
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