On World Cities Day, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, presents some recommendations on how to ensure affordable, accessible, and adequate housing for all.
Affordability: A Global Issue
Affordability is a central component of the right to adequate housing. A house cannot be considered adequate and accessible if its cost threatens or compromises the occupant’s enjoyment of other human rights and satisfaction of needs such as food, healthcare, education, and transport. Recent data suggests that around 80 per cent of cities worldwide do not have affordable housing options (either for rental or purchase) for half of their population.
UN-Habitat calculates unaffordability as a net monthly expenditure on housing cost that exceeds 30 per cent of the total monthly income of the household. Together with security of tenure, affordability is central for preventing the risk of evictions as it reflects the capacity of people to sustain rent and mortgage payments.
In the last decades, affordability has become a global issue which directly affects the wellbeing of people. According to Eurobarometer, housing is increasingly a matter of concern for European citizens and the leading national issue in countries like Luxemburg and Ireland, while it come in second place in Malta and Germany.
In Latin America, high house price-to-income ratios and inaccessible housing finance increase pressure and forcing people to resort to informal solutions without the benefits of planning and safety regulations. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, less than 10 per cent of households can afford a mortgage even for the cheapest newly built house. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) region, rent makes up the largest portion of spending for households, taking on average more than a third of incomes with housing prices growing three times faster than incomes in the past 20 years.
The housing affordability crisis exacerbates urban inequalities. The lack of affordable solutions often pushes people, and particular social groups, such as low-income households, migrants, as well as young people and the elderly, into sharing overcrowded and unsafe dwellings, or moving into areas with little access to employment and education opportunities, healthcare, or green spaces.
The challenge of making houses more affordable is made even more urgent by the growing income instability triggered by COVID-19. This is likely to result in increases in mortgage and rental arrears and therefore in evictions, particularly for low-income, self-employed, and informal workers who are facing job loss and economic hardship.
Governments worldwide have taken action to address the potential effect of the COVID-19 crisis on people’s ability to pay their rent and mortgage. However, millions of people are at risk of losing their homes once temporary bans on evictions are lifted or when the lack of stable income leads to missed rent or mortgage payments. A strong political commitment to put housing affordability at the centre of the recovery and embed it in sustainable urban policies needs to be made.
- Increasing the supply of affordable housing by investing in social housing programmes, which have been scaled down in the last decades. At present, in the EU alone, the investment gap in social housing stands at Euro 57 billion per year. In the wake of COVID-19, though, several countries (for example the UK and the Netherlands) have mobilised additional funding for social housing. To increase the social housing supply, strategies could include also purchasing and repurposing empty buildings, including offices and housing units on the market as a result of the economic crisis.
- Investigate existing bottlenecks and strengthen regulation in the financial and real estate markets to ensure the right to housing by addressing key obstacles to its full enjoyment (for example financialisation, discrimination, land-grabbing, speculation, predatory lending, environmental degradation, and vulnerability to natural disasters). The newly released Egypt Housing Strategy, for example, prepared by the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities and various stakeholders, in coordination with UN-Habitat is focusing on opening up closed and vacant units which make up 22.8 per cent of the total number of housing units according to the 2017 Census. This can be achieved by offering incentives to owners to place vacant units in the market and reduce building permits for unfinished units. This policy is reinforced by the setting up of loan and grant programmes to encourage the completion and marketing of units at affordable prices, in addition to raising the demand for these units.
- Reviewing land policy options and planning strategies, funding and financing instruments, as well as environmental and energy standards and their impact on the affordability of cities worldwide. UN-Habitat is currently working with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and Housing Europe on a toolkit focussing on tested experiences in these fields to increase the capacity of national and local governments to formulate policies that improve housing affordability and sustainability. The toolkit is part of the Housing2030 initiative and will be launched at the beginning of 2021.
Housing for All: For a Better Urban Future
The housing affordability, accessibility, and adequacy challenge cannot be left to governments alone to solve. To build back better, all actors in the housing sector need to be involved, with a clear role and clear commitments. Providing affordable, accessible, and adequate housing is a responsibility shared between national and local governments, civil society organisations building partnerships with residents, the private sector mobilising resources and implementing options, research institutes, building sound evidence on which to base policies and responses, and the international community mobilising support for housing. This is why on World Habitat Day on 5 October this year we called for a focus on Housing for All: For a Better Urban Future. The only way we can overcome the challenges is to join forces and recognise our shared responsibility for realising the right to adequate housing for all and leaving no one behind.