It’s Time to Change the Housing Conversation

Safe, affordable housing is not an end in itself but should be interwoven with other interventions to improve access to related services and benefits. As the pandemic exacerbates shortcomings in housing programmes around the world, Vidhee Garg on the need to re-think housing and to look beyond its purely quantitative aspects.

Access to Housing

Housing deficit is in the millions and we need trillions of dollars to bridge this gap – and this was before COVID-19. In such a scenario, it is little wonder that government-led housing programmes focus on addressing the quantitative deficit, and in the process often fail to account for the diverse needs and priorities of low-income populations. Instead, households opt for other living arrangements, often in informal settlements or high-risk areas, but located close to job opportunities. With few attractive or affordable options, household-led incremental building and upgrading have emerged as the go-to solutions for those priced out of formal housing markets; in fact, it is estimated that the informal sector builds an estimate 70 per cent of all urban housing.

Incremental self-build of houses by low-income populations has received an impetus in the last decade owing to the twin influences of – (i) government recognition of the practice and its incorporation into policy regimes, as in India; and (ii) provision of financial products tailored to households’ incremental building practices and income cashflows. Despite this progress, low-income households continue to have limited access to the essential services and advantages associated with housing.

We are far from achieving our objective to provide thriving, liveable spaces for all, and as COVID-19 rages on, the need is more urgent than ever. At its most obvious, the pandemic has highlighted the link between housing and public health – without adequate access to water and sanitation in our homes, we cannot contain the spread of COVID-19.

What is Adequate Housing?

Following this train of thought, it surfaces questions about the role of housing in global development and what constitutes adequate housing? Much like in every other area of development, the COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare the inequalities in housing. As we rethink how housing can emerge stronger on the other side of the pandemic, we should look beyond the quantitative aspects and design cross-sectoral programs and policies that will ensure households’ access to services and benefits linked to housing.

How can we design housing programmes that provide shelter but are also paving the way to – (i) economic security; (ii) utilities (sanitation, electricity, internet, waste); and (iii) efficient disaster risk reduction, to name a few?

Beyond Shelter – Impacts of Housing

  • Housing construction as an engine for economic development. Historically, the construction sector, including housing construction, has been a driver of economic growth in developing and developed economies alike. As governments set in motion plans to spur economic recovery, they must invest in the housing sector and essential infrastructure.

The Government of Kenya’s affordable housing agenda remains front and centre as the country looks to provide housing to its vulnerable populations as well as drive economic recovery. In addition to investing in large-scale public-private partnership (PPP) developments, such as those planned in Kenya and India, it is important to channel funds to housing microfinance (HMF) providers who in turn lend to individual households enabling them to build new or upgrade existing homes. Directing resources to HMF lenders will in turn help create jobs in the local construction sector thereby revitalising housing value chains and stimulating local economies as well.

  • Housing as a means to access water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. Although many of us take it for granted, access to housing does not necessarily equate to access to running water or flush toilets, as COVID-19 has made all too obvious. Without access to WASH facilities in one’s home, billions of people living in informal settlements around the world face health risks, such as those living in Onyika, Namibia. Governments, NGOs, HMF lenders and other sector stakeholders should target infrastructure investments to improve WASH facilities in at-risk homes and neighbourhoods.

Since 2017, Mahindra Rural Housing Finance Ltd. (MRHFL) has been improving awareness among its housing borrowers of the importance of home sanitation. More recently, in the wake of the pandemic, Housing Finance Bank in Uganda, in partnership with Water People, is set to provide sanitation loans as part of its Kampala-wide inclusive sanitation program.

  • Safe and resilient housing to mitigate disaster risk. Even before the pandemic hit, the construction quality of homes, especially incrementally self-built ones, was questionable. This is often the result of a lack of knowledge about correct construction methods and lack of access to the right professional advice. As housing construction activity starts to pick up again, it is important to build good quality, resilient structures that can withstand the impact of future disasters. New technologies and apps such as iBUILD and NEEV have been developed that can assess structural deficiencies using satellite imagery and provide architectural and engineering technical assistance.

The Way Forward – Housing Within the Larger Development Agenda

Resilient and affordable housing with access to services, jobs, and amenities is the most important line of defence not only to curb the spread of COVID-19 but also to enable households to bounce back after the pandemic. However, even as the pandemic continues to upend our lives and development imperatives take on a new sense of urgency, funding is in short supply. To ensure that the pandemic does not derail the progress of the past decades, we need to get creative and design cross-sectoral programmes and projects. One way to do this is to broaden the impact framework for housing and work with like-minded partners in related areas such as gender equality, education, health, and neighbourhood improvement, to name a few. Let us use this crisis as an opportunity to press the reset button and foster cooperation between stakeholders as we work towards common development goals.

Vidhee Garg is a housing and urban development expert with a >10-year track record of leading housing and social enterprise projects globally, identifying new business opportunities, and driving organizational growth. Over the last six years, she has advised governments, multilateral agencies, and financial institutions in 25+ countries on designing new policies and programs, developing business plans and financial projections, and preparing investment pitches, among other assistance. Vidhee holds a Master’s degree in Regional Planning from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in architecture from Mumbai University.
Vidhee Garg
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