How to solve the Global South’s urban housing crisis

Informal settlements in Mumbai. Currently, around 1.2 billion people in cities around the world do not have access to affordable and secure housing. (bodom/Shutterstock)

Across much of the developing world, cities are the new frontier. They’re powering economic growth and attracting the ambitious, the resourceful, the talented.

But as a new report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) tells us, fast growth in cities is also resulting in expanding slums and shanties. And the way out of the affordable-housing crisis is not to wish away or stigmatize these informal settlements, as too many policymakers seem to do.

Instead, the focus should be on upgrading slums, building on underused land, and promoting a wide array of choices in rental housing. Those three areas, says one of the report’s author’s, Robin King of WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, are “solutions which cities could start acting upon in order to address the problems.”

The report argues that creating better quality housing for the urban poor is not just an ethical issue but also makes sound business sense. Good housing close to job opportunities boosts productivity and economic growth, reduces inequalities and is more environment-friendly.

Currently, around 1.2 billion people in cities around the world do not have access to affordable and secure housing. And the coming wave of urban population growth is expected to be biggest in Asia and Africa, where affordable housing challenges are already the most severe. More than 56 percent of urban dwellers in Africa live in slums — soaring to as high as 90 percent in countries like Ghana. The rate in India, the second most populous country in the world, is 24 percent.

“We are trying to provide evidence to central and city leaders that by ignoring the poor, the rest will not progress,” says Ani Dasgupta, global director of the Ross Center. “The economy will be affected and everyone will suffer.”

Laws are not enough

The report notes that migration and population growth are two major drivers of a shortage in adequate, secure, and affordable housing — especially for those arriving in the developing world’s booming cities for the first time without appropriate identification or savings.

“Even though some countries have significant legislative support for the right to adequate housing,” the report says, “many marginalized or disadvantaged citizens are unable to exercise that right because of resource scarcity, insufficient implementation capacity, lack of political will, and scaling challenges.” Thus, many newly arrived urban residents settle in low-quality dwellings without basic amenities such as water piped into the house, solid waste collection, security, sanitation, and electricity.

[See: Habitat III prompts hope for more inclusive view toward informal settlements]

The people impacted most by this crisis are women, ethnic minorities, and those without a legal address. Women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to housing access in many countries because they do not have property rights and face more difficulties than men in acquiring and owning a home, or getting a loan to build, expand or upgrade one.

“Even in countries where housing and property legislation is gender neutral,” the report notes, “cultural norms and the implementation and enforcement of these laws can restrict women’s ability to exercise these rights, negatively restricting their access to housing.”

Better laws on women’s rights and land administration, such as the Tanzania Land Act of 1999, have increased women’s right to housing. More legislative breakthroughs will be needed, although the report makes clear that legislation alone cannot achieve the necessary change.

What works best, the report argues, are comprehensive approaches that encompass infrastructure upgrades along with better access to education and health services to address the complex and varied needs of residents of informal settlements. In short, just offering a dwelling unit is not enough.

Case studies

The report cites two telling examples of comprehensive approaches: the Favela Bairro programme in Rio de Janeiro, and the Kampung Improvement Programme in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Surabaya.

The Rio programme is a good example of a slum upgrade that provided residents the right to use the land without a full process of land-tenure legalization. In addition to that legal breakthrough, the report says, “it also included complementary improvements in education, healthcare, job access, and safety policies, all of which increased residents’ security of tenure.”

In a call with journalists, the authors of the report and urban experts offered their thoughts on the problems of affordable housing and possible solutions.

They said the solutions lie in improving housing in existing informal settlements or what is referred to as “in situ” upgrading, instead of forcibly evicting residents and relocating them to the urban periphery. Second, rental markets have to be expanded for people across all income levels by promoting and incentivizing rental housing, and creating legal systems to protect both landlords and renters. Third, under-utilized land in cities needs to be converted into affordable housing; cities may need to revise rules and building standards to expand the availability of total housing stock.

Needless to say, none of these approaches are politically or economically easy. But the report strikes an optimistic note when it says, “If mayors, city officials, real estate developers and civil society leaders put their collective energy into three solutions highlighted in the paper, this will deliver livable, productive and environmentally sustainable cities for all.”

[See: Participatory approach is key to improving informal settlements]

The report doesn’t only talk about what city leaders can do for slum dwellers. It also discusses what slum dwellers are doing on their own. A good example is an alliance of organizations known as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, or SDI. Since the early 1980s, these groups have been organizing residents to map their communities, document gaps in municipal services and advocate for improvements. Through peer-to-peer exchanges, women-led groups of slum dwellers have been spreading the practice throughout the Global South.

Many of these ideas are not new; some smack of common sense. But policy makers have not always been persuaded even by the obvious.

As Sheela Patel, founding director of the Mumbai-based Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres and chair of SDI, put it: “The smartest thing that cities can do is to sort out the basics. But instead of focusing on the fundamentals, governments sometimes concentrate on making business districts more effective. This only widens the cleavage between the ‘elite city’ and the ‘informal city’.”

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Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

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