Unthinking Housing for the Urban Poor

The following text is an extract from something I was a contributing author for Shelter, a HSMI, Center for Sustainable Habitat publication with Dr. Renu Khosla, Shahena Khan, Prashant Pradhan and Pranav Singh

The right to housing is universally recognized as an important component to the right to an adequate standard of living. However, for the poor this is an expensive right and as the world urbanizes accessing this right is becoming one of the most pervasive and dominant challenges facing urban India. Housing is not just a place to live it is a sign of economic growth, social networks and most of all security, stability and achievement. Adequate housing can effectively alleviate poverty by improving people’s health and making them more productive. This paper argues that there is a strong and positive link between the provision of adequate housing and promoting a better, healthier and enriched living environment.  Furthermore, an investment into a pucca house adds a specific value to people’s assets allowing for leverage of wealth as credit collateral (De Soto, 2000) in a city where the hyper commodification for social necessities (housing, transportation, utilities, public space, healthcare, education, water and even sewerage disposal)  is predicated on an individuals capacity to ‘buy-in’. Among the poor, the house is also a place to live in and generate incomes through home-based enterprises. The house is not a final product in itself but an ongoing process.


From a Toilet to a Pucca House:  Incremental Housing in Resettlement Colony, Savda Ghevra, Delhi

Savda Ghevra (SG) is a resettlement colony developed by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board located about 40km west of New Delhi to re-house slum dwellers evicted from inner city areas. When fully occupied, SG is likely to be the largest resettlement colony in Delhi (CURE, 2010); home to more than 20,000 families relocated from slums in the city centre and development corridors.  Much of this clearance happened in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games in September 2010 where the Games were seized on as an opportunity to ‘clean up’ the city (Baviskar, 2011).

There are currently about 8500 families with 42,500 people living in plots allocated by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). The resettlement of Savda Ghevra does not involve housing but simple relocation on semi-serviced blocks with plots allocated on the basis of eligibility; 18 square meters to squatter families who could prove, on the basis of their ration and voter cards, to have lived in Delhi pre-1990, and 12.5 square meters to families possessing ration cards post January 1990 up to December 1998 (Dupont, 2008). The plots are arranged linearly and are contiguous on three sides with neighbouring properties resulting in urbanity – on plan – of regularity (grid formation) in contrast to the spontaneous traditional development associated with illegal slums where the morphology responds to the pre-existing landscape, urban boundaries and thresholds. Despite the formal planning the site has not developed in a consistent manner – this is in part because the existing infrastructure supplied by the government remains un-built or incomplete but also because the relocated families have mostly incrementally ‘self-built’ their homes – a process characterised by individual decisions.

A distinct feature of SG is the assortment of housing types characterized by self-built-poor quality housing ranging from chattai[1] houses to one-story chadar[2] houses to consolidated simple two-level-and-roof-terrace constructions that reflect the economic capacities of their inhabitants. There are currently what can loosely be described as 3 types of housing in Savda Ghevra[3]:

(1)    Houses made with temporary building materials such as bamboo and tarpaulin are classified as kuchha meaning ‘temporary’.

(2)    Houses with brick walls but corrugated tin roofs (i.e. cannot take another floor) are semi-pucca and

(3)    Houses made of concrete and load-bearing brick walls and roofs are classified as pucca meaning good or permanent.

Such housing is built by a process that is not planned in this paper is defined as ‘incremental’ the following image shows the typical stages that epitomizes the execution of types found in Savda Ghevra:

Households in Savda Ghevra that invest in a pucca 1 storey structure can use the extra space generated to incorporate sanitation facilities[4]  and opportunities for livelihood initiatives: a shop, workshop or for a rental income – essential for the economic transformation of a local economy and creating sustainable communities  These local entrepreneurs start small (in the home) and expand – thus it is critical that the occupant can upgrade their plot incrementally in response to business opportunities.  Such mixed land use and ad-hoc construction should be seen as a productive and pro-poor as opposed to being regarded as regressive ghettos.

Although residents in Savda Ghevra have a legal right to be there, construction has remained predominantly  single story with 31% of its inhabitants residing in semi-pucca housing and another 20% in kuchha homes – offering non of the livelihoods or health benefits associated with pucca construction. It is hard to draw specific conclusions on why so much of the housing stock remains un-developed. Based on resident interviews, the massive financial losses during the process of resettlement, the high personal cost required to build a multi-storey pucca house, short-term leases and the lack of jobs due to its peripheral location are all sited as reason.

It is in this context that work began with relocated families and local contractors to design and help build housing that would be structurally safe, technically sound, economical and capable of being built incrementally in Savda Ghevra. Because of the prohibitive costs of construction alternative ways of building, without compromising stability, are required. Inspiration came from Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino (image below) – a prototypical building system that employs structural columns and slabs, which can be in-filled. Such a strategy has the potential to offer a universal and basic foundation for a housing model whilst at the same time engaging with the local economy and existing construction industry producing housing capable of being developed incrementally.

The model developed (slideshow below) represents a prototype house, which is currently being tested in Savda Ghevra. The diagram outlines the key components of the ‘core house model’: (1) the multi-level structure consists of a skeleton free-standing concrete pillar and rigid floor as its main organizing principle. In some cases it may be possible, especially with short spans, to replace some of the concrete floor with the traditional jack arch construction which would allow more flexibility with making holes. Currently the model for Savda Ghevra is capped at 3 stories which is the height permissible according to local building bye-laws. (2) Floors are connected by in-situ cast concrete stairs and a toilet pan is placed on the level best suited to the client – alternatively because of the small size of the plots – in some cases ladders can used up the front to open up the interior for more flexible use. (3) Single brick walls enclose the toilet pan and the blackwater waste pipework installed would either connect to mains sewerage or a private tank. There is scope for additional cost reduction if columns and sanitation infrastructure are shared by neighbours. (4) According to the clients financial capability basic key enclosures are built using reclaimed material from the previous kuchha house or purchased items such as cheap bamboo mats or tarpaulin; alternatively single skin brick walls which benefit from not needing to be load bearing and thus reducing costs can also be used to infill. (5) The house is consolidated with more walls for increased privacy triggered for example, by the arrival of a bride or a girl coming of age. (6) Alternative infilling can be used or cheap jali walls can offer partial segregation and improved air circulation. The location of the stairs enables the first floor and second floor to be separated from the ground floor for use  as a shop or room rental. The ‘core house model’ offers a completely open plan and the structural system provides endless interior arrangements in line with individual desires, aspirations or capabilities.

The belief is that this model can offer alternative solutions for building affordable housing especially in peri-urban and low-income areas. The catch-22 of developing affordable housing is that anything built to a reasonable standard even just including basic services such as piped water and sewerage is immediately gentrified as the original beneficiaries are effectively priced out. This is inevitable in a country where only half its population has access to a toilet yet alone functioning sewerage.  Inversely, policies such as site and service schemes or tenement blocks result in such basic environments they are effectively planned slums. The ‘core house model’ offers a basic structure which reflects the top end of the spectrum of housing whilst engaging with the informal processes which enable the poor to access housing.

[1] Chattai refers to construction made of wooden matt or similar woven, temporary material.

[2] Chaddar refers to tarpaulin sheets or similar fabric used in construction.

[3] This categorization has been developed and adopted by researchers and NGO facilitators working in the area rather than a lexicon used in the settlement.

[4] A dollar invested in sanitation produces a saving of 8 dollars in associated costs such as medical bills and loss of work through illness (WHO, 2007) – a bargain in health economics.


About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate


  1. People in Savda Ghevra don’t have land title, they are on lease which is going to end in next 5 years (before the colony is even expected to fully develop). This is a classic example of the ideology where the government (loosely termed as here) thinks that the more facilities the city provides the more will be the migration. People are given land with no provision for common basic services. Any planner or urban designer, just by looking at the plan can tell that the layout design is highly deterrent to planning common basic services, and its an Architect’s nightmare to design a house on a plot which is so small and have only one side open (considering the fact that the design need to be cost effective and so simple & easy to construct that it could be replicated without much supervision and it creates a neighborhood pattern).

    Original allotees of Savda Ghevra don’t have any collateral to access formal finance so the construction of the houses are very poor, also many have sold their plots (informally through power of attorney) so they also can’t access finance. So adding value to ones house or locality has become legally impossible, thus the emergence of the informal.

    This informal incremental development leads to many good things which a formal system never can; but also there are other problems with it which need to be looked into; Safety of the structure, lack of common basic services, exploitation of the poor and police harassment are few of the many that exists because of unclear laws and faulty spatial planning.

    • Nippo, Thanks for your comment(s). I couldn’t agree more. I am currently working on a sanitation plan for one of the blocks in Savda Ghevra and it was really challenging to retrofit a solution to something planned so badly – the default strategy of community toilets really shouldn’t be in the case of a colony like Savda Ghevra.
      The empty plots littered around several years after resettlement is an indication that the policy of resettlement has failed many of the families to which they were allocated. However, on the other hand the incremental upgrades and current overall state of Savda Ghevra shows how in 6 years with little to no assistance great improvements has been made those who have taken up residence. The incapacity of the state to develop the land has highlighted what the residents have been able to do with their scarce resources.
      I can see you work for mHS, I have come into your offices a couple of times.. have we met?

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