The following text is an extract from ‘Out of the Box: Designing for the Poor” which I co-authored Dr. Renu Khosla, Shahena Khan and Pranav Singh for ‘Shelter’, a Centre for Sustainable Habitat publication on affordable housing.
I see what I see very clearly, but I don’t know what I’m looking at.
V.S Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival
The right to housing, especially affordable for low income households in cities of the global south is the central issue in the right to the city discourse; a right that enables all citizens to access the benefits that the city has to offer. The “right to the city is both an immediately understandable and intuitively compelling slogan (Lefebvre, 1968). It is however, a theoretically complex and provocative formation” (Marcuse, 2012, p.29). The UN defines the ‘right to the city’ within a framework of ‘equality’ rights: social, political, economical and cultural (UN, 2008, pp. 57), stressing the rights to basic needs, self-determination and freedom. Two analogous concepts relating to right to housing are citizenship and participation. At the heart of urban citizenship, the claim to housing comes hand in hand with ration cards and electricity bills that help the poor secure the rights to education, healthcare and other city benefits. In India, the challenge is that, while formally all Indians are citizens and have rights but in the case of marginalized settlements they are “citizens without a city” (Arjun Appadurai, 2001). The lack of participation is the second critical aspect of the right to housing. It is only through the actualization of formal rights and the translations of those formal rights into collective capacities can one talk about the ‘rights to the city’. This paper shall present actual practices on the ground, in the context of affordable housing in Delhi aimed at the actualization of the rights to housing and the city.
‘Welcome to Haryana’ reads the text message on the cell phone; but we are not in Haryana, we are in Savda Ghevra (SG) a resettlement colony located on the outskirts of Delhi first settled in 2006. (Julia King, 2012). When fully occupied, SG will most likely be the biggest resettlement colony in Delhi; currently home to more than 8,500 families relocated from slums in the city centre, displaced on the back of regeneration projects mostly in anticipation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. SG is characterised by lack of services and a housing economy with little to no state or private sector intervention. The resettlement of SG links affordable housing with security of land tenure as justification for displacement. This is regressive in that rather than housing with civic amenities SG offers plots on the urban periphery away from livelihoods and previous social and political networks and with highly formal regulatory structures, most notably, against resale. Those who can afford to take up the challenge must make a substantial (from the perspective of the poor) investment – initially in recovering from the shock of demolition (with no compensation) and then paying for the plot (although subsidized), which is on a 10-year lease, and finally investing in the construction of a house. Ursula Rao (2010) notes that with little access to formal credit, home ownership is an unstable arrangement that blurs the boundaries between the informal and formal”. The result is a housing stock that grows incrementally in line with the owner’s requirements, earning capacity and materials and resources available. For some this results in consolidated 2 storey plus houses of concrete and steel but for most families, on average consisting of 5 to 6 members, this means living in one storey structures of chattai (temporary) materials in 12.5 or 18 sq meter plots, the size of a parking space.
The following image illustrates this incremental housing stock – the same street photographed almost two years apart shows the typical increments and upgrades occurring in SG. Out of the 16 houses 4 have made a significant upgrade from a chattai to consolidated structure whilst others house have changed the colour of the building or added shading out front. This illustrates how with little to no assistance improvements have been made by 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 by themselves with their scarce resources.
Most houses in Savda Ghevra had not upgraded and remained single storey or temporary even after 7 years of secure land tenure. It was in this context that the SG Core House project looked to build on and learn from existing expertise and capacity to help encourage and support a local affordable housing economy. The tenet of the core house is that once families invest into their home and build up a multi storey structure they will be able to live healthy and fulfilled lives.
The original idea of the Core House was to facilitate vertical growth by providing a strong engineered frame capable of cheaper and incremental infill options. Working closely with communities and contractors a prototype design emerged and is being tested in Savda Ghevra. The Core House model addresses the challenges of housing finance options typical to poor and marginal communities. Housing loans are charged (because it is a low-income / slum resettlement colony) at high-risk interest rates. Standard loans are high-risk principally because the concept of collateral in self-built, often precarious housing isn’t there. What collateral does a chattai 3 x 4 meter houses offer? Thus, the micro loaning market for affordable housing struggles to operate in an area like SG. In response to this the concrete frame of the Core House on the one hand engenders and promotes the existing incremental way of building but also introduces a housing standard that enables loans and other more standard forms of housing credit.
Over the course of three years research in SG has looked at what are the principle triggers behind housing upgrades. What emerged was a set of principal concerns of the residents: pani (water) potties (toilets) and makaan (housing). Rather than seeing housing as the delivery of shelter alone work began on how to address housing within this wider context. The result, in parallel to developing housing models a decentralized sanitation infrastructure was designed, engineered and approved by the Government; construction to begin mid-2013. The core house principals are being used to offer cheap and quick upgrades which incorporate a toilet into the home which will connect with the decentralized sewerage. The Core House offers an almost endless combination of new and upgrade housing options which are all affordable; and working with housing loans from the beginning enables a healthy housing economy.
The core house model is an alternative to the “one-size-fits-all” approach– only a variety of solutions can begin to address the complexity and heterogeneity at the bottom of the pyramid. The focus on enabling upgrading keeps costs low and engenders communities in that it supports the process of consolidation and the subsequent social capital gains.
Linking housing to revolving housing credits and toilet upgrade credits is based on the observation that there are already informal loaning groups among women – a process referred to as microcredit – revolving credit loan facilities managed informally / locally outside of the state or banking sector. It is the ambition to rather than ignore such initiatives to support and empower them.
Construction and upgrading a house requires large lump sums that the poor usually do not have in savings. The inability of formal housing finance institutions (HMFI) to reach credit to slum households impelled CURE to expand its Livelihoods Credit Model and Fund for Core Housing in Savda, with wider applicability. The fundamental approach is to top up household savings through easy, customized credit at low interest rates – lower than the 16-20% charged by HMFIs. Carved out of a Project Grant and member contributions, the Community Credit Fund (CCF) is managed by a community committee that represents all interest groups. Applications are reviewed by the community, and based on project viability the money is lent. The community is responsible for ensuring the payback that is usually delayed to allow families to shore up their savings. The capacity to repay is enhanced by helping set up business enterprises. Because resources are limited, CURE has only financed two houses to date. A Water Treatment Plant and Kiosk is being set up in the Core House (image above), operated and managed by the family, to help payback the loan.
The relationship between people and their built environment is complex and dynamic. Architect John Tuner who popularized self built housing in the 60s and 70s said, “if I have ever had an original thought, then this was it: that the independent variability of motivating priorities explains the counter-productivity of prescriptive housing production systems”; a statement which still rings true. Clearly housing under BSUP and RAY is of the authoritarian type. It relies on Hernando de Soto’s paradigm of a positive casual relationship between home ownership and investment. The reality on the ground however is that housing investment is less dependent on security of tenure and legal status in low-income settlements and more on matters of perception by residents regarding the probability of eviction, the availability of services, and the passage of time.
RAY envisages a massive influx of capital investment – 90% of which shall be subsidy – to ensure every poor family has a house of their own in the city. There are several reasons why this shall not work. First is land. Land under slum occupation, even when as low as 5-10% of the city, is somehow seen as a money-spinner for cash strapped municipalities (because city land is expensive, slums are mostly in high-value city areas and slum dwellers lack citizenship). Second are the fault lines in the scheme. In-situ upgrading is recommended but land issues are left to local governments, who opt for the easier solution, relocation. Third is about process. Formal and set pathways in the government are being used to build for the informal in informal settlements. DPRs that unlock State resources for local development are prepared by engineers, reviewed by engineers and built by engineers. Participation is merely tokenistic; a tick in the box.
When people build themselves several things happen. First, they take the investment burden off the State. Second, there will be less State inside the house and more where it is needed – city vision building, provisioning of infrastructure and creating an enabling legal and administrative environment for access to land, services, tools and resources. Development shall then be sustainable. This does not mean that the government is off the hook leaving those most vulnerable to fend for themselves, but that the poor become an integral part of the city’s narrative. The SG Resident Welfare Association (RWA) formed on the back of the sanitation project is an advocacy tool for the community – an effort among the urban poor to mobilize and mediate between the formal, master planned narrative of Delhi as a ‘world class city’ and the reality of living in marginal space physically and metaphorical on the urban periphery. Third, when local governments with the support of civil society agencies put in place participatory planning and project management processes, these result in emancipatory benefits. The community builds a collective cultural vision or aspiration. Simultaneously, institution building happens alongside the desire to fulfil individual and family needs and change the built environment.
For cities to function as a positive agonistic context for all citizens they need more than an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all approach. The government can empower communities to make their own housing choices if it sets aside tired assumptions about the delivery of housing and single use zoning; and if it can engage with stakeholders especially when it comes to affordable housing.
The participatory approach is not an instant fix but it is a good way to start.
Appadurai, A., 2001. Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics. Environment & Urbanization, 13 (No 2), p. 23-43.
Marcuse, Peter. 2012. Whose right(s) to what city?. In: Brenner, N., Marcuse, P. and Mayer, M, ed. 2012. Cities for People not for Profit. New York: Routledge. Ch. 3.
Rao, U., 2010.Making the Global City: Urban Citizenship at the Margins of Delhi. Ethnos, 75 (4), pp. 402-424.
UN-Habitat, 2008. State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011Bridging the Urban Divide. London: Earthscan.
Turner, John F.C., 1976. Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. London: Marion Boyers.