July 16, 2018
What the People Need: An Address
By Aniruddha Dasgupta and Robin King
Directors, World Resource Institute

Putting an affordable roof over people’s heads is a challenge confronting cities around the world. Already, policymakers in their local communities are getting creative in addressing the demand for housing while encouraging economic development and cleaner, safer environments.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that as cities go, so goes the world. But it’s also becoming clear that for cities to succeed, people of all income groups need to be able to actually live in them.

Lack of affordable housing is a common urban problem: As cities grow and thrive, they tend to push poorer people away from the city center. But what we’ve seen in recent years is an acceleration in the scale of this effect. It’s not just cities like San Francisco and London that are struggling to provide housing for all income levels, it’s fast-growing secondary cities in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America too.

About 1.2 billion city dwellers – one of every three people who live in urban areas – lack access to affordable and secure housing. WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities research shows this number will likely grow if current trends continue, driven mainly by growth in cities of the global south.

While the proportion of urban populations living in informal housing settlements has been declining since the 1990s, population growth and urban migration has meant the real number of people living in slums has steadily increased.

The implications of this crisis are vast, as another 2.25 billion people are projected to be added to urban populations in Asia and Africa between now and 2050.

The inability of rapidly growing cities to provide shelter for residents reflects their inability to keep up with rapid growth on a number of fronts, from providing energy access to employment and rapid transport. And in fact, the more sprawled development becomes, the harder it is to provide essential services to all residents efficiently and sustainably.

If the traditional role of cities as drivers of socio-economic growth is upended, national economies, which in many ways now follow the lead of cities, will suffer too.

So what needs to change?

While some call for “slum-free” cities, this is often coded language used to justify the displacement of people to the urban periphery, which disrupts labor markets, social networks and lives, inevitably harming the city at large. Instead, we suggest finding ways to upgrade existing slum areas, tapping into community knowledge and energy while retaining links to social and livelihood networks.

In Thailand, the Baan Mankong program directs government infrastructure subsidies, soft housing and land loans to poor communities who negotiate with land owners for formal tenure and use the funds to upgrade housing. By 2016, more than 100,000 poor families in 345 cities had been fully upgraded under the program with secure land, decent houses and healthy living environments.

Of course, the government also has a vital role to play in assisting communities who struggle with regular and stable housing. However, government housing programs, along with financial support and subsidies, tend to overemphasize ownership. This shortchanges the poorest as well as the many people who either cannot or prefer not to own housing.

Establishing legal protection for landlords and renters, while acknowledging informal sector activity, can help meet the housing needs of the urban poor while maintaining flexibility and encouraging market-driven development. This includes unconventional payment patterns and co-operative housing where tenants collectively purchase land and rent small plots within it. 

As our global economy demands a more mobile workforce, vibrant rental markets will foster a fluid labor market, a prerequisite for prosperity in any city.

Authorities in Gauteng Province, South Africa, which includes Johannesburg, tackled a housing shortage of 687,000 units by making it legal to rent out formerly illegal backyard apartments. This made it easier for low-income people to find places to live and encouraged development of services without government subsidies.

A significant portion of urban land is tied up in disputes in the legal system and is thus underused. Rather than expanding cities outward, city officials and real estate developers should revise rules and building standards to expand the availability of housing development on underused land – especially public land.

Underutilized public lands present opportunities to develop affordable housing, not just high-end shopping centers and condos. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, for example, 420 families live in the María Auxiliadora community on land purchased and held in trust as community-owned property. The community’s unique governance structure rotates leadership among women in two-year terms, rejects men who engage in domestic violence and provides support to families. The land cannot be sold for profit, which keeps the housing affordable.

These solutions can help urban policymakers in cities meet demand for housing while encouraging economic development and cleaner, safer environments. Across the world, we are seeing creative answers, but they need to be taken up and replicated on a much larger scale to make a dent. It’s only when cities are places for everyone that they will fulfil their potential to lead us toward a more sustainable, equitable future.

Aniruddha Dasgupta and Robin KingAniruddha (Ani) Dasgupta is the global director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, that helps cities grow more sustainably and improve quality of life in developing countries around the world. He leads the program’s team of global experts in sustainable transport, urban development and building efficiency. Robin King is the director of knowledge capture and collaboration at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. She promotes collaboration across WRI’s international network to better integrate urban planning, land use and sustainable transportation using her experience working in policy matters in the Americas and Asia.