The complexities of delivering urban housing projects -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The complexities of delivering urban housing projects

By Carl Queiros

The reality

A U.N. Habitat report states that globally, more than 1 billion people live in slums, i.e. one out of every three urban dwellers worldwide lives in slums. The rate of urbanization is fastest in developing countries, which now account for 75 percent of the world’s urban population.

Intense urban migration places a huge demand on urban resources such as land, water, sanitation, transportation, education facilities, medical services, etc. This increased demand on services and resources means these often become unaffordable, or simply unavailable to the urban poor. Once again, the lowest income groups suffer the brunt of these shortages. Inaccessibility to decent and affordable urban housing has, therefore, become a massive problem and a major obstacle that prevents low-income groups from escaping poverty.

On the other hand, urbanization can be positive — it gives the poor greater prospects of increasing their income and, therefore, eventually escaping poverty. But this is only true if the increased income can actually buy basic necessities, such as a decent house. For example, in our urban work among slums in South Africa, we have often noticed that while some residents have few material possessions, others own expensive furniture, appliances and sometimes even a motor vehicle. They have urbanized, increased their disposable income, yet are unable to acquire a decent house.

Challenges of urban housing

Why have so many organizations, including Habitat and governments, failed to show a good measure of success in tackling urbanization challenges?

  • Building materials
    In rural communities, the poor who cannot afford to buy modern building materials commonly used in developing countries like cement, tiles, baked brick, iron roof sheets, steel, glass, etc., are still able to house themselves by utilizing traditional and local materials such as mud/earth bricks, clay, wood, reed, bamboo and grass/thatch. Though rustic, these structures provide decent shelter.

    In the city, traditional materials are often in short supply. Therefore, those with little or no income have no material resources to build with, except for garbage — discarded wood, steel, plastic and cardboard become the raw materials of urban poverty shelter. Unlike the traditional materials that can be made into decent shelter, it is almost impossible to turn discarded city rubbish into durable, good quality, low-cost houses.
  • City planning
    Few cities have anticipated the extent and scale of urbanization, and most lack comprehensive, well-thought-out, realistic urban growth plans. Working with local government in urban areas, we are not surprised at times to find there is no master urban plan, or there is only a very basic plan which is unrealistic, or the urban plans simply ignore slum settlements. Often, the very departments involved in urban planning and the provision of infrastructure and services do not have well and suitably qualified staff.

    Urban planning is further complicated by the economic interests of individuals or groups. Local political leaders are sometimes also large urban land/property owners or connected to rich and powerful local businessmen. It is not in their interests to push for the releasing of land for social housing or to allocate resources for converting profitable, poor quality, dense rental housing stock into decent, reasonably priced housing units. The sad result of this conflict of interest, plus poor urban planning, is little progress in effectively providing the infrastructure and services needed in urbanization like roads, water, sanitation, electricity, etc. It is more cost effective for governments to plan ahead and provide such infrastructure than to re-settle or renew informal settlements.

    In this context, organizations such as Habitat that want to work in urban areas find themselves trying to provide housing without much support from government or other related bodies.
  • Strict, inappropriate regulation
    Meeting city building regulations is frequently difficult and costly. In addition, solving infrastructure needs in the city is far more challenging. The provision of services related to housing is also more expensive in urban areas and we cannot always rely on government or partners to provide these. This makes urban housing projects substantially more complicated and costly.

    For example, almost all African countries have urban building regulations which are, at least in part, based on outdated building codes set by the former colonial rulers. One can find, in a tropical country, building codes which require the roof to have a certain snow-bearing pitch! A city may require that all buildings in that city are built from suitable building materials. “Suitable” usually means modern, manufactured materials and the strong bias is cement. Abundant local material is left out of the accepted list completely, and this in a country that imports all its cement. Acceptable sanitation systems may be based on systems developed in the West which, while well suited to those countries, are expensive and inappropriate to some developing countries. All these regulations make it either impossible or extremely expensive for the urban poor to build safe, decent structures legally. The result: unsafe, unhygienic, poor-quality, illegal structures making up whole townships.
  • “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” — Jesus, Matthew 8:20
    Today, in developing African countries, many can identify with Jesus: land for low-income housing in cities is scarce. This is mostly a result of a combination of poor town planning, landowner monopolies and numbers (sheer volume of city migrants within limited city space). In certain cases, urban planning policies were intentionally designed to keep the poor out of the cities. In dozens of cities and towns, land at prices affordable to the lower income groups (sometimes even for middle-income groups) can now only be found on the periphery of the city. These cheaper plots are far from jobs, schools, clinics and other amenities. Allocating land for poor families far from the city has rarely worked well unless appropriate transportation, infrastructure and access to economic opportunities are planned and provided for, which rarely happens.

    Security of tenure is another major issue. Hernando de Soto and other writers have illustrated how extremely difficult it can be for the citizens of developing countries to obtain legal title to land. (See “The Forum,” Volume 13:3, for more information.) In Egypt, for instance, completing the 77 steps for land titling can take up to 17 years! As having title to land is a prerequisite for the approval for building or development plans, the consequent blockage becomes evident. A low-income family with no certain legal right to their land is less likely to invest substantially in the erection of structures on the property. Out of necessity they will build shelter, but it will be cheap, low quality, unhealthy and illegal.
  • Suitable staff
    If Habitat and other organizations involved in urban housing want to become serious players in this field, it is vital to employ, partner with or contract a wide variety of qualified personnel who understand urban housing. Typically, national organizations have employed or contracted some of these skills, but the competency gaps still exist.
  • Financial challenges
    The financial challenges involved in costly urban projects cannot be ignored. Working with the urban poor means working with families who either have regular but small income, intermittent income or virtually no income. Few, if any, will have access to finance, even micro-finance.

    This factor, coupled with the reality that urban projects tend to be more expensive than rural ones, brings yet another range of challenges. In response, Habitat and its partners may need to raise greater amounts of money and increase the level of subsidization. We should look at saving costs by designing cheaper, good quality houses and making use of economies of scale. If we are providing micro-loans, these will need to be adapted to the specific income realities of these communities.

Complicated social transformation
We all know Habitat for Humanity is not just about building houses. The real purpose of what we do is to help communities transform themselves for the better and help people escape poverty housing. The community development process — community interaction, ownership, empowerment and other such words we NGOs love — are truly important to us. Simply seeing buildings go up does not in itself indicate success, and here lies another challenge to Habitat involved in urban housing.

Housing for the urban poor generally involves relatively new, poor slum “communities.” Unlike in rural areas, these communities may not really be communities in the fullest, traditional sense of the word. Rural communities are bound together by a mixture of common culture, language, values, religion, relations and social ties that have evolved over generations. In urban slum communities (made up of people who have recently migrated from various parts of the country, or even from other countries) most of these commonalities are not present. They are communities by default — by virtue of the fact they occupy space in close proximity.

Working with communities that are heterogeneous, disorganized, and without clear social networks and leadership structures makes social housing development far more complicated and risky.

Developing urban housing where the community involvement and development aspect has not been done, or done poorly, could result in that housing project later becoming a slum or crime-ridden ghetto. Habitat should clearly define what “soft” outcomes are desired when developing or transforming urban communities. These should be included in the indicators of success, and we should be able to measure our performance accordingly. Such indicators could include level of community volunteerism, social services provided by the community itself, level of crime, sense of belonging, etc.

Talking, listening, networking Engaging the community in a housing development process in a city or town is introducing a necessary but significantly complicating factor in what is already a complex process. When undertaking an urban development project, it is not enough to understand the development process from a technical angle (land registration, township registration, legal compliance issues, provision and installation of services, etc.); one also needs to understand how to engage the local community leadership.

In an inner city urban renewal project we are designing in the city of Toliar in Madagascar, we have had to directly and constantly involve the local community representative leadership (known locally as the Fokantany), the local municipality and the regional urban management body. In addition to these key players, we also consulted several government departments, other NGOs and potential donors. The process though slow is essential.

Leaving out some stakeholders and role players could later mean an unsuccessful urban project. Some governments and their agencies are starting to realize that a good urban settlement and development program is not just about grand planning, engineering and construction, it is primarily a social project. Thus, if Habitat develops the right capacity and competency for this field of work, we are well placed to make a significant contribution to such a process as we understand and have much experience in the social aspect of housing programs.

Carl Queiros is Program Development director for HFH in Africa and the Middle East. He may be contacted at