The paradigm shift: From rural to urban housing -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The paradigm shift: From rural to urban housing

By Kyle Scott


Urbanization is inevitable, noted a United Nations report.[1] With the global need so evident, but new, innovative urban housing models in Habitat so few, an intentional organizational shift in focus is in order--a shift that changes the definition of what it means to provide appropriate, decent shelter to the urban poor, and a shift that changes the way Habitat designs its projects.

This article highlights examples from urban contexts in Asia; contexts that will change our perspectives of common Habitat terms such as “appropriate,” “partnership” and “community.” Redefining the meanings of these words is an important step to achieving this necessary organizational paradigm shift.

Housing models of the future: Integrated and holistic

The socioeconomic and political complexity of the urban environment forces us to consider entirely new, innovative and sustainable housing solutions. Limited space and financial resources, employment opportunities, and education and health care services, all factor in significantly to the needs of an urban poor community living in close proximity. Where earlier models often had Habitat working in isolation to provide a housing solution for individual families, the new paradigm demands a different response.

The models that are working in Asia are integrated and holistic in nature, and their effectiveness is attributed to the complementary public, private and community partnerships, each with their own unique contribution and specialized services. Interestingly enough, this is what donors seem to be energized by! In marketing terms, this would be both a redesign and a repackaging of the product.

I. HFH Nepal

HFH Nepal is working in collaboration with Lumanti Support Group for Shelter, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to the alleviation of urban poverty in Nepal. Lumanti’s partnership with local government and various development agencies to resettle evicted squatter families became the model of urban housing success.

Key contributions for the urban housing project in Kirtipur town, near Kathmandu, were made by organizations and individuals representing a broad spectrum of resources. Land was allotted and purchased through intense negotiations by Lumanti with the mayor and local municipality and the squatter community. ActionAid, an international development organization based in South Africa, provided slum dweller empowerment programs and introduced other key participants, showing the importance that multi-organizational networking was to the success of the urban housing project.

Community-based primary education was provided by Center for Policy Research and Consultancy (CPReC), and water and sanitation facilities supported by the UK-headquartered charity WaterAid, and the Asian Development Bank. UN-Habitat provided urban management program support and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) helped to secure funding.

Leveraging Lumanti’s expertise and urban housing success, Habitat entered into a partnership with the local NGO to build homes for slum families. By May 2007, HFH Nepal had completed 52 houses in partnership with Lumanti in Kathmandu. HFH Nepal worked with the Lumanti-affiliated community-managed microfinance groups, which are now functioning as government registered cooperatives.

The microfinancing model for this joint urban housing solution matched the savings of the members of the Lumanti-affiliated cooperatives. In addition, the members provided some of their own construction materials and labor. The repayment period of 30 months was short enough to ensure payment momentum, and the loan was small enough to make it an affordable housing solution for the poor.

To ensure proper community involvement and ownership, cooperatives selected families on behalf of HFH Nepal. Once the families’ loan requests were received by the cooperative and verification sent to Lumanti, HFH Nepal transferred their portion of the funds. The success of the microfinance model used in this urban environment with this cooperative is reflected in the 100 percent repayment rate to date.

II. HFH Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, a fascinating and innovative partnership is evolving between private, public, nongovernmental organizations and communities. The partnership takes place in the setting of a rapidly urbanizing country with more than five million people living in urban slums in the capital Dhaka and five other cities.[2] The complexity of this urban slum environment requires a multifaceted response through a broad range of partnerships.

HFH Bangladesh’s urban housing initiative aims to develop an integrated, holistic and transformational response through networking and partnerships for a broad range of services to meet the complex needs of the urban poor community.

Integrated Urban Housing Product

The development of a Habitat urban housing community through networking and partnerships is evident in the following project that entails land tenure for 60 drug rehabilitated factory workers and their families.

The key players comprise nonprofit organizations, private enterprises and individuals who have completed rehabilitation: Job Opportunities and Business Support (JOBS); North Carolina-headquartered Family Health International (FHI); Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA), a women’s rights group based in New Delhi, India; APON and Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM), both local rehabilitation organizations, have partnered with APEX Footwear Factory, Folk International and Bangladesh Braided Rug Limited, both private sector textile businesses, and clients (individuals that have completed the FHI rehabilitation process at one of the three participating facilities and have agreed to partner together).

Since 1998, JOBS has provided skills training and marketing consultancy services to micro-, small-, and medium-sized Bangladeshi enterprises. JOBS has received support from a diverse group of sponsors including the United Nations Development Program, Family Health International, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation. It enjoys an excellent reputation with the private sector in Bangladesh, and through that relationship has been successful in involving several businesses in pioneering initiatives such as the economic rehabilitation of injecting drug users with Family Health International.

JOBS, in consultation with the owners of APEX Footwear Factory, has proposed a partnership in which Habitat creates housing facilities for the factory workers. JOBS and APEX can guarantee “reliable” homeowners for HFH Bangladesh since the factory employees work under their tutelage. A holistic approach is taken by providing for rehabilitation from drug addiction, employment, urban land tenure and decent affordable housing.

It will also guarantee a reliable return of loans, provide housing to the extremely underserved, as well as create housing opportunities in an urban setting.

This building project will be led and managed by the Habitat Resource Center, Dhaka South of HFH Bangladesh, in partnership with the JOBS and in active cooperation with APEX Textile Factory. Habitat will be responsible for providing the loans and collecting repayments through payroll deduction from APEX Textile Company. This will ensure timely repayment. JOBS will secure the land and hold the title deed until the homeowner family has paid for their house in full.

Once full payment has been secured, the title deed will be handed over, written in favor of the homeowner family with the stipulation that they will not be able to resell the property within a certain time period.

Stakeholder and donor appeal

The appeal of this project to businesses, NGOs, donors and government may be examined in the light of familiar Habitat terms.

  • Appropriate
    Target audience: The rehabilitation of injecting drug users is a niche market, but one that draws hearts and facilitates the will of donors to respond. There are thousands of other niche markets in slums where Habitat can network to provide an urban shelter response.

    The slum dwellers, who migrated to the cities in search of economic opportunities, provide low-cost labor for businesses and are critical to the urban economy.

    Appropriate housing solutions: are determined on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration land tenure, price of land and the complexity of each situation. While this takes time and effort, it will be necessary if we want the right housing solution to fit the context.

    Financing methods: Small repayments through salary deductions, micro-finance savings-based cooperatives and other models need to be explored.
  • Partnership
    The broad range of collaboration necessary in providing an integrated and holistic response is daunting, yet necessary in achieving the Millennium Development Goals and fulfilling the Habitat mission. We need to find out where these urban partnerships are happening and offer a housing solution that fits the context with regard to the needs and concerns of all stakeholders, especially the urban poor.
  • Community
    When we think of the word “community” in an urban environment, we need to think holistically. This empowered slum community will have livelihood, health, education and shelter sufficiently addressed. Community housing associations can provide the necessary community leadership that will be the key to their progress and development. HFHI shelter programs can help to facilitate this.

A new perspective for designing and implementing a housing solution through a more integrated and holistic urban community approach is the paradigm of the future. The bottom line is that this new paradigm incorporates many of the UN Millennium Goals by improving the lives of urban slum dwellers through the creation of livelihoods, improvement in healthcare, education and in the provision of appropriate shelter.

This new paradigm involves more stakeholders and it empowers a wider community to make decisions that will increase their ability to contribute effectively to the needs of their families and fellow urbanites.

We shouldn’t ever lose sight of the rural poor and their needs. However, let’s take greater initiative to develop appropriate and innovative urban housing solutions that prioritize public and private partnerships that are truly community oriented. The impetus should be our mission call, the opportunities for dynamic collaborative networks and the cry of the slum dwellers.

Kyle Scott is regional program manager of HFHI’s programs in South Asia. Kyle was the executive director of LAMB Hospital and Community Health and Development Project in northern Bangladesh from 1994 to 2002, and served as an adjunct professor of the Torchbearers Bible School in Erseke, Albania, while completing further studies. He joined Habitat in April of 2005 as the national director of HFH Bangladesh. Kyle holds a masters degree in Global Leadership from Fuller School of Intercultural Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

He may be contacted at


[1] ‘State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth’, United Nations Population Fund.
[2] ‘Slums of Urban Bangladesh – Mapping and Census 2005”, Centre for Urban Studies, the National Institute of Population Research and Training, and MEASURE Evaluation.