Friday, July 12, 2013

Affordable humane habitat

Market for consumable products is expanded by incorporating lower income segments into it besides new areas.    A small sachet of shampoo, for example, becomes affordable for most even if one forgoes a meal to  get it along with the satisfaction of consuming a luxury item. It plays on the psychology and develops a taste for the new item. This strategy combined with aggressive marketing worked with varying successes for various products in the last two decades. The prime motive of this strategy was to expand the market by creating a new need and not satisfying an existing basic one.
The real estate business model
The notion of Affordable housing seems to be the latest manthra for reaching the larger population. Like in the case of consumables, the idea seems to be to expand the real estate market. The producer is the prime mover and the private sector is made a major partner in this endeavour. The affordability and quality is to be improved by technology upgrade. Many writings and presentation and reports claim that affordable housing is not low cost housing. But it is of higher quality at low prices. Affordable housing as projected is basically a business and financing model, without bothering too much how will it impact the total habitat situation. All advocates of affordable housing is actually trying for policy changes to make land available, overcome bureaucratic delays, ease planning rules etc. Thus it aims mainly to make land available for real estate development. A component of low income housing would be used as the social agenda for convincing policy changes. Primarily it uses a growth economy argument in increasing the real estate sector growth.
The housing sector does not work like consumables market. Firstly, housing is tied to a specific site.  Unlike consumable items, it cannot be moved from the production site.  That makes site value the  major component of cost . Poorer sections tend to live closer to work and such informal works are nearer to prime areas. The slums and squatter settlements occupy those prime lands in many cities. Affordable housing as a strategy could even mean a way to appropriate these lands with promises of cross subsidy. Housing investments are also lumpy and cannot be bought at peace-meal. It evades one unless one is credit worthy.  A vast majority cannot afford even these affordable houses, unless they are cross subsidized. For the 70 % of the urban household which are in lower income brackets, house is not a priority as much as a stable income. House without a job does not mean anything. Even subsidised housing change hands easily and end up with higher income groups.
A humane habitat model
Most importantly, shelter nay habitat, that includes more than just shelter, is a basic need. It is not an idea of impressive aesthetic environment. The affordable housing as projected is part of a market dream appealing to the middle class to create slices of visibly good looking cities, without understanding the social and historical processes that created them. The convivial and humane quality of living environment is rooted in the relational dynamics people have with others, the family, the community and the environment, in a larger sense. That makes up humane habitat for healthy communities. It is not number crunching game..
Given the situation, appalling living condition in cities, we need a programme to create affordable habitat in a larger sense. This could be done by using from the existing small scale  individual initiatives  of Self Help like one found in informal settlements of slums and squatters. It needs a holistic business model not the one which looks only from the growth of large business model.  The notion of affordable habitat should then mean primarily creation of convivial living areas and shelter appropriately answering the priorities of different sections. Improving the conditions from what they are today. This means a design strategy that involves technology, finance, mass producton of components production,  processes of creating social and environmental services. It would be city specific and even site specific.

Priorities should be different

The first priority in all cities is drinking water, good sanitation, clean environment, accessibility and mobility to work, health care, and education. Then safe spaces to walk and children to play. These bundles of priorities constitute the basics of humane habitat for all. Shelter comes only next. Priorities may change for different groups.  This is what humane convivial habitat is. This means not the general model touted in affordable housing manthra. The site and service schemes with some specific successes did not meet this requirement either. It tried to create all too new shelters primarily, Thus creating affordable properties instead of habitat. Such attempts make marketable products only. Instead one could look at bunch of environmental goods deliverable to different income communities cross subsidizing the cost of land and development as done in social housing. This programme could include, among other things, financial support system catering to people of 1.Credit worthy classes, all incomes 2. Low income below the credit line or marginal ones 3. No income no credit worthy footloose migrants largely in the informal sectors of economy.

Mass production and assembly
Mass production has a real role, but differently.  So does design. A design should mean beyond traditional physical approach alone. It should encompass a cluster of activities, economics, finance, amenities, regrouping, renewal, regeneration, identifying and designating lands and people for bringing them in a business like venture. Design of components and producing them in large scale to reduce cost and design of technology so that they can be assembled on sites as people do with tin sheets and plastics in squatter settlements, should become part of this initiative. Can multi-storeyed framed spaces be generated and offered along with services so the at people can build on them as they start to live? Can we take the individual private initiatives and link them to Self Help and Cooperatives for low incomes and design prioritised habitat bundles?
The purpose of such habitat communities is not just making visible improvement of urban areas or increase real estate activity and profitability as an end in itself; but to create a system to improve living conditions generally. None of these are mutually exclusive.