By Eman Lasheen, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Affordable housing has always been looked upon as a supplementary service provided for a certain population. It is generally defined as housing that is appropriate for the needs of a range of very low to moderate income households and priced so that these households are also able to meet other basic living costs such as food, clothing, transport, medical care and education. As a rule of thumb, housing is usually considered affordable if it costs less than 30 percent of gross household income 1. The core value of investing in the provision of affordable housing is usually related to meeting a growing demand in the fastest, most efficient and inexpensive form, to alleviate socioeconomic burdens. Despite the importance of this highly materialistic perspective, it strikes me as quite lacking to account for higher, more complex interactions at the urban level, where positive impacts of affordability are manifested most profoundly. The connection between the availability of well designed affordable housing and the level of urban resilience is highlighted dramatically during times of crisis or unexpected change. The fact that people would find decent shelters during disasters or sudden shocks is not the only aspect of connection. It is the understanding of how urban communities are able to prioritize, plan and move forward that makes affordable housing a crucial aspect of urban resilience.
One major problem with resilience as an evolving field of research is the ambiguity around its components and intentions. Rooted in ecological sciences, the term has gained a lot of prominence within many other disciplines including engineering, social sciences and urbanism. It has been adapted within each of these disciplines to inform about a certain form of interaction. It remains however confusing to a great extent when it comes to urban sciences, where question such as : “resilience of what ? to what ” becomes a great source of trouble to practitioners and decision makers alike.
One way to dissolve this uncertainty around urban resilience is to engage with all the major components of communities and cities such as infrastructure and housing. They become in that case opportunities to ‘operationalize’ urban resilience through translating the notions of preparedness, durability and rebound into actions and plans. Affordable housing is in that case a very viable intersection point where values of planning ahead and eliminating social and economic vulnerabilities become united. Unfortunately, this is rarely done until catastrophes strike and governments and institutions are faced with exacerbated conditions of unmet and newly founded demands of shelter.
1. While this figure provides a useful benchmark of housing affordability, the definition of affordability varies according to a household’s individual circumstances. Demands on the same gross income may differ significantly.