Category Archives: AHI Activities

What makes housing affordable?

By Lindsey Kreckler, Engagement Strategist

Affordable housing, like so many other things in life, can be very difficult to define, and instead often is determined by normative statements. What constitutes “affordable” housing can vary widely even within a single city, never mind a country or the entire world. Affordable for whom? Affordable where? Many common definitions of affordable housing do not take these differences into account.

The most commonly occurring definition of affordable housing is that used by the United States government, which defines affordable housing as housing and related expenses (mortgages, utility bills, etc.) that do not exceed 30% of a household’s income. If a family’s housing expenses are higher than 30% of their income, they are considered burdened. This standard can generally be applied to households within the United States, and even in comparably developed countries, such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

Another recurring definition of affordable housing, one that takes into account the differences between different geographic areas, looks at individual markets. The median multiple system, used in this report from Demographia and recommended by the World Bank and United Nations, determines the price to income ratio of a market by dividing the median house price by median household income. According to this system, a median multiple of 3.0 or less signifies an affordable housing market, while a median multiple of 5.1 or more demonstrates “severely unaffordable” housing. The map here at Numbeo, based on user-reported numbers, shows a similar measure, the Price to Income Ratio, defined as the “ratio of median apartment prices to median familial disposable income, expressed as years of income.” While these data are user-reported and should be taken with a grain of salt, the map provides an interesting visual of how the United States and other developed economies compare to the Global South and similarly developing economies.

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India photo-share: Slum upgrading in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

By: Vidhee Garg

On my recent visit to India, I went on a guided tour of Ramesh Dutt Colony, a slum settlement on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, led by Kinnariben of Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT). MHT is a sister organization of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), with which AHI has partnered since 2008.

MHT was a key partner in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s Slum Networking Project (SNP), which aimed to transform the physical environment of the slums, and has been working with this particular settlement since the late 1990s. The transformation of the environment established several basic infrastructure services – household water connections, toilets and underground sewerage for individual households, and stone paving of internal and approach roads, among other things.

More than a decade in the making, the residents are now eagerly awaiting government permission to rebuild the settlement under the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) scheme, which will give the residents title to land and permanent housing.

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Kinnariben (left) with one of the SEWA members in Ramesh Dutt Colony. Kinnariben is one of many field operation staff (called ‘Saathibens’) who interact regularly with community residents, thereby forming an integral part of SEWA’s last-kilometer delivery system in meeting the banking needs of SEWA members.

Children play gully cricket in the mid-afternoon. Narrow alleys (gully in Hindi) between the houses are good locations for children to play while being supervised by family and community members. 

Children play gully cricket in the mid-afternoon. Narrow alleys (gully in Hindi) between the houses are good locations for children to play while being supervised by family and community members.

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Indonesia photo-share: self-help housing in Depok

By: Duong Huynh, Project Manager

As part of the housing sector mission to Indonesia, I joined another colleague Matt Nohn, whose work focuses on incremental housing, and a team of staff from Indonesian Ministry of Housing to visit Depok. After a 1+ hour drive through some peaceful Indonesian peri-urban farm land, we landed in Depok to begin our tour of a few of the city’s self-help housing project.

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Self-help housing belonging to a family of one working mom and three daughters.

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Photo Report: Three Days in Ulaanbaatar

By: Anya Brickman Raredon

AHI has been working with the World Bank and Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to develop an affordable housing strategy for the rapidly growing city.  In late-August, David Smith, our CEO and Founder, and I took a three-and-a-half day trip to present the results.  Fortunately we got a little bit of time away from our meetings to see the city and visit a ger area neighborhood – their term for the informal settlements. What follows is a bit of a photo tour with some interspersed musings.

Located in a high valley at the intersection of two rivers, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air pollution in the world, in part due to coal heating in the winters. According to the city masterplan, both rivers have protected buffer zones along their banks, although new apartment construction is edging very close on the south side of the valley.  10534525_10100612341304914_7619381653213947338_n936681_10100612341349824_5668957290735238999_n

Downtown Ulaanbaatar is a striking collection of soviet style apartment blocks, yurts, and modern glass towers all sitting right next to each other. There’s even an amusement park in the middle of downtown.10569050_10100606082482644_1606306620005765474_n                 10593150_10100612341424674_2564284688276477326_n  10629839_10100612341629264_7146385909691851264_n                  10474839_10100606076444744_4868540471071979280_n  10610547_10100612341150224_5811294750562497487_n

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What We’re Researching: the Instant City

By Joyce Lee, Harvard Graduate School of Design Community Service Fellow

For the past ten weeks, I had the good fortune of working with AHI as a summer fellow researching post-disaster, post-conflict settlements around the globe –or as we at AHI like to call it, instant cities. For the purposes of our research, we define instant cities as spaces that result from mass, rapid migration from disruptive circumstances. These spaces have a sizable population with food, shelter, water, and other living needs but limited or no supportive physical infrastructure. In turn, this situation creates many humanitarian, economic, operational, and environmental challenges. As an urban planning student with a background in architecture, this subject piques my interest because the confluence of these challenges unfolds at an accelerated rate. And I mean very accelerated. Think: building-and-providing-for-200,000-people-or the-equivalent-of-a-third-of-Boston-in-two-weeks-accelerated (which was the actual case for Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan).

I presume many relief practitioners are drawn to this field of work because of, among many other reasons, the tabula rasa condition of new camps, I certainly was. But in reality, there is no blank slate. Resource-scare site conditions, clashing neighboring host communities, and unclear land titles are all already present at the start of the camp. Yet, many of the camps reviewed this summer do not publicly document these issues unless they become problematic. Are there ways that host countries could be more proactive instead of reactive in this field? Are there possible economic synergies that could take place to make the camp residents and host communities feel more productive? Should states bordering contentious territories prepare refugee contingency plans in advance? This research raised a lot of questions and we started to identify gaps in our knowledge of instant cities. Thus far, our findings are still preliminary, but it is clear that this subject is understudied.

Jalozai Refugee camp in Pakistan

Aerial of Jalozai Refugee Camp in Pakistan. What happens when the camp “closes” and all the aid agencies leave?

Azraq is among the first refugee camps to include a grocery store. Aid agencies hope that this would foster a sense of normalcy.

Azraq, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, is among the first refugee camps to provide a supermarket for its residents  instead of cooked meals. Aid agencies hope that this would foster a sense of normalcy and dignity.

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How to get a Master’s in Affordable Housing?

By: Janaki Kibe, Project Manager

I live in Boston, Massachusetts, part of a larger metropolitan area that is home to over eight universities, including Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Tufts, Northeastern, Brandeis, and University of Massachusetts – Boston. Despite the plethora of academic types and abundance of obscure course titles (i.e. “Alien Worlds” – yes a real course offered at Boston University), I haven’t found a school yet that offers a Masters in Affordable Housing. (And yes, I have looked).mad_scientist

Yet, with my inherent Tiger Mother DNA and the endless enthusiasm of my mad-scientist boss, David Smith, my colleagues and I have been stealthily crafting our own unofficial Master’s in Affordable Housing.

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After much anticipation—I know you were anticipating it—I am ready to unveil the curriculum.

Course 1: SUP-665 Real Estate Finance and Development Fundamentals

Harvard Graduate School of Design or Harvard Kennedy School

Professor: Ed MarchantHarvard_gsd

Ed Marchant, an enthusiastic practitioner (read: actually worked in the field!) and real estate teacher extraordinaire, is a wonderful person to introduce you to the world of real estate development, and really, aren’t we all in need of such a person? In Marchant’s class, which is offered in the fall, you’ll build your own pro formas, calculate IRRs and NPVs, and understand how discount rates impact your returns. The class is a mix of students who have worked in real estate and finance and then the rest of us, who are pretty much akin to blank stares, I mean slates. While the first few weeks of the course may be overwhelming—Marchant has a tendency to surprise students with a slew of rapid-fire questions “What is the IRR? What happens when vacancy rates increase by 2%? What does 40B say?”—there will be a eureka moment when things fall into place and you realize, “Geez! This is amazing!”. And that’s when the fun starts. I definitely recommend this course for anyone who has an inkling that they are interested in real estate and wants to understand what the heck people mean when they say NPV!

Course 2: SUP-666 Affordable and Mixed-Income Housing Development, Finance, and Management

Harvard Graduate School of Design

Professor: Ed Marchant

In the Spring, you can follow up on your newly developed real estate skills by taking Marchant’s Affordable and Mixed-Income Housing course, which is offered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). In addition to learning a heck of a lot about subsidies and financing for affordable housing development in the US, students also have the opportunity to participate in an affordable housing development competition. In our small office in Boston, four of us participated in this competition over the last four years—and three placed a prestigious second in the competition. One claims that she was fourth place (note: they only give awards for the top three places). The competition is great. You form a student team comprised of architects, planners, MBAs, and the occasional policy folk, are paired with an actual Community Development Corporation, and are given the task of creating a development proposal for a specific site in the Greater Boston metropolitan area. The proposals must be architecturally and economically feasible and desirable. For most of us students, it was the first time that we were working on “real” projects and the opportunity to deal with real world constraints rather than theoretical ones was appealing.

AHI Staff win 2nd place at the Boston Affordable Housing Development Competition

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Photo update: Mongolia in June

By: Molly McGowan

It’s Friday, so I think photos are in order. Check out some city and country scenes from a recent AHI trip to Ulaanbaatar, where we are working with our local team to help the municipality of Ulaanbaatar develop an affordable housing strategy.

North-facing city view, taken from the Zaisan Memorial

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Ger area, north of city

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Development east of Zaisan Memorial (south of city center)

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Decorative ger outside of working retreat hotel

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Driving back from working retreat hotel

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Chinggis Khan statue