Category Archives: Discussion

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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The Historical Evolution of South Africa’s Housing Policy, Exemplified in Cato Manor

By Ellie Leaning, Analyst

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the historical evolution and uniqueness of South Africa’s housing policy as seen in Cato Manor. This initial post aims to provide a historical overview of the political, economic, and cultural factors at play in Cato Manor.

Cato Manor is one of South Africa’s most historically significant townships. It sits on Durban’s periphery, tucked out of the public eye amongst the hillside, about a ten minute drive from the waterfront. I have a particular affinity to Cato Manor because I lived there for eight-weeks in 2013 with a Zulu family. This was where I had my first exposure to affordable housing projects and became acutely aware of the significance of my family’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) house in their quest for opportunity in a world of pervasive inequality (tune into the next post in this series for a discussion of RDP houses!).

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Gardens Drive in Cato Manor with RDP houses as far as the eye can see and a mini-bus taxi parked along the street, waiting for customers. These taxis are constantly running back and forth, honking and blasting music, trying to attract a new client. While perhaps intimidating for a foreigner, these taxis are very inexpensive and very efficient (although perhaps not very safe), connecting the township to the greater Durban area.

 Fun fact: As the buses do not have signs indicating their destination, the drivers (or a driver’s assistant who sometimes rides along) and passengers use hand signals to indicate where the bus is going. For instance, lifting your index finger in a circular motion will get you a ride to South Beach. This stems from Apartheid-era innovation when the government did not supply any public services to these areas – yet another example of a creative response to a market failure! 

Cato Manor’s role in the monumental political, economic, and cultural changes of 20th century South Africa make it a useful and relevant case study. It was one of the main areas where the African National Congress (ANC) focused re-development efforts post-1994, and today it is frequently considered Durban’s equivalent to District Six in Cape Town. While this is a specific township with its own history, the lessons learned and the complexity of that history are representative of the rest of South Africa.

Cato Manor has a unique history that is deeply rooted and very important in its culture today. The Nqondo clan occupied the area as early as 1650, until the Ntuli clan took over about a century later. It is unclear what happened to these tribes, but in 1815 the British established Port Natal (the Portuguese word for Christmas, as Natal was first found by a Portuguese explorer on Christmas Day 1497). The Brits lived primarily on the coast, while the Zulu King Shaka controlled the interior. In 1845, George Cato became the first mayor of Durban and was given the land of Cato Manor, which he subdivided and sold to Indian market gardeners (Durban is also home to the world’s largest Indian population outside of India) who decided to remain in South Africa after their terms as indentured slaves ended. Africans began to set up shacks and informal settlements along the periphery of the area, and as more and more Africans settled in, a unique mixture of vibrant Indian and African culture appeared. These Africans were primarily Zulus, who previously ruled large parts of present-day KwaZulu Natal (KZN) and had an incredibly strong empire. The long-lasting periods of conflicts and consequent colonization were brutal and oppressive, but resulted in a strong sense of identity and pride in the Zulu Kingdom, one that is still evident today in Cato Manor and elsewhere in KZN.

In 1932, Cato Manor was officially brought into the Durban municipality, and the (mostly native African) shack-dwellers were declared illegal occupants. Regardless, Africans continued to rent homes and land from Indians (under the law at this time, Africans were not allowed to own land or build homes in urban areas), with established tenure and amicable relationships for a time. Around 1945, historians estimate that Cato Manor was home to over 50,000 Africans, who began accusing Indians of rent-hikes and overcrowding. This occurred simultaneously with the rise of the Afrikaaner National Party in 1948, which imposed a legalized racial segregation system, infamously known as Apartheid. Racial tensions exacerbated existing divides, leading to a brutal “anti-Indian war” on 13 January 1949 that left 137 dead and thousands injured.

After this, Indians began to leave Cato Manor, returning only to collect rent from Africans, who were busy building more shacks and sub-letting to more Africans. Indian landowners then sold a large portion of their land to the Durban City Council, which then developed the land as a largely unregulated and overcrowded emergency center for homeless people. This became one of the main points of unregulated production of shimeyane, a homemade distilled liqueur, and consequent chaos.

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Cato Manor forced removals and police brutality in mid-1950s.

In 1950, National Party passed the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act, the Immorality Act, and the Suppression of Communism Act – the infamous laws of Apartheid. The 1950s marked significant increases in brutal legalized segregation and horrific race-based violence. Apartheid’s opposition, the ANC, was gaining immense power when it was forced to go underground by laws prohibiting political groups and defining anti-apartheid sentiments as equal to treason. The ANC had various underground hubs in the different provinces, and Durban’s branch was based in Cato Manor. The ANC women’s league was also largely prominent in Cato Manor around this time.

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Cato Manor: October 1959.

The apartheid regime responded to this by attempting forced removals (within the law, under the Group Areas Act) to place residents in racially exclusive Indian and Black townships, such as KwaMashu and Chatsworth. These efforts were met with massive resistance and violent conflicts, but eventually the bulldozers and police forces won.

Cato Manor was mostly vacant from the late 1960s, aside from a few Hindu temples and avocado trees, a sad ghost of its vibrant history. As the anti-apartheid movements gained strength in the later 1970s, people began trying to move back, but violence plagued the region again in the 1980s. Soon after, people began proactively reclaiming their land and returning to Cato Manor. The first area which people resettled was along the ridge of Cato Manor, an area called Cato Crest.  In 1994, the ANC won the national elections in a remarkably peaceful power transfer. The Zulu Kingdom was incorporated in the Province of Natal in a deal which recognized the power and presence of the Zulus in Natal while stably bringing them into the Republic of South Africa. Natal was renamed as KwaZulu Natal, in which “Kwa” denotes ownership-of or possession: the Zulu’s Natal.

The ANC, left with a broken country, attempted to implement broad changes, including a brand new constitution containing Section 26: the Right to Housing, where “Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing”. A unique aspect of the South African constitution is that is does not only apply to South African nationals; anyone living in the country is entitled to the same rights as a citizen. In this unique aspect of the constitution, the state took on the responsibility of providing access to adequate housing for both its citizens and permanent residents. In a country of legally enforced geographic segregation of races and consequent socio-economic divides, this was no easy task. Accordingly, since 1994, South Africa has devoted a lot of time and resources to pro-poor housing initiatives, most of which were implemented in Cato Manor with varying levels of success.

Residents of Cato Manor and the larger eThekweni (Durban) municipality established the Cato Manor Development Association to upgrade and redevelop the area. Soon following this, Cato Manor was identified as a Presidential Lead Project of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which awarded R130 million ($11.2 million) for specific upgrading schemes to be explained in the next South Africa post.

Mama Ngini House

The RDP house that I lived in for eight weeks with my homestay family (my little sister is at the front door)!

Today, Cato Manor is a very large and partially well developed area, yet is still plagued with violent crime, unemployment, and poor health. Cato Crest, one of the six informal settlements on the outskirts (the ‘crest’) of Cato Manor, is a place of extreme poverty and violence. Parts of Cato Manor are formally owned by their dwellers, with homes attached to the grid with relatively steady electricity and functional plumbing, while others, as in Cato Crest, are completely informal with no legal land ownership, no financial mechanisms for home improvement, no connection to grids, no sanitation, etc. The different mechanisms of housing are at play in Cato Manor, from the 1994 RDP houses, to “green streets” of solar power and efficiency upgrades, to basic slum upgrading schemes attempting to solve the dilemmas of the informal settlements.

South Africa’s, and Cato Manor’s, unique history has led to a regeneration process that is both very difficult and vitally important to get right as the country struggles for socio-economic equality. As we stress here at AHI, there is not one sector of life that housing does not touch. Housing is the keystone species of development, and Cato Manor has been a guinea pig for a lot of these initiatives.

The next blog post in this series will discuss the different regeneration and redevelopment programs at the national level and the local level – stay tuned!  

Promoting a Rare Breed: Private Nonprofit Housing Developers in the GCC

This piece was originally published by Jadaliyya, an ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. Jadaliyya combines local knowledge, scholarship, and advocacy to better understand the Arab World and to fulfill its dedication to discussing the Arab world on its own terms. The original article can be found here.

           

By Maysa Sabah Shocair, AHI’s Managing Director of the GCC Region

While working as a Project Manager at the Fenway Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Boston and as a Consultant to Phipps Houses in New York City, I experienced firsthand how nonprofit developers can contribute to preserving housing affordability in central locations. Fenway CDC builds and preserves housing and champions local projects that engage the entire Fenway community in protecting the neighborhood’s economic and racial diversity. It has operated since 1973 and has developed nearly six hundred homes, housing approximately 1,500 low and moderate-income [1] residents, including those with special needs. In addition, Fenway CDC has supported residents through offering job placement and career advancement services, building playgrounds, running after-school programs for teens and operating a center for seniors. Similarly, Phipps Houses develops, owns and manages housing in New York City. Since its  founding in 1905, it has developed more than six thousand apartments for low- and moderate-income families, valued at over one billion US dollars. Phipps Houses manages a housing portfolio of nearly ten thousand apartments throughout New York City. In addition, it serves over eleven thousand children, teens, and adults annually through educational, work readiness, and family support programs.

Now that I am working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as an affordable housing consultant for several public and private entities, I often wonder: Could private nonprofit housing developers, like the Fenway CDC and Phipps Houses, make an impactful contribution to bridging the supply and demand gap in affordable housing in the GCC for both citizens and non-citizens? Could the experience of other countries with nonprofit housing developers be distilled and adapted to the GCC states?

To answer these questions, I will first discuss the main attributes of nonprofit housing developers, followed by a discussion on the shortage of affordable housing for citizens and non-citizens in the GCC and the resulting need for nonprofit housing developers. I will then recommend strategies to enable the growth of nonprofit housing developers and end with a few concluding remarks. 

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Domed roofs in Haram City


Nonprofits Housing Developers as Mission Entrepreneurial Entities

In its 2010 landmark study Mission Entrepreneurial Entities: Essential Actors in Affordable Housing Delivery, the Affordable Housing Institute (AHI) defined Mission Entrepreneurial Entities (MEEs) as “private nongovernment entities that are in the business of making housing ecosystemic change by doing actual transactions valuable in themselves that also serve as pilots and proof of concept.” MEEs could be Non-Governmental Organizations, Community Development Corporations, or Housing Associations, labels that have sometimes been used interchangeably. The study profiles twenty-three MEEs in the United Kingdom and the United States, where, in both countries, there has been a steady migration from entirely publicly managed and operated systems to hybrid public-private models, with MEEs as key delivery mechanisms.

According to the study, the three main attributes of MEEs are: (i) being mission oriented, since their goal is impact, not just profits; (ii) entrepreneurship, taking risks and persuading established institutions, including governments, to approve proposals, provide capital, etc.; and (iii) self-containment, because sustainable MEEs must make profits and maintain a positive cash flow. However, generated profits are used to further the purposes of the organizations instead of being distributed to managers and shareholders.


MEEs also share the following strengths:

·         Willingness to serve populations that the private for-profit sector cannot or will not serve, including the hardest-to-house residents;

·         Commitment to providing affordable housing to lower income people for the long term;

·         Building strong connections with residents and the communities they serve;

·         Commitment to providing various social services that lower income or special needs residents may require;

·         Potential for accessing affordable land, buildings and funding through governments and philanthropic entities or individuals;

·         Commitment to seeing projects through both during their early and post-delivery phases.

Given the potential of MEEs to serve populations that are not served by private or public housing provision, this essay discusses the potential relevance of this model to the GCC countries. This interrogation is critical at a time during when many GCC countries are facing a shortage of housing for low and moderate income households. It is also a time in which we are witnessing the emergence of institutionalized charitable giving that could be in part harnessed to help with housing provision. These conditions are creating a ripe environment for the growth of nonprofit housing developers, with the much needed support of the public and private sectors.

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Connecting the dots : Urban Resilience and Affordable housing

 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.

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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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A Typical Home: the Town House – Sai Gon, Vietnam

By: Duong Huynh, Project Manager

Housing is complex. Its stakeholders and creatures are as varied as the skin colors of the human race – developers and financiers, consumers and policy makers. Its value chains are highly intertwined – demand side and supply side, taking us from land obtainment to consumer off-take and move-in. At the core of this complex system lies the key product it helps to produce more of, and in high quality: the home.

So via this post, I hope to inspire my colleagues and myself in understanding the typologies of homes all over the world in closer detail. For this first venture, I chose Sai Gon, Vietnam; otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City.

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Sai Gon’s location on the southern tail of Vietnam’s “S” shape

A map of Sai Gon’s districts

A map of Sai Gon’s districts

Typical traffic in Sai Gon during busy hours

Typical traffic in Sai Gon during busy hours

With any emerging markets, growth and architectural landmarks sit alongside dated low-density residential uses.

The glamorous and trendy Sai Gon at night

The glamorous and trendy Sai Gon at night

Low and mid-density uses lie below and alongside the city’s landmark tower

Low and mid-density uses lie below and alongside the city’s landmark tower

Within any nation and economy, many diverse sets of housing typologies exist. Vietnam is no exception.

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Industry Trends: Micro Houses as a market viable solution?

By: Duong Huynh, Project Manager

A home – a beacon of economic and personal stability to which one returns after a hard day’s work to rest and relax in relative privacy. Such a beacon takes on shapes, textures and sizes as malleable and diverse as the ecosystems in which their owners reside.

Two generations of Hong Kong resident in a typically sized "home" for the working class.

Hong Kong: Two generations of Hong Kong residents in a typically sized “home” for the working class. Part of an intriguing series of photographs by Benny Lam, posted via the Telegraph.

Traditional Mongolia ger (photograph property of AHI).

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: Traditional ger housing (photograph property of AHI).

6 Fort Street, Quincy MA. 34 units of affordable family housing designed by Davis Square Architects. Adaptive reuse from a church and an office building.

Massachusetts, US: 6 Fort Street, Quincy. 34 units of affordable family housing designed by Davis Square Architects. Adaptive reuse from a church and an office building.

Dubai: Citizen housing constructed by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Housing Establishment (an AHI client).

Dubai: Citizen housing constructed by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Housing Establishment (an AHI client).

For centuries, markets and their participants have all subconsciously lived by a practical and logical rule when it comes to housing obtainment: money = location, quality of housing, and space. Hence, affordability, when left to the market and without policy or financial intervention, fluctuates depending on those three critical factors. Cheaper homes possess any single or combination of (a) distance far from centers of commerce and jobs, (b) quality sub-par to mid-market products and/or (c) size smaller than mid-market homes. Let us assess each of the three components exclusively:

  • Location: critical in accessing employment and critical services such as healthcare, food, and education.
  • Quality: critical to health via its direct link to structural integrity, ventilation, and electrical and plumbing systems, among other key engineering, visual and operational components of a home.
  • Space: critical to essential needs (i.e. enough room to sleep, eat, bathe and rest in) and sense of comfort.

Upon the above inspection, Space stands out as a component most flexible in facilitating affordability. People can be tolerant and even preferable of living with less, but still functional, space if they can trade that for a quality and structurally sound home within a desirable location.

Enter the recent active research, dialogue and breakthroughs in micro housing design, development and construction. Oh wait – what’s a micro unit, you ask?

Micro Unit 101

Now on to the imagination-wired feast for the eyes.

Winner of NYC Micro Units competition. Also utilizes modular construction technology. nArchitects (though I don't see much anarchy in the monochromatic style of that design... or is it just the light?)

Winner of NYC Micro Units competition. Also utilizes modular construction technology. nArchitects (though I don’t see much anarchy in the monochromatic style of that design… oh, is it just the lighting?)

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Micro apartment unit on display last spring at the Boston Society of Architects. ADD Inc. design.

“Manhattan Micro Loft” by Specht Harpman Architects, winner of the Architizer A + Award in the Small Living category. Though, in NYC, the savings from the small footprint of this home is nothing compared to the cost associated with the roof access to open air critical for its design success.

“Manhattan Micro Loft” by Specht Harpman Architects, winner of the Architizer A + Award in the Small Living category. Though, in NYC, the savings from the small footprint of this home is nothing compared to the cost associated with the roof access to open air critical to its design success.

Often times, it is difficult to draw that thread-thin boundary between certain micro-homes and SRO’s (single room occupancy units).

Micro home with adjustable/foldable furniture in San Francisco, CA.

Micro home with adjustable/foldable furniture in San Francisco, CA.

Rendering of a typical SRO with a shared bathroom.

Rendering of a typical SRO with a shared bathroom.

Oh wait.. did I just mix up the captions of the two above images? I honestly can’t tell.. The true difference to a normal consumer is in the finishings, furniture accessories and branding.

Here's a real life SRO picture to take the sheen off of those shiny renderings. It's definitely a decent living arrangement, but nothing close to glamour.

Here’s a real life SRO picture to take the sheen off of those shiny renderings. It’s definitely a decent living arrangement, but nothing close to glamour.

A marked success of the innovators in micro-housing design definitely lies in the branding they’ve built up. As soon as you say “micro houses” in New York, Boston, or San Francisco, you will draw the attention of young working professionals (I am looking at you, yuppy bachelors) who consider the concept cool and trendy. In fact, many of them have signed on the dotted line to cement their interest in micro homes.

Check out Factory 63. A hip, young, and classy brand and development in Boston’s Innovation District (whose name is derived from a trendy rebranding of the historically industrious waterfront, courtesy of former Boston Mayor Tom Menino). The project features Boston’s smallest units to date – result of a permitting and zoning exemption from the Mayor’s team. When someone asks you where you live, just simply answer “Factory 63.” If they are not hip, they will respond “You live in a factory?” And if they are hip, “Cool dude, you live in a factory!”

Versatility for the win.

Versatility for the win.

They sure sell up the Small factor.

They sure sell up the Small factor.

Of course, the fact that YOU lie at the heart of the project's success, that's also played up.

Of course, the fact that YOU lie at the heart of the project’s success, that’s also played up.

The future of micro houses, their market affordability, and to-be-tested practicality and functionality are still unopened cards. However, the research and exploration surrounding them, and other housing innovations, are critical to keeping the affordable housing world at a competitive forefront alongside the rest of the residential real estate market.

And now for my 5 seconds of glamour and glitz as I play up my project team’s 2nd place entry for last year’s Boston Affordable Housing Development Competition.

BAM! Interlocking micro units to save space. Please ignore the non-glittery design. Remember, practical = rooms are are not shiny!

BAM! Interlocking micro units to save space. Please ignore the non-glittery design. Remember, practical = less sheen!

Okay, so there was not really much glamour and glitz in the above, but it was practical and we had a sustainable pro forma that was real AND works! Unfortunately, in the world of design, pro formas are not considered pieces of art and cannot be readily displayed to draw immediate gasps of awe from visually-inclined audiences. And thus ends my moment of glory.