Category Archives: Opinion

Secession: the key to more affordable housing in cities?

By Judy Park, Analyst

Panelists at The Atlantic’s CityLab 2014 conference, held this past September, proposed the idea of home rule – or even more radically, city secession – as a potential solution for increasing affordable housing in cities.

aff housing solution home ruleClick ­­­­­­­­­here for the full article.

During the event, Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHoP Architects and Ben Hecht of Living Cities argued that state and national governance often restricts the ability of cities to produce more affordable housing. The solution, they claim, is to emancipate these cities and allow them to subsidize as they please:

“Subsidize the supply, subsidize the demand: We know how to do all of those. We just don’t have the will to do those things,” said Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht. “Singapore and Hong Kong are willing to do those things.”

The thought that cities would be more effective if left to their own devices is not new. In a time where urbanization is widening the physical and sociopolitical discrepancy between the city and its surroundings, and where cities are increasingly outpacing the GDP of entire countries, it makes some sense.

But good governance is tricky and inevitably context-specific. Home rule could be exactly what that blue bastion in a sea of red needs to build more affordable housing. Unconstrained by state and national regulations, a city could more easily raise and borrow money from their tax base and capital markets. It could vote to direct more money to affordable housing needs.

In other instances, however, the state’s ability to override local priorities and decisions is important and beneficial for affordable housing, as in the case of Massachusetts’ Chapter 40B, a statute that allows an affordable housing developer to obtain state zoning overrides for building in municipalities that fail to meet their 10% affordable housing requirement.

Further, in choosing Singapore and Hong Kong as their poster-children, the panelists seem to imply that the production of mass public housing indicates success: in Singapore, 82% of citizens live in flats built by the government (via the Housing Development Board, or HDB), and in Hong Kong, this figure is slightly less than half.

But all is not well, especially in Hong Kong, which still suffers from a high shortage of public housing and recently won its fourth successive crown for having the most unaffordable housing in the world. Supply may be high, but demand is even higher. Those who are able to qualify for a government flat typically wait three years or more. In the meantime, many residents have no choice but to live in grossly overcrowded units, which have been referred to as cages, that average around 40 square feet. Such housing may technically qualify as “affordable,” but it is certainly not suitable.


Soaring, high-density public housing in Hong Kong.



Society for Community Organization, a local advocacy group, documents the conditions in the cage homes of Hong Kong. Photo by Benny Lam, for the Society for Community Organization.

Continue reading


Land title and affordable housing development in Africa – Part 2

By Evans Essienyi, AHI West Africa Associate

Last week I asked the question: Is the ‘clean and clear title’ and freehold as understood in the global North truly a prerequisite for a good affordable housing ecosystem? And what are the ways in which more complex forms of tenure can be developed and financed?

NO. Neither a freehold nor a clean and clear title is a necessary requisite for a good affordable housing ecosystem. In my view, the two components of the affordable housing ecosystem – microloan for incremental building and large scale investment by developers in affordable housing is not impeded in any way by the absence of freehold or a clean title.

Microloans for households for incremental building do not require the land as security for the loan. Micro lenders employ strategies such as regular visits, site inspection, and group lending to secure their loans. This means loans can be made to low-income people for home improvements and new constructions in the face of communal land ownership with minimal risk to the lender.

Investments in large scale developments are not subject to increased risks as a result of communal land ownership. In most Sub-saharan countries, long term leases for  large tracts of land for development can be obtained for 99 years; this about twice the life span of most housing projects. The 99-year leases are also renewable.

Also, large scale affordable housing developers can negotiate Joint Venture (JV) partnerships with communal land owners for the land to serve as a contribution from the land owners in return for an equity stake in housing development. This arrangement has the potential of increasing the success and sustainability of the housing project.

It is clear that a clean and clear title is not a necessary requisite for a good affordable housing ecosystem in the global south.

Evans Essienyi is a building technologist and real estate developer experienced in structuring low income housing projects, designing affordable houses, financing options and project development in developing countries, especially Ghana. In the USA, he was elected a Legatum Fellow at MIT, dedicated to creating innovative, sustainable, for-profit enterprises that promote prosperity in low-income countries.

Land title and affordable housing development in Africa – Part 1

– in need of reform, or simply a more nuanced understanding?

By Evans Essienyi, AHI West Africa Associate

Affordable housing is an emerging priority in Africa. In particular, Sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing fundamental and profound changes in demographics as the 21st century moves towards its second decade. In 1983, just 21% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population of 400 million was urban, by 2003, 36% of its 700 million people lived in cities and towns. From 1990-2003 urban growth rates increased by 4.6% per annum, almost twice as much as overall population growth rates, (Stephen Giddings, 2007). At this rate of urbanization, urban managers in Africa have huge problems to grapple with; one of the most pressing being the provision of adequate affordable housing. Most analyses conclude that the development of adequate affordable houses at scale in Sub-Saharan Arica is hindered in three main categories: policy and regulatory, physical and technological and housing finance.

In my experience, the absence of clean and clear title impedes the assembling of large tracks of land at the scale require for massive housing developments. Land Tenure in most sub-Saharan Africa is Customary.  Customary land is land which is owned by Indigenous communities and administered in accordance with their customs and traditions. For example, in Ghana traditional land-owning authorities (stool chiefs, clan heads and skins) hold allodial (absolute ownership) title to land on behalf of their people. Thus outright ownership of land is still a rare form of land tenure in Ghana (Asumadu, Kwame Dr. May 2003).

Land in Kenya is slightly more complex, and is owned by four different kinds of groups: the government, county councils, individuals and groups (Kameri-Mbote, Patricia Dr. 2005).

In Southern Africa, the two principal forms of land tenure systems are customary and statutory tenure (ECA/SA/EGM. Land/2003/2). None of these forms of tenure allows clean and clear title for ownership.

Question for thought: Is the ‘clean and clear title’ and freehold as understood in the global North truly a prerequisite for a good affordable housing ecosystem? And what are the ways in which more complex forms of tenure can be developed and financed?

Continued in Part 2 next week

Evans Essienyi is a building technologist and real estate developer experienced in structuring low income housing projects, designing affordable houses, financing options and project development in developing countries, especially Ghana. In the USA, he was elected a Legatum Fellow at MIT, dedicated to creating innovative, sustainable, for-profit enterprises that promote prosperity in low-income countries.

Digging beyond visual judgments and ‘sustainable materials’

Some rants on slum upgrading…

Aditya Sawant, AHI Research Assistant

In the Millenium Development Goals by UNHabitat, a slum is defined as an area that combines, to various extents, the following characteristics:  inadequate access to safe water; inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure; poor structural quality of housing; overcrowding; and insecure title.

The UN definition describes slums mainly through a lack of infrastructural system. In my opinion, this is not a criterion most of us use to describe a slum. We do it by judging its physical form. It is a visual judgment. Rarely will we bother to check if a neighborhood lacks formal water systems, sanitation, legal title etc., before declaring it a slum. A slum, in general public opinion, is identified based on its formal and visual appearance and not its lack of infrastructure systems.

For example, when Dharavi, one of the larger informal settlements of Mumbai, was undertaken for re-development, a part of it, named Kumbharwada or Potter’s colony, was included in the development plan. But Kumbharwada is not a squatter settlement – it actually has a lease-hold agreement with the State government for the entire land it occupies – but was included in the re-development plan because it ‘looked’ like the other parts of Dharavi.

This visual judgment was made through comparisons with the surrounding context as a slum inherently does not have a standard form of its own. This is reflected in the different typology of informal settlements that we see around the world, from the favelas in South America, the rooftop slums of Hong Kong, the ashwaiyyats in Cairo, the gecekondu in Turkey,  the houses on stilts in Manila, to the slums of Mumbai.

Because of this visual bias , slum ‘up gradation’ or ‘improvement’ is often looked upon as ‘cleaning’ or ‘beautifying’ the slum by clearing the existing neighborhoods and building new ‘improved’ housing that is mainly inspired by the middle class or upper middle class housing typologies that are present in that particular context. In most cases today, this means high rise apartment style housing units. The high rise configuration also clears valuable real estate for other commercial exploitation if developed in-situ. Many of the ‘new improved’ units have a standard house plan of a living room, kitchen and bedrooms, a typology which might not be necessarily suitable for a slum resident who also runs a small manufacturing workshop from his or her existing house in the slum.

A slum, though lacking in formal infrastructural systems, is actually anchored upon a lot of other socio- economic systems which operate within the community and also interact with the larger city. These do not get replicated in high-rise apartment style housing so that living in such typologies becomes difficult for slum residents. They cannot continue their livelihood activities in such apartments or lose those income generating networks when relocated into rehabilitation housing on the outskirts of the city. A slum is not a collection of houses of poor people but a network which is in dialogue with itself and the larger city, a dialogue on which it survives.

Nowadays you see a lot of interest and research going into producing materials for low-income housing, such as earth bricks, bamboo, steel pipes and what-not. Though some of them are quite innovative solutions, for me they come from this same mentality of providing a cleaner looking, orderly solution to the ‘slum problem.’ They all try to provide new materials which are claimed to be sustainable, economical , cheaply available, recyclable etc etc.

But if one looks closely at the existing slum itself, you will find that the materials which are used to build the slum are far more sustainable, economical, and recyclable then any new material can ever be. Because the sustainability of building materials of a slum unit comes from the flexibility of mixing and matching materials that are cheaply and readily available in the city at that time and which suits their purpose.

Its economy comes from its ability to not depend on anyone particular production system and to source out materials as they are needed.  It is difficult for any single material which needs a centralized production system to achieve this flexibility and will be only possible if supported with additional subsidies. A particular material is suitable for a particular context. Sustainability of the material has not only to be in the product but also in the process of using the material. The mass producers of ‘housing kits’ also forget that a house is not just a physical space with utilities but also an expression of one’s personality, culture and beliefs.

In my view, by proposing similar mass produced houses, one is forgetting that the poor also have aspirations and desires. A box of corrugated steel may not necessarily be the image of a house a poor family has dreamed of. Any low income housing solution has to work with problems of scale, sustainability, finance, among others. But too many forget the aspirations and dreams of their inhabitants.

Ashwaiyyats in Cairo

Rooftop slums in Hong Kong

Houses on Stilts in Manila

Gecekondu(building on the right) in Turkey

Favelas in South America

Dharavi in Mumbai, India



Hong Kong slums:
Manilla slums:
Slums in Cairo:
Image of the slum in Turkey was taken from David Smith’s blog.