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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 2 - 1999 - Construction and Architecture (HABITAT, 1999, 60 p.)
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View the documentLet People Build! Sustainable Approaches to Shelter

Let People Build! Sustainable Approaches to Shelter

by Viktor Wahlroos

During the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (IYSH-1987) and the following years outlining the Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000, numerous efforts were made all over the world to formulate viable national shelter strategies. In spite of all these efforts, an estimated 1.5 billion people - probably up to 300 million households - will still lack adequate shelter at the beginning of the millenium.

Given the chance, people are willing and able to build shelter for themselves.

© Mark Edwards Picture Library

Many governments, particularly in developing countries, still continue searching for the “magic formula” in providing housing. Various designs have been and are being developed, then costed, then pruned and simplified to make the shelters more affordable. But the end-result is most often a semi-permanent, bare minimum house, which looks cheap but is still unaffordable for the lowest income groups. Housing estates built on this model end up looking exactly what they are: ghettos of low-income families rather than innovative housing areas or new solutions to adequate shelter, which they were intended to be. In addition, the new occupants have to struggle to repay their housing loans and often fail, thereby losing their newly acquired home.

Learning from the Past

All cultures have over time developed their own adequate and affordable housing solutions. Accepting those as a starting point would take the governments a long way towards facilitation of shelter for all. Most often these solutions have utilized local indigenous building materials to the maximum and require little, if any, housing finance. Land used to be abundantly available, the people themselves mastered the traditional construction methods and were also able to maintain their shelters. Settlements developed on sites where water supply was guaranteed and where involvement in various productive activities provided for the settlers' basic needs.

Looking back at the more recent efforts a number of lessons can be learned. Much is known and conclusions can be drawn. No more research is required. The lessons are very clear.

The basic requirement is political will. In the absence of such will and support at both the central government level and at the municipal level, even the most advanced, radical or liberal strategies will fail. Also, changes in power more often than not turn the clock back to the beginning, since those in power are notorious for wanting to see their own ideas implemented, however advanced the solutions their predecessors may have managed to produce. Rational solutions are forgotten when political slogans and welfare promises take over. Over and over again, the basic facts are ignored and the decision-makers return to the dream-world of the impossible. No government ever has succeeded in providing housing for its people. On the contrary, there are many known abandoned housing areas and projects, which were perhaps made in good faith, but failed to find occupants for one reason or another. The governments know why if they are willing to learn the lesson.

The other requirements are the availability of suitable land, building materials, labour and housing finance. This is the simple and rational part. Given all these, it is technically possible to produce shelter. But for whom? The answer is again very simple: for those who can afford them. Unfortunately, the poorest quarter of the world's population cannot.

However, there are other important considerations, although not directly linked to shelter construction. If jobs or income generating opportunities will not be available within a reasonable distance and/or reachable with an affordable means of transport, people will not settle - simply because they were unable to settle. Land must be made available in strategic locations, not only to bring the people near to their place of work, but also to satisfy the labour needs for industries, trade, services, communications, recreation etc.

But can the lowest-income groups afford shelter in such locations? Land prices often form the prohibitive part of shelter costs. In densely inhabited countries, and particularly in urban centers, it appears as if no housing for the lower income brackets is possible. As a result, squatting becomes rampant and slums develop as the only option for the least affluent. Often squatters occupy prime land of high value, but cannot be evicted because of political considerations. But are these indeed the only options?

It is not necessarily money that produces housing units. Innovative housing finance approaches have been tried in many countries. While the purpose has been good and the schemes have in some isolated cases been satisfactory, cost recovery has often failed. The reasons can be understood: a poor family cannot repay a loan without steady income. Food, clothing and children's education are more often priorities and the portion of the family income left over may not suffice for loan repayment. Aspiring politicians have also ruined many good cost recovery schemes by advising people not to pay. But is cost recovery really the key? Do we need housing finance to house the poorest?

Sustainable approaches

Since the main problem is housing the poorest, the suggested approaches below apply to the lowest-income brackets in the developing world, one quarter of the world's population. The methods and details vary from country to country, but the basic approaches remain the same.

(a) Developing political will

This is perhaps the most difficult task. But if and when it succeeds, it can create miracles. The decision-makers have to be convinced that if they allow the people to shelter themselves, the result cannot be worse than the current situation of proliferating “illegal” housing in squatter settlements or slums. On the contrary, security of tenure encourages investment in shelter. Social pressures within communities encourage beautification and more permanent structures. The fact that the housing areas are planned ensures that appropriate infrastructure will also be in place sooner or later. Moreover, then the leasers and owners of plots would be under municipal control as rate payers rather than as squatters, thereby contributing to the well-being of their own neighborhood and city. The new political will can be passed to the local level through training towards partnerships and cooperation in shelter construction. Community participation schemes all over the world have proved that this approach works and can be sustainable. The main thrust should be: Let people build! Mobilize! Allow rather than restrict! Learn to understand the people! Forget about housing finance! Invest in land and plan accordingly.

(b) Mobilization

People know how to build. Given the chance, people are willing and able to shelter themselves. Giving them the chance means planning their land and relaxing regulatory frameworks. Flexibility is the key issue. Allowing temporary structures to be built for a specified time (which again must be flexible) will enable the families to settle and involve themselves in income generating activities. History has proven that, given the opportunity, people can produce the finest art of building. Don't underestimate the building skills of the “unskilled”.

(c) Building regulations

This is where much can be done. Low-income families cannot afford imported standards for their self-built shelter. Regulations can be flexible, imposing restrictions over time, be advisory rather than compulsory. In the end, everyone will gain. Traditional construction techniques will have a grace period to develop and to contribute to modern society building. The change for the better will be at par with economic development and will allow progress at an individual pace, and no conflict with the authorities. Small plot sizes are essential to be able to provide affordable infrastructure for the lowest-income families. Building must be allowed next to the boundary to improve use of the plots and to economize on the plot sizes. Building of more than one floor can be encouraged.

(d) Building Materials

The cheapest materials are those found on the building site or in its vicinity. Those are also often the only materials the poorest can afford. Why should they not be allowed to use them? Can they not be upgraded over time? What bad elements do they represent in a built environment? Are they not sustainable? Let people build what they want to build! Social pressure and security of tenure will encourage all to invest in more permanent and better looking shelter, particularly over time. If we can build from soil in USA, the Netherlands, Egypt, Iraq or Finland, why not in the developing countries and by the lowest income groups?

(e) Housing finance

Forget about housing finance! The lowest income groups are unable or unwilling to pay back. Even if they could, it would take time. It is a nuisance for them, a burden, reminiscent of economic slavery. The people need a break, a new start, a base from where to operate, a shelter from where to engage themselves in productive activities. However, a house needs building materials, which the poor cannot afford to buy. Such essential materials could be provided under a municipal partnership arrangement and recovered, for example, by collecting rent from one room of the house from a tenant, until the debt has been repaid. The owner simply agrees to a trade-off as a bargain for the materials. (You may still call this housing finance, but not in the conventional sense.)

(f) Land

It is here that far-sighted investment is required. Land is often a very sensitive and political issue. This is so particularly in major urban centers and national capitals. The ideal solution would be to ensure adequate public ownership and distribution of land. The problem is unwillingness to make unpopular decisions such as confiscating land. In many cases, the local government simply doesn't have the money to purchase land in sufficient quantities. However, decentralization of industries and services would release pressures on land in the city areas. Cheaper land could be obtained in the new locations and made available to shelter all wage-earners through their own efforts. Therefore, the authorities should plan and decentralize production and services in time, resulting in lower prices of land and easier inclusion of appropriate locations for self-built shelter.

(g) Training

Training must support other sustainable approaches; to make it all happen. For this three major areas of training are foreseen: (i) advocacy in enabling strategies and in policy change; (ii) planning of low-income settlements; and (iii) controlling “letting build” in a benevolent and just way.

The Role of UNCHS (Habitat)

The main themes of the Habitat Agenda are “sustainable urban development” and “shelter for all”. Therefore, UNCHS (Habitat) must actively support efforts to facilitate shelter for all in a sustainable way. UNCHS (Habitat) must take the lead in ensuring that this is achieved.

UNCHS (Habitat) cannot and should not build houses. But what it can do and must do is to provide technical and strategic advice to governments that are in need of, and that request such services. The assistance should concentrate on recording the situation, identifying the constraints, mapping the possibilities and potentials and on suggesting key actions required to make things happen. Identification of needs for technical assistance should be looked at, if any. However, it is the political will that can move mountains and I believe that very little further assistance would be required once the appropriate new approaches have been adopted and adapted by a central government and “sold” to local authorities.

Sheltering the poorest must be the focus, since all other income groups usually find their own affordable and adequate solutions. The secret lies in the mobilization of the very people in need of shelter.

The two adjectives “adequate” and “affordable” remain the key issues. Both are requirements that must be fulfilled in order to implement the Habitat Agenda. Both change from country to country. But both - if taken seriously - will also contribute to sustainability in general and will be applicable in all cities, in intermediate towns and in rural settlements of all sizes.

Viktor Wahlroos is a Senior Human Settlements Expert associated with UNCHS (Habitat). He is currently involved in Habitat's disaster mitigation, reconstruction and resettlement operations.