Improved access to housing will positively impact life in many ways, but how do we resolve the essential issues of costly land and political apathy? Oct 31, 2012
Abhijit Banerjee’s editorial in the Hindustan Times today really touched a chord. It is a controversial thought, that public displays of affection fuel sexual urges and encourage rape. And he certainly does not support regressive ideas that curb our freedom of expression or swathe women in burkhas!
I appreciate the connection he makes between lack of decent housing (adequate space, privacy) and sexual repression (inability to have conjugal relations). This is yet another reason in a long list for why we need to pay serious attention to the issue of housing low-income households. Those of who work in this sector are constantly shocked by how little credence is given to the right to shelter in popular discourse. Even funding agencies rarely fund initiatives in housing, but get worked up about closely related issues like water and sanitation, health and women’s empowerment. Many of these issues would be positively impacted in a substantial way by improved access to quality housing.
While Abhijit creates a very believable picture of what an average man on the street experiences every evening as he prepares to return to his cramped accommodation, the policy suggestions he makes merit some additional comments. I do not agree with his implication that high rises are the panacea for our housing problems, for instance. Low rise, high density has been repeatedly shown to be a more realistic answer, especially for low-income groups who cannot pay maintenance costs for high rise buildings and are not comfortable with high rise living.
I do agree, though, that there is a conspiracy to keep land values high in our cities. Architect-planner SK Das, while chairing the seminar by my students yesterday, also commented on the need for policy and planning solutions to keep land prices low. This certainly is a first step to create a more equitable society. The question is- how do we professionals influence a game that seems firmly in the hands of powerful politicians and builders?
When you work in the field of affordable housing, you focus on cost, quality and accessibility. Of course, among other things, but these come first. In the past few months though, I have been noticing that the sustainability agenda is attempting to envelope the affordable housing space as well. Well, I’m not saying there aren’t connections. Of course, everything that we build must be sustainable as far as is possible. But to load the cost of sustainability on to a low-income consumer, it might be rather unfair.
The ‘green’ agenda, in my view, is clearly a fad. Of course it is vital for our very survival. But many of those professing to champion green buildings only offer lip service to sustainability. The most common example, of course, is glass clad buildings that are LEED certified despite being made of materials that have the highest embodied energy and needing expensive technology to maintain thermal comfort inside the building envelope each day. I am no expert and I am sure there are clever ways of doing this.
But when green types insist that affordable housing is a huge opportunity to go green I see red! Let me explain.
First. The urban poor, and indeed the poor anywhere, already have perhaps the lowest average carbon footprint possible. Except perhaps for adivasi populations still living in the forests. Consumption of resources is low, optimization is high. Reduce, recycle and reuse is already a motto that is essential for survival. Whatever sort of intervention we plan for the urban affordable housing space will mean reorganizing their lives from the informal to the semi-formal to the formal. Automatically, consumption will increase as the systems formalize. What else are we professionals and policy makers who are already from the consuming classes capable of imagining?
Next. There is barely any formal supply of affordable housing in Indian cities. So where and how will the so-called green interventions happen? Who will pay for the additional cost of sustainable design and construction, however minimal? It is all a fuzzy scenario, since there is no clarity about who is coming forward to bridge the demand-supply gap.
Solutions. No brainers and I’m not even claiming these are original!
Green agenda- States and local governments need to adopt policy measures to incentivize green building. All manner of sustainable technologies, from solar power to rainwater harvesting and a variety of green materials like non-polluting insulation must be made easily available and their taxes reduced to urge adoption.
Affordable agenda- Heavy incentives like faster approvals, higher FSI and lower taxes and interest rates for affordable housing projects would be a start. The real issue is land, of course, so the government would have to chip in the free up locked land and rationalize land prices. On the other side, demand aggregation to attract developers to such projects is a dire need, as well as R&D to standardize design elements and enhance efficiency.
Two birds with one stone? I don’t think the market in India is there yet, or will be for a long time. When middle and higher income groups opt for green housing, the poor will follow. After all, housing is all about aspirations. And the poor will always aspire to what you and I already have.
I don’t like the concept of a gated community, yet I live in one. I believe traveling by public transport is the right thing to do as well as immensely enjoyable and cheaper, yet I admit I do drive to work at least half the time. My action towards conserving electricity is to set my air conditioner’s thermostat to 27 degrees C instead of the preset 24 degrees C. I can no longer live comfortably without air conditioning.
Someone asked me today whether they should invest in a posh apartment somewhere in Noida that would be delivered four years later, or buy a flat in a not-so-upmarket but conveniently located South Delhi neighborhood. I began to tell them about lifestyle choices and how, once they are made, they trap you in their iron grip, dictating your daily choices thereafter!
We should know! We moved to Gurgaon as renters initially. We were about to have a baby a few months down the line and where we lived in South Delhi, we couldn’t envision being able to even take the baby for a walk in a pram! The secure, open, green spaces and childrens’ play areas in Gurgaon’s gated colonies made perfect sense at that time and continue to do so now. Neighboring families were kind of clones of ours- similar age group, life stage, backgrounds, lifestyles, even aspirations at times. And so we bought into this lifestyle. We did not, however, bargain for a car trip for daily shopping and a completely automobile dependent urban environment where crossing a road could lead to a mental breakdown!
Inside the above-mentioned not-so-upmarket South Delhi neighborhood, afternoons are drowsy and evenings lively. Neighbors fight over water supply and often have nothing in common, but it’s possible to get all your household supplies within walking distance. Ice cream can run out at ten in the night in the middle of a dinner party and it would just mean running round the corner to replenish your stock!
I’m comparing the above two scenarios because price-wise, a family would have to make this sort of choice. I made mine for specific reasons, but now I live a life at complete odds with my ideological stance. Is that hypocrisy? Yes, it is. Can I or would I change that? No easy answers to that!