Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship
The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.
In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.
The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.
Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.
Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected. Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.
- https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
We live in a deeply divided world. Significant shifts in global economics and geopolitics have meant that countries are desperate for economic growth and increasingly intolerant of any events that derail them from achieving their targets. In this milieu, migrants have been caught in the crossfire. No one seems to want them, but what’s more, the unwillingness to include migrants has severe repercussions on how nations are planning, managing and financing their cities.
What is inclusion? Attitudes towards internal migrants shift, very very gradually
At Prepcom3 in Surabaya, Indonesia in the last week of July, I was disappointed to see India join the European nations and the United States to object to the inclusion of the Right to the City framework in the New Urban Agenda, which will be further negotiated by United Nations member states in New York a few days from now. Allegedly (see Indian Express report), while Europe’s concerns stems from the migrant crisis and the US is loath to recognize immigrant rights, India is also worried about the repercussions of taking on the responsibility to provide social justice to all, extending the already thin benefits of State welfare and largess to those who might not be legally recognized citizens.
This is the heart of the problem. In a policy environment in which the word ‘inclusive’ is bandied about rather casually, the meaning of inclusion bears repeated and deep exploration. Gautam Bhan put a spotlight on this issue of citizenship recently with reference to the Delhi Jal Board’s historic decision to provide universal access to water.
Who does India consider illegal and what are the various kinds of non-citizenship that people experience has been a subject of much study. Internal migrants, despite a Constitutional right to mobility anywhere within India, have been described as ‘illegal’, ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in numerous policy documents and court judgements. Even where policy has recognized their economic contribution, migrants have been steadily excluded – or inadequately considered – from provision of basic services (like water, sanitation), housing (negligible supply of affordable housing, no focus on incremental housing), transportation services (low priority to affordable public transport including NMT), health, education, subsidized food (no access to PDS at destination) and even conditions for livelihood (harassment of street vendors, regulations that prevent home-based work).
The good news is that this seems to be changing. We can see now the very humble beginnings of a new mindset that sees migration less as an intrusion and more as an inevitable consequence of economic transition (and climate change). Parliamentarians have been debating migration in a more healthy manner and that has resulted in the creation of a Working Group on Migration particularly to assess linkages with housing, infrastructure and livelihood. I understand the debates within this group comprising several ministries and government department, academics and industry representatives have been encouraging.
Inclusive housing takes heartening steps forward
Besides changes like the Delhi government’s inclusive stand on water, there is much progress in the field of housing as well. At a consultation co-organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) along with Magic Bricks and GIZ this past week, I was pleasantly surprised to see not only more supply of lower income group (LIG) and economically weaker section (EWS) housing by state governments (representatives from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spoke), but also much movement on progressive housing policy.
This morning’s interview of Mr Sriram Kalyanaraman, MD and CEO of National Housing Bank, who also spoke at the event, offers much hope. We see the confluence of the government’s flagship housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) and technology solutions (e-gov, m-gov, intergated MIS) that work to educate housing buyers and link them with accessible bank branches. The uptake of low ticket size home loans is especially encouraging. Kalyanaraman reports that home loans for under Rs 10 lakh comprised a whopping 30 percent of the total in FY 16! I have a personal sense of victory in this regard, having been involved with organizations like mHS City Lab that persevered long and hard with the government and finance sector to push changes that allowed banks to devise means to underwrite loans to informal sector workers. A huge change indeed that will have rippling effects going forward.
MoHUPA’s support of rental housing and attempts to bring in some policy reforms to encourage it are also heartening. Particularly brave are its efforts to understand the informal rental market, for any discussion that talks about the middle ground between the formal and informal pushes us towards a deeper understanding of how human beings survive, negotiate realities and experience the world; the exercise reveals the limits of defining people through their economic functions and shifts the focus on aspects of human dignity, safety and livability. Even more, it shows us that our understanding of their economic realities is also deeply flawed at present. These discussions are critical if we are to move towards long-term inclusive growth.
The contradictions must remain on the table, in plain view
And so, even as we celebrate the early wins, we need to highlight the contradictions in our approach. For example, those in the field know that any discussion on subsidized housing inevitably leads to the question of tenure and title. This consultation was no different. One cannot logically argue with the traditional defense of no-sale and no-lease clauses stipulated for a period of time (5, 10, even 15 years). This defense rests on the logic that people have no right to profit from something the government has subsidized entirely or partially. But if we happen to be in that moment when we are looking at market realities and the reality is that mobility of labour is a defining feature of India’s (rather painful) structural transformation, isn’t it a tad discriminating that we continue to devise schemes that tie the poor down to a specific location, disallowing them full tenure and denying them rights to sell or rent their properties? Is there no way around this? Could rent-to-own schemes be a solution so that the poor pay their way to ownership if they want to? Could private sector rentals that are currently in the informal domain be legitimized and even supported by mutually developing frameworks that ensure minimum quality standards and provide mechanisms to redress grievances?
Any number of questions come to mind, but if the government were to truly engage, solutions are also just as many. Beginnings have been made and now its a question of innovation, experimentation and perseverance.
There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.
Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).
On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.
Our understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.
It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.
Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.
Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.
In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?
Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.
Homelessness is a concern in cities across the world, both in the more developed Global North and in the Global South, where poverty and inequality are of urgent concern. Yet, from my broad readings on the subject, the connection between homelessness and housing appears to be tenuous in the eyes of policymakers. And increasingly, in the modus operandi of NGOs as well.
Let me explain. While it appears rational that the response to the problem of homelessness must be an attempt to increase access and supply to affordable housing, responses to homelessness are nearly entirely focused on addressing its manifestations. Soup kitchens, temporary shelters, education and healthcare interventions, usually spearheaded by NGOs, are some examples.
The gap in housing policy has been bothering me for a while, but I was emboldened to write about it today after reading my friend Carlin’s piece that frames these concerns rather directly. She posits that India’s ability to provide shelter to the homeless will hugely contribute to the success of the much-feted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Her piece focuses on Court-directed pressure on Indian State governments to build homeless shelters. However, my sense as a housing expert is that there needs to be some thinking around other housing options for the urban poor. Unless there are housing mobility choices available for city dwellers, income notwithstanding, a discuss focused on the building and management of night shelters seems to be a piecemeal and unsustainable solution.
There are gaping holes in what we know about how the poor, homeless included, make housing choices. We know even less about what would their ideal choices be. Because of these gaps, good intentions often translate into poor policy.
Governments find it easy to promote supply-side interventions like homeless shelters or even rental housing, something that has appeared more aggressively on the agenda of late. The Government of India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation recently brought out a Draft Urban Rental Housing Policy, which recognizes the homeless as a “vulnerable” group to which social rental housing supply should be directed. In Odisha, the State government is exploring the construction of rented accommodation for informal sector workers, particularly in construction.
More needs to be known about the demand side of the housing market. The choices and preferences of the urban poor must form as much a part of the housing strategies of Indian cities as those of middle- and high-income home renters and buyers (research on the latter is thin as well!). This is one of the essential first steps towards achieving a functional urban housing market.
Gentrification causes homelessness? Simplistically linking problems does not translate to good housing policy
by Mukta Naik
Scholars, bloggers and journalists in the Global North, especially in the UK and the US, have drawn clear links between the process of gentrification and the increase in homelessness since the early 2000s. With the problem of homelessness growing steadily—some 60,000 people in New York sleep in shelters each night as per the Coalition for the Homeless, about 6,500 slept on London’s streets in 2013-24, 70% more than the number in 2010 as per local agencies—quite a bit of passionate soul searching has taken place over its causes. It has seemed logical to pin the blame on the gentrification of erstwhile poor, debilitated areas of the city. Global capital and the greed of investors, sometimes from far overseas, and even the idea of the global city have been named the villains. In short, global capital (the rich) has pushed out local capital (the middle class and the…
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Several questions on housing have been plaguing me. And because my current work engages with housing only tangentially, I find myself background thinking a lot of issues related to housing security, real estate markets and the nature of home ownership. The role of rentals in the housing market is something I’m rather excited about. So today’s question draws from the debate on in the UK about the growing role of buy-to-let home buyers. What’s the scenario in India?
We do know that speculative property purchases are on the rise in India. Notwithstanding the current slowdown, the post-liberalisation era has meant that favorable home loans terms and rising incomes have combined to put real estate into that sweet spot; real estate purchases have become a normal component in the portfolio of salaried urban Indians. Most of these investments are in second (or third) homes. Yet, there is the rise in the rental housing supply is not proportionate and we do know that a large number of houses in cities are lying locked up (ref: 2012 MoHUPA report on housing, which recommended push for rental housing).
Is there a larger role for buy-to-let home buyers in the Indian context?
Unlike the UK, Indians cannot avail of a buy-to-let mortgage, which are suited specifically for properties where rental incomes are more than the monthly installments. However, Indians do take out regular home loans to buy properties specifically for rental purposes. Though archaic rental laws are usually blamed for the slowness of rental markets, it is also true that speculative buying largely includes suburban properties that yield lower rents. The thrust of speculative housing investments has been the lure of higher returns through sale, not through rentals, which are relatively weak. Further, property management for rentals is not yet a well developed aspect of the real estate services industry and the responsibilities of being absentee landlords are daunting indeed.
A week of exciting talks at CPR!
By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR
With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.
Inclusion in public sector housing
On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…
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I was taking an undergraduate class for architecture students this morning on housing and urban poverty in India. The discussion was long and winding. We spoke of how the informal city is created and how city managers are trying to resolve issues of varying magnitudes with scarce resources. I tried to bring in a bit of the realism and build on the interconnection of architecture with the social sciences in the classroom.
And then, one student raised her hand and asked me: “All this that you are telling us, does Mr Modi understand it? They way he says things, it’s like a magic wand needs to be waved and stuff will get done!”
Well, well, well! We’re all waiting and watching here….but a lot of us are beginning to worry about how much deep diving government departments are really doing into issues that matter when they are given 100-day diktats to conceptualise schemes to be unrolled in the near future and their prime motivation is to please the PM? Efficiency and speed are commendable, but I do hope it is not at the cost of quality and inclusiveness, especially of those still trapped in poverty.
A couple of weeks ago, I was attending the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in London. It was a huge conference, with several parallel sessions and I could obviously attend only one at a time. Even so, I was exposed to multiple facets of geography and it was particularly interesting to see various research methods being used in the world of social science.
The use of visual methods for research is a particularly exciting field now and I noticed it was a recurrent theme in several sessions. Film and photography in particular are gaining ground as legitimate means to document how humans experience spaces and situations. Combined with interviews, focus groups and more traditional methods of qualitative research, they promise to take research a step ahead certainly.
I’d like to show you a glimpse of a piece of research presented by independent researcher Silvia Sitton, who is based in Modena, Italy. She set out to study the way Italians in London lived. Without visiting London herself, she did this through a system of self-reporting by participants using photographs of their home, living space and neighbourhood. Silvia supplemented the visual documentation with skype interviews to create profiles of Italian people in London city and understand their experiences. To me, as a researcher interested in migration and housing, her work appealed instantly. She had been able to capture how they felt about their adopted city, how they used space, their daily routines, their challenges and high points as well.
The website she built to house this information (screenshots below; to visit the site, click here here) is in Italian, but its stunningly simple and Silvia told me she would love to replicate this sort of research in other geographical contexts. The value of gathering data without the bias of the researcher is immense here, isn’t it?