Self-confidence and motivation levels have a lot to do with how I feel, on any given day. Small things can disturb my usual sense of buoyant well being. This morning, I woke up feeling I’m not doing enough with my life. It was a holiday for the kids and all the little creatures were out in the park, soaking in the sunshine and running around happily. Watching them, I felt strangely disconnected.
It was a return to a phase that I went through a while ago, when I constantly doubted myself and lived in a state of anxiety. I was transitioning from being an entrepreneur and a content writer to I didn’t quite know what. I did know that urbanism is something I wanted to work in and that I thought about urban issues all the time. But to get a foot into the field when I had been outside it for years was quite a challennge.
Today, I have already been working in the low income housing sector for a year and a half and am actively researching urban issues related to poverty and housing, plus teaching a few hours a week. And in general, I feel a huge sense of achievement about all of this.
However, I do sorely regret the absence from the sector and feel it acutely at certain moments. The grounding in research that my masters degree gave me has been blurred inside my head and I find myself groping to find the level of clarity I need in my work. And of course, I’ve missed developments in theory and practice that happened in the interim years between graduating and returning to the field.
Focus has always been a problem. I am given to see the inter-relatedness among things and to narrow my thinking down to a single hypothesis is daunting; worse, I don’t believe narrowed-down hypotheses reflect reality in most cases, but I also know this sort of narrowing needs to be done in the interests of arriving at conclusions!
I’ve spent the day, and indeed the week, worrying about my naivette in trying to find low-income housing solutions in a city like Gurgaon, where land prices are prohibitive, the development pattern driven by private developers and political will is seriously in doubt. This sort of work is bound to push me into a sense of hopelessness, helplessness; but I need to believe that this research will yield something of use. I need to constantly remind myself that it is through constant endeavor to challenge existing notions of practice that new solutions might emerge. And most all, I feel strongly that we need to listen to the people we wish to accommodate, help, include in the development process. I would be happy if my research would offer a clear picture of what migrants experience and aspire to with respect to housing when they come from rural (and often far flung) areas of the country to a confusing, alienating city like Gurgaon. The findings would help us think about how we could help them, as planners, as city administrators, as politicians, as citizens….I do, despite the chaos, believe there is a possibility to weave government, private sector and civil society together to create a more inclusive and sustainable model of growth.
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?
Both my parents have been academicians through their careers, so observing the relationship between teachers and students and simply understanding the position of the teacher has been something I have inadvertently done all my life. My father always told me that I was born to be a teacher and yes, I do love teaching. Sadly, the status of teachers has declined in Indian society and education has become more a transaction than an enriching process. And so, it’s rather late that I have taken up what I perhaps should have done earlier!
My experience with advising students at SPA this semester has taught me a lot about a lot things- the psyche of the present day student, the role that faculty must assume in an information-rich world, the malaise that plagues our educational institutions and how, despite all obstacles, the show must go on! With the final seminar presentation done and done well, I can now write about what I felt through the journey, as a teacher and as an observer.
When I first started interacting with the students, I was struck by how bright and idealistic young people are. This is perhaps a usual first reaction to teaching and we got off to a positive note. A few weeks in, I found myself sympathetic to the student community, who are aware that their institutions gives them limited exposure and seek a more exciting, challenging experience.
I also observed distinct differences in student attitudes, but was glad to see that they still approached faculty with respect and a genuine expectation that they will derive value from our experience. I wrote a post before I actually started teaching about how things appeared the same but how attitudes had subtly changed, referring to the awareness of a new power among students and a sense of confidence (arrogance, intolerance) in their dealings with faculty and adverse situations. That post was critical and based on hearsay, but after having interactions all semester, I believe this empowerment is not a bad thing. I just wish there was a better process of managing and harnessing this sense of empowerment to challenge and encourage students, and address their needs better.
I feel like we need to accept that young people have different attitudes now, instead of forcing them into the mold of what we think students should be like. I also recognized, through these weeks, that backgrounds from which students come vary hugely. It is perhaps not possible to have a one size fits all approach to mentoring these knowledge seekers, whose motivations vary as much as their capacity to imbibe, contextualize and express themselves.
These differences come out starkly in the use of the English language. A bunch of erudite, suave kids confront you with part-intelligent and part-gimmicky questions and observations, some nearly mocking you, others genuinely inquisitive. Another bunch of sharp minds navigate this sea of ideas struggling to structure their thoughts because English is an alien language, because they are self-conscious about their means of expression, because material that they study appears alien to them and it is so much harder work to study it. The majority of the students seem to be somewhere in between. They have a basic grasp on the language and they put in a minimum effort into what they do, but need an extra leg-up to push their boundaries and really benefit from the education they are receiving.
Here is where the teacher comes in. With a glut of information available to them via the Internet, students are desperately seeking exposure to a new world view, to new ways of thinking. They are seeking assurance, but also direction. With my students, I was amazed by their instinctive sense of right and wrong, their strong convictions and passion for what they were researching. But equally surprised by how easily they lose heart and go astray. Perhaps distractions and caveats are an integral part of the journey of seeking knowledge. We were pretty clueless too at various points, and angry when our faculty did not think our angst was genuine!
What really surprised me though, and I wonder now why it did, was the motivation that came from having to share their work on a public forum. After seeing their ups and downs all semester, I was amazed at their confidence and their sharp sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. My students were addressing the rather complex idea of what the role of the architect can be in the low income housing market. They had received a rather negative response (their perception, not mine) from their peers and faculty during the first few weeks of their research. That invigorated them and warned them of prevailing attitudes. Besides putting in data to counter some of the criticism, they also invited a renowned architect-planner Mr SK Das to chair their seminar and Prof PSN Rao from SPA’s housing department as special guest. They surmised, and rightly so, that these experts could help them field questions that were too complex for their understanding. It was a smart move and it paid off. I am not implying they genuinely wanted these inputs. They did and they got excellent comments. External experts also were able to contextualize the content for the audience and offer directions for how students could think about their career and future.
I was also impressed by the natural confidence of students in being able to answer questions, accept gaps in their research, re-frame questions in the light of their work, etc. These were not qualities I had seen when we were working together through the semester and the dynamic of being up there on a public platform was very interesting to see! I also realized that the process was far more important than the end -product, though I do wish they go on to produce a paper that would be relevant to the community.
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.
Diversity, dissent and consensus building- Taking forward ratings for affordable housing- Aug 25, 2012
No matter how complex something is, it is always a satisfying experience when a diverse set of people succeed in bringing their dissent, doubts, agreements and opinions on the table in a friendly and civil manner. I was happy today to be part of a consultation process where honesty and bluntness was received in good taste and criticism truly appreciated. We were at a peaceful quiet location, at a campus called Visthar, in a village somewhere near Bangalore airport. The workshop was about getting feedback from experts on a rating for affordable housing. I have mentioned this before on my blog, this rating that is being developed under the aegis of the Ashoka Housing for All Initiative and bring partnered by Tuv Rheinland, a large certification body.
Affordable housing is a complex subject, rife with conflicting opinions and plenty of skepticism. In fact, the most positive aspect of being part of this rating process is the hope and positivity in the group. Today’s experts had among them people who had made affordable projects happen as well as those who had contributed to various pieces like standards development, design innovation, community mobilising, etc. The positivity is a marked change from previous meetings in which the subtext was always a disbelief that affordable housing could really be catalysed via a rating. I guess the buy in comes in slowly. I don’t know how and when these ratings will be finalised and implemented, but the roadmap looks clearer and quite doable. When people at opposite ends of the spectrum agree to disagree rather than lock heads indefinitely, darkness turns to hope and the impossible begins to look possible!
Affordable housing in clearly a tough nut to crack. Everywhere.
I was interested to read the following lines in The Global Urbanist’s feature titled ‘Is vertical living a solution for London’s strained housing stock?’, which discusses the possibility of densifying areas of London to cater to the growing demand for housing:
Underpinning the density debate is the politics of compromise. Dollar Bay in Canary Wharf, a 31-storey luxury tower providing 111 high specification apartments, was granted planning permission in part because it contributed 51% of the area of the scheme towards affordable housing. The reason it could achieve this, however, was because it was provided off-site, with the majority of its 59 affordable housing units approximately one mile away. Many schemes don’t even identify a site, simply providing funds towards a local authority’s affordable housing budget; King’s Reach Tower contributed approximately 22 million pounds, for example.
To me, working in the Indian context, this is both a hopeful and a hopeless statement. Hopeful because it offers solutions- asking developers of high-end high-rise housing to provide affordable housing stock or contribute to a fund for the same. Hopeless because it smacks of the same sort of social divide (note, the affordable stock is in another location) and ‘politics of compromise’ as here in India. Of course, the management and execution of a fund for affordable housing in India would in itself be a nightmare, with issues like weak will, corruption and scams being the fate of most well-intentioned public schemes.
The other article authored by Dr. Mathew Gebhardt of Portland State University that came to me today via realism.in (a great initiative, doing a super job of creating relevant information) discussed experiences in the United States with mixed financing for affordable housing projects. The piece simply blew my mind. It mirrored so closely what we are trying to do in India that I realized it was critical to study experiences elsewhere very very closely, not just experiences in other so-called developing nations like Brazil, Argentina and Thailand, but also in the developed world, where the struggle to create affordable housing has had a longer history.
The challenges are rarely where you expect them to be. The vast differences in the aspirations and needs of low-income families vi-a-viz middle-income families is true of the US as much as in India. Genhrat writes: There is a tension between the need to design market rate units with high end amenities to meet market demand and lender criteria and affordable units in the most cost effective manner to meet program requirements. As an example, en-suite bathrooms or air conditioning might make sense for market rate units but are unnecessary and unallowable additions for affordable units. We face the exact same type of issues while designing affordable homes here and community inputs are key.
However, even when you have developers who might be willing to come forth and enter this segment, they are challenged by a complex regulatory environment, the access to finance is complicated, incentives are often unavailable because of multiple schemes that rule each other out! We see this in India all the time. Gebhart details the same experiences in the US as well. Complicated programs that make accessing public funds confusing and difficult or mixed finance schemes that are equally or even more risky than competing projects are not likely to attract the number or diversity of developers or lenders that are necessary to address significant affordable housing shortfalls.
Sigh! This is a tough nut indeed… and it is clear we need a lot more experimentation and collaborative thinking. Plus, a comprehensive and intelligent documentation of what has happened and is happening to guide future work.
Affordability is relative, for sure. But when those who profess to be socially inclined build ‘affordable’ projects that are clearly catering to techies and professionals, I wonder who they think they are fooling. It is far easier to accept and understand mistakes in judgement made by a social developer when you clearly see their affordable projects are designed for low-income people. Yes, it is a hard market, but no, playing with nomenclature isn’t really fair. Yet, they say all is fair in low, war and business. And when profits get hit, strategies are known to go haywire and even the vision statement changes.
We saw two projects in Bangalore. The first, by Janaagraha, is an impressive project. One that appeals and invites even as you approach it, one that has tried its best to play fair, but also one with many loose ends (no electricity supply, stilted parking that cannot be accessed really because of crazy slope designs). The quality of construction is commendable and families we interviewed were thrilled to live here.
The second, by VBHC, was swank, used an efficient aluminum formwork technology to achieve efficiency, speed and quality. Safety, excellent finishes and the planning of the site smacked of middle class customers and sure enough, the prices range between 7 and 20 lakhs, with few units at the lower end and many more at the higher end of the price spectrum. Young IT professionals seems to be the target customer here; no auto drivers or factory workers would live here I think.
It was very interesting to see both these projects. The baby steps to what is hopefully set to grow into a more robust, well developed market in the future, to which the ratings we are working on will contribute. Here are a few snapshots from the site visits. Keep in mind- What I click is what I feel, not what I want to show you, the reader!
Imagine for a moment that a migrant entering a city could apply to one of several private housing rental companies, choose as per availability and simply move with minimum baggage into a serviced, privately managed property that fits her budget. Imagine too, that these private rental developments are scattered across every city, serving major commercial districts and built along mass transit corridors. I’d go one step further and imagine that private managers of rental property see advantage in offering these to low-income and middle-income families, so that the economies of scale make these profitable.
While working on the Jalti Jhopdi project these past ten days, we were discussing the problem of migrant housing during a site visit. The discussion was with a colleague who is not an architect or urban planner, but has worked extensively with communities in Gurgaon. In her opinion, the only solution was for the government to facilitate the setting up of managed rental housing to be made available to migrants for a year (they pay Rs 800-900 for terrible, little hovels at this point!). During this year, it could be possible through a network of NGOs and employer organizations, to equip families with identity papers, a basic understanding of how things work, livelihood for the adults, schooling for the children vocational training, etc so that they can carry on with life with some dignity. Her thought stayed in my head even as I wondered at the complete lack of government response to the unique problems migrants (at all income levels) face, especially in emerging urban centers like Gurgaon.
Yesterday, I read about Ikea starting a private, all-rental housing project for 6000 homes in Portland, Oregon and I felt the dots starting to connect. Five-floor high apartment blocks, car-free neighborhood, new urbanist aesthetic, but all in Ikea’s modular non-fussy style is what they seem to have in mind. The project targets middle class families and is pretty much a no-frills offering.
The Indian property market is certainly missing organized rentals as a logical step to home ownership, mostly because of low returns. Of course, there are barriers and risks to private companies attempting large-scale rentals. But it’s worth thinking about, especially in urban areas with high inflow and outflow of people, in new industrial towns and for low-income populations all over! We return to the need for policy initiatives to encourage this sector. Housing across income groups is a serious issue across India. Innovations to encourage quality rentals would take a lot of stress of a young, mobile working population and do wonders to the character of our urban settlements! Such a provision would make employers really happy and perhaps a partnership between large employers and developers is one way to start these off….