Regulating the private rental market in UK and India #housing
The private rental market is a critical one, from the perspective of citizens being able to access affordable homes. Despite ownership housing being the de facto option that policymakers the world over promote, an increasingly mobile human population and rising property prices have meant that rental housing is popular.
Of course, the issues in India and the UK are very different, but seeing as both nations are taking a re-look at rental housing policy, I thought it might be a good idea to compare, and learn.
In the UK, people can seek rental housing through Housing Associations which are private and not-for-profit bodies that manage a variety of housing stock. They are subject to government regulation. As Housing Councils (focused more on social housing) and Housing Associations were unable to meet demand, the private rental sector stepped in to provide rental homes. Now it represents about 10% of the total housing stock. This sector is also mildly regulated, in the sense that there is regulation that helps landlords recover rent from defaulting tenants, etc.
Today, rising homelessness (stats) and a slow economy are fueling a housing crisis of considerable proportions (1 million homes deficit, 2 million on social housing waiting lists) and a special committee of MPs has made recommendations to boost the private rental housing sector, focusing on simple tenancy agreements, transparency in leasing agent fees, etc.
Critics feel that the recommendations are lukewarm, stopping short of regulated rent increases that would truly help those in need of affordable housing (see here).
Here in India, we have another sort of problem. Over 60% of our affordable urban housing stock is in informal settlements, many of them illegal, many of them officially denoted as slums. Social housing for rent is also found in these areas, which aren’t really regulated in any fashion by building bye laws, leave alone rental laws. On the other land, our middle and high income rental sector has been through its ups and downs. Rent control and other laws have left landlords insecure and many prefer to leave their additional homes empty rather than rent it out, fearing they will be unable to evict tenants. Out of the 18 million new houses built between 2007-2012, owners of over 11 million units in India prefer not to let out the properties. A telling figure! The new rental laws under discussion hope to create watertight regulation so that developers are encouraged to build housing for rental purposes. Like the proposed changes in UK, the committee will address the role of rental management services. It even goes on to try and include provisions to encourage small size dormitory type housing for the poor.
However, I fear the new proposed laws are not looking at the current models by which private rentals in informal settlements work. Unless the proposed laws encourage, rather than ignore or discourage, informal private rentals, the urban poor are still going to be short of rental housing. And that is where the bulk of the housing demand is anyway. Besides private rentals, government agencies can also be mobilized to utilize under-used properties across the city to provide low-cost rentals and this also needs to be addressed as there is currently an unfortunate “free housing” mindset for dormitories as well!
Four factors denote a healthy rental market- longer term tenancies, protections from eviction, higher quality property and regulated rent increases. We need to ask, and so does the UK panel of MPs, whether our proposed laws or solutions achieve this. In addition to whatever Jerry Rao’s committee comes up with, we need in India an additional group working to ensure the above 4 conditions in the informal rentals market as well. Quality of housing especially is a tough one and directly determines the quality of life of tenants. In situations like slums, urban villages and unauthorized colonies, where tenants and landlords live side by side and share amenities, it isn’t just rental laws that will do the trick. In fact, local governments need to be pushed to provide, unconditionally, basic services to all housing. Further, tenure must be improved to allow landlords to access finance and build more and better quality rental units. Plus, technical assistance needs to be provided to ensure quality, in addition to regulations about light, ventilation, structural safety etc that would need to be followed if landlords expect incentives from the government going forward (it is a tricky situation considering most informal settlements evade tax though!).
Essentially, the problems of rental housing are linked to the larger issues in the housing sector. It is myopic to think that only addressing the low hanging fruit will solve the problem. While many middle income families might find it easier to rent, the current policy moves will not solve the issue for the urban poor, many of whom are migrants who need shorter term accommodation. We definitely need to look deeper and broader at who are tenants in the city and what are their housing choices before we create a policy that will truly boost affordable rental housing.
Savar, Thane, Delhi- Continuing building collapses and our moral imperative
Each time a building collapses, our team at micro Home Solutions is severely pained. In the early years, each collapse meant long discussions about the possible causes and solutions. Now we know that the reasons are obvious–poor construction quality, no structural precautions, low lying areas prone to flooding, overloading, etc.
As I read last night about the latest 4-story building that has collapsed in north-east Delhi that has killed one and injured 14 people, I remembered this excellent post by Architect Marco Ferrario, co-founder of mHS on the company blog that reminds us (professionals, government, citizens) of the moral imperatives of building unsafe structures and putting lives at risk. Am reproducing it here and the original can be found here.
I must put in a word here for how impressed I have been with Marco’s sense of empathy and dedication to the cause of building safety. Far away from his home in Italy, he has spent several years in India, documenting and finding solutions for self-built settlements that represent perhaps the most pressing challenge and opportunity for Indian urbanization. Thank you, Marco, for teaching me so much 🙂
Savar and Thane highlight a moral imperative we cannot ignore
May 1, 2013 by Marco Ferrario
In the last month we have been witness to two building collapses. Or at least two have been widely covered by the media. The first one happened in Thane (Mumbai), with a toll of 74 lives. The second one happened last week in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over 400 people lost their lives, and the death count is still rising.
These events happen quite regularly in rapidly growing South Asian cities, often involving small buildings in low-income, semi-formal and informal neighborhoods.
There is not an official record of such events, but a graph recording their incidence over recent years would inevitably show an upward trend, with an increasingly exponential shape.
These collapses are not usually investigated and their causes are explained with generic reasons. In Mumbai the media reported ‘use of substandard materials’ as the cause. In Dhaka they are simply talking about ‘bad construction’.
‘Bad construction’ is not far from the truth. But what the media must realize, and what communities in informal settlements may or may not be aware of, is that this ‘bad construction’ is the rule rather than the exception.
Normally, buildings in the same settlement are built in the same way. It is likely that only marginal variables (level of use and degradation, slight differences in amount or quality of materials) leave buildings around the collapsed garment factory in Savar or the collapsed apartment building in Thane still standing. It is alarming how minimal these differences really are.
Collapses caused by heavy vertical loads, as in these recent cases, are relatively rare. But how will buildings in these types of settlements behave in the case of horizontal loads (i.e. earthquakes)?
In India there are many examples of earthquake-resistant structures, especially in the Himalayas, where timber and stone have been used together effectively. However, India’s current urbanization, with the cost of land rising and only tiny plots available for low-income dwellers, leaves only one option: going vertical. Settlements one storey high 10 years ago are now full of three- and four-storey buildings.
The other critical factors are materials used and construction method. Poorly designed RC (reinforced concrete) frames, with fired clay brick walls, constitute the majority of these buildings. The problem is that RC structures require design input from engineers, who, along with architects, are not working in low-income settlements.
There is a dramatic difference between a well-engineered structure and one that is not. Sometimes adding one column in the whole structure can make the difference. These units are built by masons and builders without technical knowledge. Often the basics of construction are not respected.
Because for different reasons—social and economic being the most relevant—architects and engineers are not serving these neighborhoods, we all need to find an alternative solution to address the problem. Especially given that these self-built settlements house over 60% of people in Indian cities. Cities, in particular informal settlements, are growing at steady peace with higher and higher multi-storey buildings.
One positive note is that large-scale impact could come from simple interventions: dissemination of information on safe building practices, and more mason training for construction teams that work in informal settlements. The government should play a key role in this. Furthermore, a simpler building code and monitoring system should be implemented, since the current system doesn’t even work in formal settlements. All this requires an accountable government willing to take responsibility and invest in safety.
The cost of inaction is almost impossible to estimate.
Building collapses, mapping woes and other stories about planning and construction
I browse through BBC News on my newly acquired iPad mini, and my glee at trying out my new toy abates as I read about the horrendous building collapse in Thane, Mumbai that has killed 45 and injured over 70 people. It’s one of those aspects of the construction industry hardest to reconcile, this widespread prevalence of low quality and illegal building practices that goes unnoticed across India, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Whereas preventive measures have been accepted as necessary by citizens in the field of health (think immunisation, health check ups) to some extent, an investment in quality and safety while constructing a roof over their heads does not seem to command high priority for the masses in India. This has been the experience of many organisations like mHS that work in the field of mass housing. Increased pressure on urban land and rising home prices make it imperative to find policy measures that enforce minimum standards for construction but also find ways to offer cheap and widely accessible technical assistance to all those who build their homes. Plus strict penalties for contractors and builders who indulge in malpractice.
On another note, I was amused to see in this morning’s paper that Google is facing a police enquiry basis a complaint from Survey of India because they consider their Mapathon contest a threat to national security. As planners, community-driven mapping is a powerful tool we use to help prioritise and even design interventions. If calling upon people to map their neighbourhood is illegal, then the profession of planning is illegal too! And if city maps that mark landmarks and buildings of national importance like the Parliament House are illegal, then the same goes for all those involved in tourism, business development, marketing or indeed anyone who needs to use a map to get around! Bizarre, to say the least!
Not a day goes by when I don’t find one or the other news item in the general news that directly pertains to the work I do as an architect-planner working on affordable housing. Yet it takes me several minutes to explain what I do to most people outside of my profession. Ironic!
New ailment: Aiming for less than perfection in a world of instant gratification
It’s always great when you see an editorial in the newspaper that puts your thoughts into words succinctly and accurately. Sidharth Bhatia’s op-ed in todays HT says it all when it calls for media to return to the basics and brass tacks in terms of the standard procedures of verification, cross checking and editorial screening of the content it publishes.
Well, the lack of screening is something that is becoming a rampant problem. And it’s not just media, its each one of us. Because we live in an age of instant access, when uploading information and sharing it takes a few seconds and gets instant feedback and attention, we often ignore our old values. Values that asked us to be sensitive, to verify the truth of something before we shared it, and that demanded a certain check of quality before we deemed something to be ‘final’ and good enough to be made public.
We’ve all stared at our Facebook pages and tried to make sense of something that reads like this: “Wndrng wht to do tdy. BFF out! 😦 :(” and the message coming up on my screen right now says “dost, n.joy the fun of chilli dilli wintrs”…..I am glad to say I don’t have too many people who write like that on my friends list, but we are all guilty of hitting that share button without whetting the content thoroughly from time to time!
So when I sat with Udai this morning to cajole him into finishing the homework that had piled up all week, I was in no mood to tolerate shoddiness! He had done an hour of work diligently, but then he was lapsing into strange sentence constructions, poor spelling and bad handwriting…and it wasn’t the mistakes that bothered, it was the fear that he would think its ok to let things go, ok to not aim for perfection, ok to not better himself. It’s a real fear. I’m working on keeping the faith!
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?
Blogging helped me understand my motivation patterns- Oct 28, 2012
After nine months of being super sincere about blogging daily, in October I seem to have lost the discipline and enthusiasm to to do it every single day. Strangely, I am not even remotely guilty about it. I make no excuses and I think it’s human to experience fatigue and loss of interest in stuff even if you are passionate about it.
No one has chided me but several friends and my mum have noticed when posts go missing. And I do feel that little twinge of regret for ruining a well established routine.
When I think over the past few weeks, I feel like time passed really fast. I felt too exhausted to write some days and I was simply not making sense on others even when I tried. My thoughts are muddled, I am trying to do too many things.
But I have been intensely happy. After many months of questioning and analysing everything in my life, I feel at peace. I know this peace is tenuous, temporary. I am too restless, too critical, too hard on myself to let it linger. But I am determined to enjoy it while it lasts.
That makes me contemplate the link between dissatisfaction and art. I seem to be at my creative best when my mind is in a questioning, curious, doubting, disturbed mode. With clarity, I lose the motivation to express myself. I need to work on that. If I can stretch my energies to push in even after the period of peace and clarity set in, I will be able to deliver quality in my work, my music, my dance, my research and writing.
I know I fall short by just that little bit, in my own estimation. And through the exercise if blogging daily, I have been able to map the patterns of motivation better than before. It’s now no longer an ill defined problem, but more a specific goal that looks far more achievable.
Upset by the death of MG Road, thrilled by a night bus ride in Bangalore- May 29, 2012
After a day full of site visits and meetings, I did not see myself cooling my heels in an obscure hotel in the middle of nowhere, an apt description of Electronic City in Bangalore. I took the opportunity to ride with someone into town and found myself at that familiar intersection between M G Road and Brigade Road. Right next to me was the Cauvery Emporium where as a child I remember buying Mysore Sandal Soap with my grandmother and staring at the bronze statues and silk carpets that my uncle Gopal would sometimes buy (he was passionate about these and they appeared super expensive to us).
I decided, for the sake of nostalgia, to walk down M G Road. It was about eight in the evening and the stretch that used to be the heart of the city with people jostling for space was a deserted, sad place with no pavements to speak of, a clattering ugly overhead Metro line and lots of traffic. Even after several malls came up in the city, this used to be a vibrant space. The metro seems to have sucked whatever life it had out and I was sorely disappointed.
Brigade Road was more like what it used to be, though it also seems to have relinquished it’s status as a prime shopping location. Even so, I enjoyed watching the passers by and marvelled at the wonderful cosmopolitan mix this city now is and the sheer feeling of youth and casual confidence here as compared to say Connaught Place in Delhi.
A good meal later, we (my colleague Nipesh did his own city trawl in the meantime) topped off a the evening with a small adventure we greatly enjoyed- we yapped away while riding in a City bus to Electronic City and then savoured a long walk to our hotel in dark deserted but beautifully tree lined streets escorted by a street dog!
Images below: The overhead metro has ruined the heart of Bangalore, followed by two shots of Brigade road at night.