House of cards: housing the poor

Temporary cities from Egypt to India show the urgent need to tackle an acute shortage of housing for the poor, the needy and the desperate. We meet the agencies seeking to build solutions to a global crisis

There’s no running water. Children throng in dusty alleys between makeshift cardboard structures that offer little protection from the elements, while toilets and electricity remain unattainable luxuries. This is Manshiet Nasser. Described as Cairo’s largest, densest and poorest slum, it is home to some 1 million people, and a snapshot of life for the 45 per cent of Egypt’s population existing in poverty on the outskirts of society.

From Mumbai to Nairobi, slums are an integral part of city life. Home for those priced out of mainstream living, these settlements are typically illegal, with little access to basic services such as education and healthcare. By 2050, almost a third of the world’s population could be living in such slums, according to UN estimates; a picture that could worsen amid the internationally-deteriorating refugee situation. While governments, NGOs and philanthropists are stepping in to tackle the issue, experts argue more drastic measures are needed to improve housing for the global poor.

Slums are a result of the inaction or indifference of governments to plan for migration of people to [the] innercity,” says Larry English, CEO of UK nonprofit Reall. “Urbanisation has been spiking since the early 1980s and governments haven’t been forward planning.”

Reall, or Real Equity for All, works to improve living conditions for slum dwellers in Africa and Asia. Through investment in local organisations, it assists residents to secure land, build homes, earn an income, access safe water and sanitation and negotiate with governments. With its partners, it has built around 8,000 houses serving 40,000 people in India, and also offers micro-mortgages, collateralised by properties. The model enables the poor to own a home worth three to four times their loan.

“While it’s not cash, it is an asset they can use if they face a crisis,” says English.

Reall is also in talks with the nonprofit New Horizon Association for Social Development to tackle housing needs in Egypt. “We get slum dwellers to work together to fund their own solutions,” says English. “If governments aren’t helping, we need to help ourselves.”

Help is certainly needed. Worldwide, migrants in ever-greater numbers are leaving farmland that is unable to support them and arriving in cities unprepared to receive them. The UN estimates some 3 billion people, close to 40 per cent of the world’s population, will require housing and access to basic infrastructure, water and sanitation by 2030; meaning some 96,150 housing units with serviced land need to be built every day to 2030.

Global economies are far from meeting this goal. Since 2000, close to 55 million new slum dwellers have been added globally, with 80 per cent of people in some cities residing in makeshift cities. As governments struggle to keep pace, charities, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs are increasingly filling the gap.

“Inclusive housing is not a natural and automatic output of a successful economy,” says David Smith, who started the Affordable Housing Institute (AHI) in the US 15 years ago. “You can do everything right in your country – you can have good governance, low taxes, a booming economy, a broadly inclusive society – and yet those very activities and successes create the unaffordability of housing for the bottom quartile.”

In 2011, with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, AHI founded the Aarohi Fund to invest in promising, early-stage affordable housing entities in Global South countries. Aarohi closed its first investment in 2014 by injecting capital into SEWA Grih Rin (SGR), a housing finance firm in India that seeks to secure decent housing for (and with the participation of) poor women and their families.

“The point of the fund is to make catalytic capital investments in early-stage innovators who are really doing something that is important and unproven, but that has a dramatic need, and that we think has a sound business proposition,” says Smith.

“If you provide a poor family with better housing often their health situation changes, education and outputs improve”

Thanks to Aarohi’s investment, SGR attracted six other domestic and international investors. Such initiatives may only chip away at a global problem, but can make a big difference to some of India’s 170 million slum dwellers. Close to 35 per cent of the country’s urban population resides in slums.

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 were a hard lesson in the importance of addressing populations’ housing requirements. “In the last five years there’s been a dramatic increase in awareness in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that affordable housing is not thinly-disguised social welfare,” says Smith. “It is in fact fundamental to the relationship between the ruler and the people and to the wider strength of civil society.”

This role of providing adequate shelter to alleviate poverty is often underestimated, says Greg Foster, EMEA vice president at Habitat for Humanity.

“We know that if you provide a poor family with better housing often their health situation changes, education and outputs improve and you can leverage shelter as a way of accessing credit and business opportunities,” Foster notes.

Habitat helps build or renovate simple houses for those in need, in partnership with local communities across 80 countries where it operates. So far, it has helped more than 1 million families, including 28,000 people in Egypt, 8,000 in Lebanon and about 6,000 in Jordan.

“It’s a significant number for us but it’s really just a drop in the ocean in terms of the housing need in those countries,” says Habitat’s Foster.

The NGO works directly with existing community groups, which receive training and interest-free loans to kick off their housing programmes, underpinned by funding from bilateral government donors and individuals. Foster believes more public-private sector partnerships are needed to make an impact globally. Governments should also address policies that are pro-rich, rather than pro-poor.

Perhaps the biggest challenge exacerbating the housing shortage in the Middle East, however, is the region’s refugee crisis. More than 4 million Syrians have escaped a civil war that has left the country in tatters, most fleeing to neighbouring Arab states. “You have anywhere between 1 to 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, maybe 700,000 in Jordan,” says Foster. “That has a huge impact on the local housing market.”

Habitat is seeking to partner with other international NGOs, as well as local groups. Foster hopes to raise sufficient funds to deal with those shelter needs in the next few months.

For its part, Oslo-based NGO Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is helping thousands of Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon, many living outside refugee camps and unable to afford rent, through its Urban Shelter Programme. One in five refugee households live in substandard housing, which doesn’t offer basic protection from the elements or have adequate toilets and water supply.

“We’ve realised that just giving cash to refugees for rent is not enough because it pushed prices up and is more harmful to the local market,” NRC’s regional spokesman Karl Schembri says.

One tactic used by NRC is to approach landlords with unfinished properties, and offer to complete construction in exchange for the homeowner housing refugees rent-free for one or two years. So far, the programme has helped more than 13,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, and created some 4,000 housing units.

AHI’s Smith says means to address the refugee crisis is through an initiative dubbed Instant City. Instead of perceiving these people as refugees, they can be seen as “accelerated immigrants”.

“The fastest growing city in Jordan [Za’atari camp] didn’t exist five years ago,” Smith says. “When you have movements of desperate people, at that volume, the place that they move to needs to have a strategy to address it, otherwise you unintentionally create the worst result.”

Slums 2.0 : designing the future

Jonathan Hursh is founder of INCLUDED, a nonprofit that works to bring access to a city’s wider services, to migrants in slums. He recently launched Utopia, a design and urban planning firm, focused solely on slums. Utopia aims to reimagine the future of slums and informal housing by working with slum dwellers and the city itself to create a new blueprint: Slums 2.0.

“I’ve seen firsthand over nine years of working with migrant slums just how powerful thoughtful design can be. Good design brings dignity and improves quality of life, often drastically,” says Hursh.

He has secured an agreement from the mayor of Jakarta, Indonesia, to develop the city’s slums strategy and design a large-scale prototype for 25,000 riverside slum households. The model seeks to show these communities as an asset.

Hursh is also in talks with the Philippines’ government and the mayor of Johannesburg, and is also looking to engage several cities in Asia and Africa.

“We are pushing for [city] governments to provide a parallel legal status for migrant slums as places of positive transition, a Third Realm if you will. It’s recognising that slums have a legitimate role to play in their cities as places of positive transition,” he says.