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Lessons in affordability

An idea that enables low-income communities to convert their temporary accommodation into safer structures offers lessons for cities
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First Published: Wed, Jan 23 2013. 11 23 PM IST
Concrete houses in Mangolpuri, New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Concrete houses in Mangolpuri, New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Updated: Thu, Jan 24 2013. 12 17 AM IST
New Delhi: Shobha Vedpal, who works as a sweeper with the Delhi Municipal Corporation, shows off her marble-tiled, two-storeyed, seven-room home with an ensuite bathroom, located in a narrow lane in Mangolpuri, north-west Delhi. It’s a transformation from a 70s-era, two-room, ground-floor structure with a tin roof and an outside toilet.
Vedpal, a widow, signed up for a pilot project run by Delhi-based social enterprise Micro Home Solutions (MHS) to accommodate her expanding family, with four grown-up sons, and took a loan of Rs.2.5 lakh from microfinancier Basix to demolish and rebuild her house.
MHS’s trained architects persuaded Vedpal and her mason to invest in more solid construction than they would have otherwise. “We wouldn’t have put in these kinds of tie-beams, or have had such deep foundation or thick pillars,” says Vedpal in Hindi. She is confident the robust construction will serve the family well for several years, allowing for the possibility of even more vertical expansion.
Vedpal is one of the beneficiaries of a project that has adopted a measured approach to coping with expanding informal settlements, or slums: the idea of facilitated, in-situ (or on-site), self-construction. The aim is to enable low-income households to upgrade their informal accommodation themselves, without having to relocate, by providing them with the financial and technical resources to do so.
MHS collaborated with Basix to upgrade a handful of homes in the resettlement colonies of Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri. Twelve homes were upgraded to about two storeys each, financed by an average loan of Rs.2 lakh. Basix provided the loans, while MHS offered fee-based technical and design assistance to enable the participating households to construct safer homes.
Shyamala Devi combined a loan from Basix with her own savings, and invested Rs.15 lakh in re-developing her one-storeyed home into a taller structure. She lives on the ground floor with her husband and three children, two of whom work with the airline SpiceJet. The upper two floors have been rented out. “More floors can be built, the construction is so strong. My children may move out from here, but I will always live here,” she says in Hindi, as she oversees a mason applying decorative elements to her ceiling.
Similar principles of facilitated in-situ self-construction are being followed in a larger project in Shanti Nagar, a 40-year-old slum established on municipal land in Pune’s Yerwada neighbourhood. Located near a government factory, Shanti Nagar houses many factory workers, as well as self-employed people and domestic helps, living in approximately 100–150 sq ft. homes.
Three hundred and seventy-five semi-permanent structures, of the total 1,500 in the slum, are now in the process of being converted to permanent homes, under the government-sponsored Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) scheme, part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) programme to modernize Indian cities.
With the help of a government-approved architect and structural engineer, the tin shacks are being razed to create ground-plus-one homes, with built-in toilets, kitchens and rooms.

Building safer, more hygienic homes

Unlike the Delhi project, the Pune BSUP project is largely government–funded. The central government provides 50% of the project cost, the Maharashtra state government contributes 30% and urban local bodies a further 10%. Scheme beneficiaries kick in the remaining 10%, which usually amounts to Rs.30,000.
Project execution is extensively community-led, with the active participation of Mahila Milan, a grassroots-based non-profit, whose female volunteers are drawn from local communities. In Shanti Nagar, Mahila Milan volunteers have been encouraging the formations of savings groups for over a decade.
Although the projects differ in funding, location, demographics and architectural typology, they illustrate the same principle: of enabling low-income communities to convert their temporary accommodation into safer, permanent structures, without having to relocate. Since the lack of affordable, inclusive housing is a national affliction, these projects offer important lessons for any Indian city.
First, as families expand, and seek housing close to their existing locations and livelihoods, vertical expansion is guaranteed to take place in any informal urban settlement, whether a slum or a resettlement colony. Given this reality, these projects highlight the importance of assisting households to build safer, more hygienic homes.
“At least 60% of Delhi is living in self-constructed homes. The self-construction market is happening, whether we’re there or not. We can try and influence it by bringing in basic quality, hygiene and affordable finance,” says Rakhi Mehra, the Harvard Business School-trained co-founder of MHS.
Second, both projects showcase the central role of non-profits in delivering an effective outcome. “As a recognized local NGO (non-government organization), Mahila Milan engages the municipality and the community to map the area, create criteria for which homes to develop, produce documentation and get community buy-in to deliver the solutions. In-situ work entails going house-to-house for customized specifications, which a regular contractor provided by the corporation is not equipped to do,” explains Sheela Patel, founding director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), a Mumbai-based non-profit that provides professional support to Mahila Milan’s grassroots activities.
“The involvement of NGOs and community-based organizations is absolutely necessary with these kind of projects. The Rajiv Awas Yojana (or RAY, the central government’s low-income housing programme) has this provision, but it’s a struggle to change the government mindset to agree to get community buy-in,” concurs a senior central government official with extensive experience in low-income housing, requesting anonymity.
Third, the model captures the benefits of adopting a personalized, market-led or community-based approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Individual households get the flexibility to determine whether, and to what extent, they should knock down and re-build their homes.

Financial participation

“The BSUP scheme said that we should break all homes and demolish them, but the community decided that some homes were better off and shouldn’t be demolished. It made more sense to give more subsidies to those who were poorer,” explains Patel.
Financial participation by homeowners is paramount, even if it is heavily subsidized, insist both Patel and the Mahila Milan members. “For their own self-respect, slum-dwellers must contribute to the construction, otherwise in the future, their children will ask them ‘What have you done for us? You just got a free house from the municipality,” says Mahila Milan activist Jyoti Bhende.
The Pune municipal corporation allowed Shanti Nagar slum-dwellers to make pro-rata payments, linked to stages of construction, a vital element of the programme’s feasibility, according to SPARC’s Patel.
Mehra takes the logic of financial contribution further, arguing that a market-led approach to self-construction produces significantly better outcomes for all stakeholders. “Government is now looking at self-construction as the largest supply of housing, and we think self-construction is the only model which has the ability to scale up without subsidy, as it is owner-driven and bottom-up, ” she says.
Countries such as South Africa, Brazil and Mexico are currently embracing private sector-led self-construction as “they know they will never be able to provide the required amount of supply themselves”, she says. The facts support her theory: although in-situ slum rehabilitation is a cornerstone of the RAY programme, it has had limited impact in meeting its objectives of a slum-free India by 2014. One of the most visible yet contentious attempts at tackling the issue of inadequate housing is Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation policy, which allows developers to construct apartment blocks on slum-occupied land. Slum-dwellers are given free housing. Developers are given additional real estate for sale in the open market.
The policy is problematic for a number of reasons. “You will never get enough developers to build enough housing so that we can house all slum-dwellers, it is just not possible. The trouble is that a small percentage shows a success story and everyone wants to emulate it, but it will not happen”, says veteran urban planner Shirish Patel, chairman emeritus of engineering consultants Shirish Patel and Associates .
Aniruddha Paul, director of Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture, says that “the problem with the policy is that it is seen as a real estate problem. Slums are seen as real estate problem, to be solved by real estate. Planning is done with vested interests, even with governments. Some, or the other group of people, is always a victim of planning”.
A more practical approach, he argues, would be to involve the slum occupants in the planning, insist on a financial contribution, and allow for the creation of varied architectural types which serve the differing needs of poor communities, not just monolithic buildings.
A market-led approach would lead to different types of housing stock being created, including much-needed, low-income, inner-city rental options, contends Mehra.
“Housing trajectories change over time and people have different livelihoods patterns. It’s very difficult to design for any solution, so what you should be doing is offering a portfolio of choices. It’s difficult to say a person earning Rs.15,000, with five people in his house will want a particular type of home... we don’t know their decisions. So as long as you offer choices and give them resources to make an informed decision, you are moving away from writing a policy programme and giving selection criteria,” she explains.

Self-construction constraints

A plethora of supply-side constraints currently inhibit the self-construction market. Most importantly, a lack of property rights prohibits micro-housing finance companies from providing mortgages. Although Vedpal is an official tenant, Shyama Devi bought her house in 2000 on just a Power of Attorney from the original allotee of the 99-year-old lease, says Mehra.
Maneesh Srivastava, the chief executive officer of Muthoot Housing Finance Co. Ltd, a for-profit enterprise that gives home loans to low-income, informal-sector customers, emphasizes the need for proper titles. “We haven’t focused on in-situ renovation yet, but we are not averse to exploring it in a calibrated manner. We expect challenges in the way that property titles would have flown to these people. But there has to be some proper title for us to create mortgages. If there is an alternate way of securing that title, i.e. an assurance from government, then it could work.”
Mehra agrees, saying, “even if the government doesn’t give residents the right to sell, it should give them a right to mortgage to enable self-construction”.
Urban planning and infrastructure are other major constraints. For a viable, legitimate in-situ self-construction market to emerge, city development plans must establish different construction norms and guidelines for these settlements, and provide enough infrastructure to allow for their vertical expansion.
“If the municipality expects the same setbacks, parking provisions and street widths as other places, then you are forcing these people to become illegal. Because it is complex in terms of changing master plan, the easiest solution seems to be tearing down the entire settlement and building cross-subsidized towers,” says Mehra.
These settlements certainly do not look as orderly or uniform as apartment blocks and may not thus appear well-planned to middle-class citizens. But, as the Mahila Milan volunteers testify, most slum dwellers are generally unprepared to live in a high-rise tower, which entails maintenance fees and management of shared facilities.
And until Indian citizens are prepared to accept varying architectural types as part of the country’s urban landscape, and find feasible solutions towards making them more habitable, the cities risk being overtaken by the perils of informality.
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First Published: Wed, Jan 23 2013. 11 23 PM IST