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Affordable Housing

“But what about Singapore?” Lessons from the best public housing program in the world

Abhas Jha's picture
Also available in: Mongolian | Chinese
 
Photo of Singapore by Lois Goh / World Bank

 
As we approach the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur next week, one of the essential challenges in implementing the New Urban Agenda that governments are struggling with is the provision at scale of high quality affordable housing, a key part of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 of building sustainable cities and communities.
 
When I worked on affordable housing in Latin America, one consistent piece of advice we would give our clients was that it is not a good idea for governments to build and provide housing themselves. Instead, in the words of the famous (and sadly late) World Bank economist Steve Mayo, we should enable housing markets to work. Our clients would always respond by saying, “But what about Singapore?” And we would say the Singapore case is too sui generis and non-replicable.

[Learn more about the World Bank's participation in the World Urban Forum]
 
Now, having lived in the beautiful red-dot city state for two and half years, and seeing up close the experience of public housing in Singapore, one is struck by elements of the Singapore housing experience that are striking for its foresight and, yes, its replicability!
 
Singapore’s governing philosophy has famously been described as “think ahead, think again and think across.” Nowhere is this more apparent than how the founding fathers designed the national housing program, and how it has adapted and evolved over the years, responding to changed circumstances and needs.

It is hard to believe today but in 1947 the British Housing Committee reported that 72% of a total population of 938,000 of Singapore was living within the 80 square kilometers that made up the central city area. When Singapore attained self-government in 1959, only 9% of Singaporeans resided in public housing. Today, 80% of Singaporeans live a government built apartment. There are about one million Housing and Development Board (HDB) apartments, largely clustered in 23 self-contained new towns that extend around the city’s coastal core.
 
How has Singapore succeeded where so many other countries have failed dismally? At the risk of over-simplification, there seem to be four essential ingredients to this astonishing success story:

Five lessons on affordable housing provision from Indonesia

Dao Harrison's picture
When first-time homeowner Dewi moved into her new house in the Yogyakarta area a year ago, thanks to a government subsidy program, she thought: everything is perfect.
 
Well, not quite. Located an hour away from the city center, Dewi’s house is far from employment opportunities, shopping, and schooling for her two children. Two years after completion, more than half the housing development remains unoccupied. Because the house is not connected to the local water system, Dewi buys water twice a week. When seasonal floods are underway, the heavy rains impede access to her house.



Providing affordable and adequate housing has become a top policy priority for the government of Indonesia with the launch of Satu Juta Rumah (One Million Homes) program. Previous efforts to address the demand for affordable housing – a function of both new annual demand creation and an unmet housing deficit – had not effectively improved housing outcomes at the scale necessary.
Source:  Ministry of Public Works and Housing, Indonesia

But should homeownership volume be the sole indicator of a successful housing subsidy program? Is it possible to have a program that meets the government’s needs to be fiscally and economically cost effective, while also responding to the private market as well as the needs of residents?
 
Options are being explored. The recently approved National Affordable Housing Program Project (NAHP), for example, aims to innovate the affordable housing market by addressing bottlenecks and actively engaging the private sector in delivering for unserved segments. So far, Indonesia’s efforts provide valuable lessons. The lessons are:

Building more affordable and disaster-resilient housing in Latin America and the Caribbean: a few policy ideas

Julian Palma's picture
Photo by C64-92 via Flicker Creative Commons

Between 2010 and 2017, Chile was struck by 10 major natural hazard events. These disasters affected as many as 340,583 houses and cost $3.6 billion in reconstruction (Ministry of Housing and Urbanism of Chile). Post-disaster assessments point to housing as one of the most affected sectors in the wake of climate-related and other natural hazards—most commonly floods, earthquakes, landslides, and fires. In a 22-year period between 1990 and 2011, minimum losses in the housing sector for 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) amounted to $53 billion.

In the LAC region, one quarter of the population lives in slums, characterized by the prevalence of substandard housing quality as well as incremental and self-construction of homes. Families living in these informal settlements are at greatest risk to natural hazard impacts. Programs providing new housing do not always reach families in the lowest quintiles; and without access to affordable and well-located housing alternatives, households have no other option than to build informally, and in areas most prone to natural disasters.

The challenge of affordable housing for low-income city-dwellers

Zaigham M. Rizvi's picture



Housing is a numbers game: The more people there are in any city or town, the greater the need is for housing. The number of people living on the planet is rising every second, as the
World Population Clock shows, while the amount of habitable land (what housing specialists call “serviced land”) remains limited.

It is critical that additional affordable, decent dwellings be developed, as today’s world population of about 7.38 billion (increasing by more than 80 million per year, at the current population growth rate of about 1.13 percent per annum) approaches about 9 billion by 2030 and a projected 11 billion by 2050.

Urbanization intensifies the need for city-focused housing: By 2030, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban – and, even more daunting, nearly half of that urban population will be living in poverty, in substandard housing or in slums. The challenge of providing affordable housing for low-income city-dwellers is universal, with intensifying urban congestion making it an urgent priority in Asia and Africa.

Retrofitting: A housing policy that saves lives

Luis Triveno's picture
Building earthquake-resistant housing in Peru. Photo: USAID/OFDA, Auriana Koutnik/Flickr
When a hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster strikes a poor country, families too often suffer a double tragedy: the loss of loved ones and their most valuable (and sometimes only) asset, their home. In the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which killed more than 260,000 people, 70% of asset losses were related to housing. Ecuador faces billions of dollars in reconstruction costs from last April’s 7.8 earthquake, which killed 900 and injured almost 28,000. If Peru were hit by an 8.0-degree earthquake, an estimated 80% of potential economic losses would involve housing.
 
And while nature’s fury does not distinguish between urban and rural areas, a large majority of disaster losses are concentrated in cities, where they disproportionately affect the poor. This creates a great challenge for low and middle-income countries.  In Latin America and the Caribbean, 200 million people—1/3 of the population—live in informal settlements, where most dwellings don’t comply with construction codes and home insurance is non-existent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, LAC’s informal districts also account for the majority of disaster-related deaths in the region.
 

Housing is at the center of the sustainable development agenda

Aisa Kirabo Kacyira's picture
UN Habitat - Cover image from Housing at the Centre report

Clearly, a lot of what has gone wrong with cities is related in one way or another to housing. The future of urbanization will therefore depend on how countries and cities position housing as a priority in the public debate around sustainable development.

From slums to gated communities, from overcrowding to sprawl, from homelessness to the vacant houses, there is much evidence that housing is shaping cities worldwide, regretfully, in many cases, by producing fragmentation and inequalities. The resulting models are leading to social, environmental and financial costs far beyond what the majority of cities can afford.

UN-HABITAT: Housing at the Centre of the New Urban AgendaWhile the most common problem is the shortage of adequate and affordable housing and the unprecedented proliferation of slums, other important challenges lay in the poor quality and location of the stock usually far from job and livelihood opportunities, lack of accessibility and services. The housing challenge the world is facing today is likely to persist with six out of every ten people expected to reside in urban areas by 2030. Over 90 per cent of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. It is estimated that the struggle to obtain adequate and affordable housing could affect at least 1.6 billion people globally within a decade.

We cannot overlook this reality. This is why, towards Habitat III, UN-Habitat has increased efforts to re-establish housing as a priority in the debate around sustainable urbanization. We are proposing the 'Housing at the Centre' approach to shift the focus from simply building houses to a holistic framework where housing is orchestrated with national and urban development in a way that benefits all people.

Eight stubborn facts about housing policies

Luis Triveno's picture
A low-income residential neighborhood in Mumbai, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
As John Adams famously warned, “facts are stubborn things” that we cannot wish away. Governments in the developing world are finally facing up to the increasing need for affordable housing: today 1.2 billion people live in substandard housing; by 2030, 3 billion will need new housing. While challenges may vary by country, I believe there are at least eight “stubborn facts” about housing policy that should not be ignored.

Success when we deemed it failure? Revisiting sites and services 20 years later

Sumila Gulyani's picture
Between 1977 and 1997, the World Bank supported “sites and services” projects in 27 cities across India
A freshly-minted architect stood staring at a sea of toilets. Row after row of them, on small “housing plots” meant for low-income families who would build their house incrementally as their incomes and savings grew. The neighborhood was “planned” and provided with services—under a World Bank-supported “sites and services” project—to serve as the anti-thesis of and an antidote to the slums that were, at the time, increasingly becoming the only housing option for low-income families.

It was 1980 and the architect, Barjor Mehta, was deeply disappointed. There were no houses, no people and no chance that they would ever come, given the seemingly god-forsaken location—in an area called Arrumbakkam—so far from the city center in Madras (now Chennai). Having just completed his thesis on housing, he wrote a scathing news article in the Times of India denouncing the sites and services approach. Barjor wasn’t alone in his critique, and by the mid-1990s the World Bank had almost entirely abandoned such projects.

In October 2015, Barjor, now Lead Urban Specialist at the Bank, invited me to revisit Arumbakkam and other neighborhoods developed, between 1977 and 1997, under four Bank-supported sites and services projects: With my colleagues Kate Owens and Andrea Rizvi, I visited 15 of the 28 sites developed in Chennai and Mumbai. We also reviewed archival material, analyzed satellite images, and recently presented our preliminary findings. Now, Barjor and I agree that previous assessments of failure may have been both premature and erroneous. Why?

Of tigers and elephants: The rise of cities in Asia

Judy Baker's picture
Rush hour traffic in Mumbai, India. Photo: Adam Cohn/Flickr
Over the next decade and a half the world will add a staggering 1.1 billion people to its towns and cities. About one half of this urbanization will happen in the regions of East and South Asia.
 
If history is any guide, this growth in urban population will provide tremendous opportunities for increasing prosperity and livability. One can look at the successes of a few Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore to demonstrate how, with the assistance of good policies, urbanization and economic development go hand-in-hand. More generally, no major country has ever reached middle-income status without also experiencing substantial urbanization.
 
Yet cities can grow in different ways that will affect their competitiveness, livability, and sustainability. The more successful cities of Asia have been effective at creating opportunities, increasing productivity, fostering innovation, providing efficient and affordable services for residents, and enhancing public spaces to create vibrant and attractive places to live. But many, many, more cities have neglected fundamental investments in critical infrastructure and basic services, and have mismanaged land, environmental and social policies. This has resulted in traffic congestion, sprawl, slums, pollution, and crime.
 
Among the many complexities of urban development that have contributed to success, two critical factors stand out – investing in strategic urban planning, and in good urban governance.

How Latin America’s housing policies are changing the lives of urban families

Luis Triveno's picture
Photo: Pierre-Yves Babelon/Shutterstock
In an effort to harness the benefits of urbanization and improve the living conditions of the urban poor, Latin American countries have experimented with housing subsidies. Now that the region has several decades of experience under its belt, it is time to look back and ask: Have subsidies worked? What kind of impact have they had on the lives of lower-income residents? Moving forward, how can cities pay for ongoing urban renewal?

To address those questions and share their experiences, officials in charge of designing and implementing national housing policies in eight countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Peru) recently met in Washington DC, along with representatives from the World Bank, Cities Alliance, the Urban Institute, and Wharton's International Housing Finance Program.

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