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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.
Yet housing policies aimed at the poor tend to focus on supporting the construction of new units instead of retrofitting existing homes to make them safer—ignoring the fact that it is mostly buildings, not earthquakes, that kill people. As a result, the deficit in housing quality is still disturbingly high: millions of families remain exposed not just to disaster risk but also to high crime rates, eviction, poor housing conditions, as well as lack of access to basic services, healthcare, schools, and job opportunities.
To address these issues, countries will need to tackle the housing challenge from two different but complementary angles: they have to find ways of upgrading the existing housing stock, where the majority of the poor live, while making sure that new constructions comply with building regulations. After all, if floods or earthquakes do not distinguish between old or new homes, why should policy-makers? It is time for resilience to become part of the definition of “decent, affordable housing.”

Safer buildings are the key to a disaster resilient future

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
A few months ago, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Ecuador claimed hundreds of lives, left almost 28,000 people injured, and caused $1 to 3 billion worth of damage. Most human and economic losses were directly linked to the collapse of buildings: the tremor caused the destruction of an estimated 10,000 structures, many of which were located in unsafe areas or did not meet minimum safety standards.
The tragedy in Ecuador serves as a stark reminder that, in many cases, it is not earthquakes or other disasters that kill people, but failing building structures. Therefore, improving building safety will be key in protecting communities against rising disaster and climate risk.
With over a billion dwelling units expected to be built between now and 2050, focusing on new construction will be particularly important, and will help mitigate the impact of natural disasters for generations to come.
The good news is that we have the knowledge and technology to build safe, resilient structures. But, more often than not, this knowledge is not put into practice due to insufficient or poorly-enforced regulation, as well as a lack of incentives.
In this video, Ede Ijjasz and Thomas Moullier explain why building safety will play a critical role in enhancing disaster resilience, and discuss concrete recommendations on how to get there.
If you want to learn more about this topic, we invite you to discover our latest Sustainable Communities podcast.

Time to think differently: How to help the internally displaced in Georgia

Ewa Sobczynska's picture
In the early 1990s and 2008, secessionist conflicts led to the internal displacement of 6 percent of Georgia’s population, making it one of the countries with highest incidences of internal displacement.
We tend to think that the displaced will be able to go home soon, but in reality, they remain displaced for years. A total of 246,974 men, women and children from the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still unable to return, now living in the capital city of Tbilisi and in smaller urban and rural areas close to their regions of origin.
Mother and baby
Mother and baby in Tbilisi. (Photo: World Bank)

After more than 25 years since the first wave of displacement, Georgia’s internally displaced are a diverse group. Some live in independent private housing, are employed and have managed to provide good education to their children. Others continue to live in collective centers, are spatially and socially isolated from the rest of the population, and have been chronically poor and unemployed since they became displaced.

While meeting the immediate needs of the displaced is important at the outset, such changes over time suggest that we need to think differently about how better to support them in the long term.
One example is the monthly benefit of 45 Lari (approximately 20 USD) provided to all internally displaced citizens by the Georgian government, regardless of their levels of poverty or employment. Some of the country’s poor, who have not been displaced, have begun to question this benefit.
After all, why should someone who is not poor, receive such support?
In 2014, the Government of Georgia asked the World Bank to study this question. Should the benefit for the internally displaced be adjusted, and what are the implications, including social and poverty impacts? Here are some of the main observations from the report, Transitioning from Status to Needs Based Assistance for IDPs: A Poverty and Social Impact Analysis, which our team prepared: 
  • Georgia’s displaced and non-displaced are equally likely to be poor. However, the displaced tend to rely on social transfers, remittances, and informal jobs, and are more likely to be unemployed for long periods of time. Those in rural area have significantly less information, opportunities for employment, or access to good quality education and services.
  • Those who still live in non-renovated, public collective centers experience inadequate living conditions. These households are often socially isolated, separated from friends and family and unable to form ties in uncertain housing conditions. Regardless of income, these households remain extremely vulnerable.
  • The displacement "status," – i.e., formal recognition of having been displaced from a conflict area – has a strong symbolic and political value among the entire Georgian population. To the displaced it signifies hope of returning to their homeland. To others it signals the state’s commitment to reintegrating the two occupied territories. For many – rich or poor – holding this status is a matter of dignity.
Research confirms the diverse economic and social situations of the displaced. It also recognizes the political difficulties of removing such a symbolically important benefit, or targeting it exclusively to the poor.
But given fiscal constraints in Georgia, providing benefits to those that do not necessarily need them is problematic in the long term. In this regard, the report supports the eventual phasing out of the benefit, already initiated by the Georgian government, while taking steps to help those in need, with the following recommendations: 
  • Livelihoods support is essential especially for households at risk of falling into poverty, with activities that are tailored to the diverse needs of this population, their skills and  location. Access to land for those in rural areas with agricultural skills, and access to finance and training for those who are entrepreneurial, are two activities that could work well with these groups.
  • Addressing housing conditions and supporting access to private housing is important. Currently, 80 percent of government assistance for the internally displaced goes for housing. These resources could gradually be reallocated towards livelihood assistance for the poorest. 
  • The poorest households, eligible for social assistance, should be encouraged to apply to the Targeted Social Assistance program – the regular social assistance program for vulnerable Georgians.

It is perhaps most important to ensure that the population, both displaced and not, understands why these reforms are necessary. The time has come for an adjusted approach, so that scarce resources can be used more effectively to benefit those in need, especially the poor and vulnerable.

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.

Singapore: The Pelé of urban design

Abhas Jha's picture

Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/Flickr
Who is the best soccer player of all time? A Google search will offer this name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pelé. Kicking off in 1958 as a 17 year old World Cup winner, Pele bookmarked his brilliant career a dozen years later with another World Cup triumph for Brazil. 
I like to think of Singapore as the Pelé of urban design. The city regularly appears in the top ranks of globally livableconnected and competitive cities. Pelé once famously said, "Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do”. There is no doubt that Singapore’s accomplishments have been made possible by the hard work, perseverance and far-sightedness of its policy makers.
2013 speech by Peter Ho, Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, outlines the careful thought, planning and attention to detail behind Singapore’s urban policy, particularly the decisions, influence and foresight of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew over the decades of development. One astonishing success has been the provision of affordable housing and the care with which each neighborhood has been designed, taking care of the smallest details, in order to ensure social cohesion and a sense of community. These details include provisions for hawker centers and high quality public green spaces.

Back to the future in Mongolia

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

‘Ger’ dwellings of the millennial Mongolian cultureAlthough by definition there are many anniversaries each and every year, 2015 stands out as it includes the 70th anniversary of the fall of Nazi Berlin and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It is also the year in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) had to return in “Back to the Future– II.”

Visiting the plains of northern Mongolia today is the closest thing to travelling in time. The most salient features in this otherwise flat and infinite landscape are the Gers (from the Turkish Yurt), traditional round structures made of wood frames covered with felt and animal skins. Over centuries, these structures have evolved to protect their inhabitants from the harsh winter weather.

Except by their size, today’s Gers are no different from those used by the Great Kublai Khan in the late 1200s. If you happen to have access to Netflix, you can watch the Marco Polo series and witness the portrayal of the 13th century events when the Khan ruled over a vast and powerful empire. According to this series, as well as to serious historical sources, the Gers used by the Great Kublai Khan before settling in present-day Beijing, were extremely luxurious and included gold service for their interminable dinner courses.

Lessons I learned while building shared homes in Port-au-Prince

Lora Vicariot's picture

Delmas 32 is a tangled web of narrow alleys, defined by haphazard housing and makeshift structures. This community has been digging its way out of the 2010 earthquake, slowly but surely, and large piles of sand, rubble, bricks, and rebar pushing to the sky are a constant reminder of the work that remains.

Is Upgrading Informal Housing a Step in the Right Direction?

Parul Agarwala's picture

Within the next 30 years, urban populations in developing countries will double and UN-Habitat estimates that around 3 billion people will need housing and basic infrastructure. Already, 70% of existing housing in developing countries is built informally without appropriate structural standards. Thus, the challenge lies in reconciling informal settlements with existing and future planned environments.

In light of these challenges, the South Asia urban team at the World Bank, as part of its urbanization webinar series, organized a discussion on “Upgrading Housing in Informal Settlements.” This webinar highlighted the challenges of upgrading housing in informal settlements, and shared lessons from around the globe where targeted policy interventions and grassroots movements have mobilized resources to create success stories. Guest speakers and experts around the world joined the discussion on informal settlements.

Urbanization and Affordable Housing

Judy Deng's picture

Many regions and countries face urbanization challenges, South Asia is no exception. Although the region is currently the least urbanized region in the world, its urbanization rate is on par with Africa and East Asia with a projected influx of 315 million into urban areas by 2030. As such, the World Bank flagship program on urbanization strives to link key policymakers and practitioners to promote a more efficient urbanization process in South Asia through the exchange of experiences and ideas. The 3rd workshop in this series gathered over 80 professionals from 7 South Asian countries, the World Bank and the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements in the beautiful city of Thimphu, Bhutan.