Affordable housing is unavailable, by design

This seems like a problem with obvious solutions. Reserve 25 per cent of the land in the city -- in every ward, not the outskirts alone -- for low-income housing, and another 25 per cent for rental-only communities.
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 22:13 IST

In my last column, I pointed out that virtually all of the land and new housing projects in the city seem to be only for the rich and the middle class, and only for those who wish to own homes rather than rent them. Why is this and what are some of the consequences of building the city in this way?

Those who are excluded in this way don’t stop looking for homes or shelter for themselves. For a very long time now, the shortage of formal housing for the majority of people -- not only those in the bottom of the pyramid, but also many others with limited savings or income -- has been met by unauthorised construction. Without a legal path to sufficient housing options, the illegal alternatives have thrived.

This seems like a problem with obvious solutions. Reserve 25 per cent of the land in the city -- in every ward, not the outskirts alone -- for low-income housing, and another 25 per cent for rental-only communities. This is what cities all over the world do, and such an approach has been integral to the inclusion of all income groups. It’s their city, too.

Why don’t we do the same? The answer is both simple and complicated. Those who benefit from the status quo don’t want this to change, and that is the main reason it doesn’t. Those who can change this are not doing it. And those who want it changed are not in a position to do anything about it.

Some of this is surprising because a very large number of people have been excluded from housing in the city. And it’s quite likely that there are now enough of them that they could be a big influence in elections. What’s odd is that despite the potential electoral value of fair access to housing, there isn’t any leader promising to fill this gap. A few housing schemes are announced from time to time but those focus only on ownership, and would not benefit even 5 per cent of those who need the help.

Housing is not the only sector in which we observe this. One could look at water, for example. About half the buildings in the city get water supply from BWSSB, and that leaves a very large chunk of people who are managing somehow, mostly from illegal tankers, to get water for their needs. Similar to housing, one would think that some political leader could easily promise to provide water to every building, and that there would be lots of votes in that. But we don’t see that.

Partly we know why this is. The people who are supposed to solve these problems are themselves in the business of providing alternatives. They finance and construct layouts, houses and apartments that are not authorised. And they finance and supply the water that is not provided by BWSSB. Expecting that they would somehow turn off the tap on their own gushing business interests is wishful.

Scarcity is now an anchor of the political economy of the city. But if there is a lot of attention on these, then eventually that would become a political issue. So instead, what we see is a kind of orchestration in which the deliberate scarcity of homes pushes up the price of housing to the point where only a few can afford them. But rather than focus on that, we see endless celebration -- in thousands of hoardings and various other kinds of advertisements for luxurious housing. It’s almost as if by hailing luxury, we allow ourselves to look away from the scarcity.

This suits a lot of people, including those who can afford homes and water and other things at prices that the majority cannot. We tell ourselves that there’s not much we can do about this. But it’s our money that is financing this cycle of destruction. It’s important to think about that and look for a way to correct it. The accumulated pressures of excluding ever-larger numbers of people from the things we take for granted cannot be ignored indefinitely.

This is especially stark as the climate crisis becomes worse. We see different parts of the city being highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. And the scale of destruction from such events is also worsening. We keep telling ourselves that we can build more infrastructure to sort this, but that’s unlikely. It’s not the steel and concrete that so many people are excluded from. It’s the city itself.

(Ashwin Mahesh Social technologist and entrepreneur, founder of Mapunity and co-founder, Lithium, wakes up with hope for the city and society, goes to bed with a sigh, repeats cycle X:@ashwinmahesh)

(Published 24 February 2024, 22:13 IST)

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