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Social Housing

Migrants face a unique inability to access government-led social schemes in their cities of work as their identity and domicile documents are often tagged to their native addresses. They may avail such benefits there but rely entirely on renting affordable homes in the cities, obtained through informal markets, often in sub-standard living conditions.

Moin Qazi | New Delhi |

The unprecedented displacement of people across the country following the pandemic has challenged us with a new set of priorities. Covid-19 has shown that population density, lack of access to clean water and sanitation and other urban realities combine with inadequate risk management capacities to create conditions for an outbreak to become an epidemic, a pandemic and, ultimately, a economic and social catastrophe. India has been facing a mounting housing crisis for very long and it has been procrastinating on reforms at its own peril.

If we were blind to these faults before, it is hard not to see them now. Indeed, migrants face a unique inability to access government-led social schemes (like subsidised housing) in their cities of work as their identity and domicile documents are often tagged to their native addresses. They may avail such benefits there but rely entirely on renting affordable homes in the cities, obtained through informal markets, often in sub-standard living conditions.

The high density of settlements, unventilated rooms and lack of basic facilities have worsened the situation for the urban poor. The very system they had helped to erect turned against them. Since these inhabitants were informal, casual workers they could not expect any official help, nor did they have any social protection. The central dilemma of poor housing has been wonderfully captured by Jacob Riis in his inimitable style: “The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements…  The gap between the classes in which it surges, unseen, unsuspected by the thoughtless, is widening day by day.

No tardy enactment of law, no political expedient, can close it. Against all other dangers our system of government may offer defence and shelter; against this not. I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.” India is urbanising fast. Around 38 per cent of India will be urbanised by 2025. This would mean some 540 million people will be living in urban areas by 2025. Experts estimate that 18 million households in India are in need of low-income housing.

This paired with a shrinking supply of land and high construction costs is leading to a growing slum population. Experts estimate that by 2025 more than 42 per cent of India’s population will be urban. Currently, the level of public services offered in slums is seriously deficient. An estimated 58 per cent of slum areas have open or no drainage, 43 per cent transport water from outside communities, 34 per cent have no public toilets, and an average of two power outages occurs each day. One of the most challenging problems of our times is homelessness.

While we continue to record improvements in dealing with poverty, homelessness has been plagued by an unimaginative response from policy doctors. The apathetic approach of successive governments is symptomatic of the disease that ails India’s housing system. A decent habitat for the poorer sections of society will not only contribute towards their well-being and real asset creation, but also catalyse overall social and economic growth. The priority for housing ought to be higher than education and health.

For many people in the developing world, the land on which they live is their only asset. If that property is not publicly recognised as belonging to them, they lose out on social benefits. Providing stable, affordable housing is a major first step to establishing and sustaining a basic standard of living for every household. Several attempts to relocate slum dwellers to the city’s fringes have been botched because the location restricts the access of residents to employment, schools and other amenities.

Slum-dwellers favour upgradation of existing facilities and secure tenancy. Evictions from slums and demolition of settlements have risen as cities expand and are brought under programmes that aim to create centres similar to those in western countries. Government should improve the legal and regulatory environment and increase supply of affordable, legal shelter with tenure security and access to basic services and amenities. It should undertake physical upgradation of informal settlements, sometimes accompanied by the provision of public services, such as access to roads, electricity, water supply and sanitation.

These services create a high level of perceived tenure security without a formal change of legal status and have encouraged local improvements and investment. The Government also needs to use creative approaches for making rental housing a safe option for house owners. Its share in overall housing has been steadily declining. There is clearly a need to replace the current rent control laws with modern tenancy laws, so as to give full freedom to tenants and owners to negotiate the rent and the length of the lease.

Rules with respect to eviction also need to be reformed to restore the balance between the rights of tenants and the owners. However, rent control laws give tenants so much security that landlords worry that they may not regain possession of their property at the end of the lease period. People often leave their properties vacant until they get a tenant they are comfortable with. It is time the Government puts rental housing to use. Its share in overall housing has been steadily declining.

We need a differently structured and more professional market rental sector. A Model Rent Act is needed to promote rental housing. There should be mutual agreement between the landlord and the tenant for a stipulated lease period prior to which the tenant will not be allowed to be evicted and after the expiry of the lease period, the tenant will not be permitted to continue in the rented house.

Spurred on by the pandemic, the government recently introduced Affordable Rental Housing Complexes as a sub-scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban. There are several apprehensions over the government-led formal rental housing project. The rents offered may not be as low as their current housing, their proximity to workplaces, the tenure, procedures and documentation involved in acquiring these formal rentals and the loss of linkages to existing community networks and eligibility conditions may pose challenges.

The dynamism of the informal markets is usually difficult to match in formal provisions. To break this deadlock, India must leverage learning from international markets which have adopted various models to overcome the rental housing problem. Chile, Brazil and the US issue “rental vouchers” to low-income groups, which can be exchanged in lieu of rent in formal, private housing. This enables them to access a range of housing options, assures landlords of steady rental revenue and relieves the pressure on social housing agencies.

Social housing has several important aspects in addition to addressing the important needs at the individual family level. These include: §  A greater sense of safety, pride, dignity and belonging, improved healthcare and sanitation outcomes, and a higher chance of increased school attendance; §  Community participation and engagement for decisions related to building/repairing of homes and the potential building of public services; §  The provision of additional benefits and value-added services to the community, such as insurance, healthcare and education programmes that can collectively raise the quality of living of the community, and §  Economies of scale achieved by the community housing loan pool will decrease costs of borrowing and additional benefits such as insurance.

As we grapple with the disruption and upheaval wrought by Covid-19 and attempt to shape the emergent reality with an eye towards a sustainable world of peace and prosperity for all, we will have to optimise resources and become more unified as a community than ever before. It will certainly require levelling of inequalities that are so stark particularly in the shanties of the poor which stand in the shadows of the magnificent buildings of the affluent.

(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He can be reached at [email protected])