By: David A. Smith
Section 10. Affordable housing and the essential role of government
Because sustainable urban affordable housing always costs money, it arises only when a benefactor is willing to make that happen. Occasionally the benefactor is the private, for-profit owner; sometimes it can be a philanthropy or charity (such as almshouses), but most commonly the benefactor is government, because only government has the resources at scale, and only government can use eminent domain for economic development or affordable housing development.
Beware the wrecking ball?
The need for government resources, coupled with government’s general inability to be an effective owner/ manager/ doer (an indubitable reality that at some point I should prove via essay), means that the best affordable housing is created through properly structured public-private partnerships (PPPs) or government incentivized financing programs; I’ve explored the nearly infinite variety of these in many posts, including this Top-25 post (June 11, 2009), Development done right in Jamaica? Part 1, the gates of exclusion:
Building hope through housing
Jamaican housing is stratified. Uptown erects gated communities while downtown erects settlements at the gates. Some settlers provide valuable services to the gated, while others, marginalised by lack of skills and, motivated by a “we-are-poor-because-you-are-rich” perception, seek to destroy the gate and the gated.
Both gated and settlers are trapped, ultimate fighters, locked at the wrist in a death duel. The trap is called underdevelopment. Its most visible members are donmanship in the settlements and private security behind the gates, disfigured progeny of corrupt ancestry.
Protesting donmanship in Kingston, Jamaica
If you haven’t heard of donmanship (I hadn’t), here’s a Gleaner extract from 2002:
Donmanship gone a school. There is growing terrorist extortion in schools. Other students are being forced by the student dons to pay taxes for right of passage and presence or the victims dare not turn up at school. Like in the protection rackets on the streets, fear of reprisal shelters the extortion from exposure.
A few weeks ago, a grieving family had to bury their bright, ambitious, peace-keeping daughter who was stabbed to death at school while trying to pacify a fight. Whole armouries of weapons are seized in some institutions and there have been arrests of students for guns and ammunition. The police could profitably open a special statistical category for school-related crimes including an increasing number of murder cases.
A slum in Kingston, Jamaica
Poverty and lack of education tie to crime, via drugs:
There is ganja at Munro – and everywhere else. There is booze (as The Sunday Gleaner has recently documented), and there is every other kind of drug readily available. Not only is there widespread use but students are peddlers on campus.
Though government can be essential it can also be unhelpful, as shown in this Top-25 post (January 2, 2012), Can you say ‘Pruitt-Igoe’ in Chinese? Part 1, what they’re doing wrong:
Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, when initially completed circa 1955
Affordable housing is hard enough to create when the goal is solely that of economically and socially healthy communities – but when production is undertaken to create construction and keep a supply-driven economy humming, the odds of delivering successful communities drop even further. Unfortunately, if one believes the evidence gathered in this Wall Street Journal (December 31, 2011) article, that’s where China’s real estate interests are leading their country, into a comprehensive affordable housing mistake:
A dormitory community 25 miles from downtown Chongqing
One of the biggest public-housing projects in history will help determine whether China can remake its real-estate sector fast enough to prevent its economy from flaming out.
China has already overbuilt the conventional residential sector out of an unholy trinity of central-government cheap money, profit-chasing state-owned developers bent on completions, and local governments that book profits on land upzoning even if the homes sit unsold.
China is in the midst of a crash program to build 36 million subsidized apartments by the end of 2015—enough units to house the entire population of Germany.
Mix in questionable data made less reliable by self-interested self-reporting and you have a formula for a headlong rush into the ribbon-cutting trap – counting completions as successes even though that is the opening of use, not its ending, and even counting starts as successes even before they are built.
If you build it, will they pay?
The goal is twofold:
 To head off social unrest by ensuring decent places to live for low-wage workers, but also
 To cushion an expected fall in high-end construction—the result of policies to tame property speculation—by ramping up construction at the low end: so-called social housing.
Of these goals, the former is honorable and worthy – and difficult. Housing civilizes people, and civilized societies create affordable housing. The second, however, is a recipe for disaster, because when one rushes pell-mell into production for the sake of a widgets count, the result will be bad housing that is an urban millstone for decades.
Maybe you shouldn’t have built that
One of China’s most ambitious social-housing efforts is under way in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing.
China appears to be making many of the classic mistakes that the US, UK and others made decades ago, and from which we are only now extricating ourselves:
Pruitt-Igoe demolition, 1972 or 1974
Fore u can rebuild u got 2 destroy!
Though badly designed and built housing sometimes must go somewhere to die, it’s better to think positively, as in this Top-25 post (November 29, 2010), A sustainable subsidy: Part 2, privatizing development aid:
As referenced in an interesting New York Times blog post by Tina Rosenberg, Africa has too little corporate infrastructure to attract the large-scale indulgence-buyers. Deploying carbon credits productively in Africa requires building a network to get it to poor people, either a geographically dispersed rural grid of a demographically complex urban one.
Giving people an alternative to boiling water in order to purify it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in countries where trees are scarce. Boiling water is harmful for many reasons:
1. Burning coal produces greenhouse gases, and certain ways of burning wood can, too.
2. The indoor pollution created by burning wood or coal is a prime cause of respiratory disease.
3. The constant need for wood is deforesting poor countries.
4. Women who are already spending hours collecting water must spend additional hours collecting firewood as well.
How much of the world cooks
If the carbon-credit indulgence markets are transmogrified into economic development markets, the planet wins. Personally, I care very little about carbon reduction but a very great deal about poverty reduction – and even if ecology is your prime mover, getting people out of poverty faster has to be a better way to reduce emissions than paying for smokestack innovations from countries whose economies are already booming.
From the standpoint of the carbon credit markets, however, the key point is that boiling water will eventually create demand for fossil fuel, as many areas are running out of trees. So for many reasons, finding a usable alternative to boiling is good for people and good for the earth.
Probably true, but within reason, what does it matter? The effect is to privatize development aid into Africa, which is where it needs to do – with sustainable ongoing business models.
The product has a bigger cousin called the LifeStraw Family. You hang it on your wall, pour dirty water in the top, open the tap and clean water comes out the bottom. No power or replacement parts are required.
Interpose it between your cachement and your lips: result, safety
Unlike the personal unit, which is mainly a rural innovation, the LifeStraw Family has urban applicability – it can be used in slums.
Each unit cleans about 18,000 liters of water – enough for a family for three years.
The market cost of the unit averages out at a penny per ten liters of water purified.
Though these innovations are almost exclusively rural, not urban, they illustrate how markets can be harnessed. Install one as part of a low-cost $300 house, fix it in place so that it is hard to steal, and you’re really onto something.
From a napkin to a slum? The original $300 House vision.
[Continued next week in Part 11.]