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Habitat International 31 (2007) 143–149


www.elsevier.com/locate/habitatint

Editorial

The search for policies to support sustainable housing$


Charles L. Choguill
King Saud University, College of Architecture and Planning, P.O. Box 57448, Riyadh 11574, Saudi Arabia

Abstract

Housing policies have passed through many permutations in the last 50 years, based on differing, even conflicting,
approaches that, if we were totally truthful, have not really solved the housing problems faced by the majority of the
world’s population. For most people, remembering that over half the world’s population subsists on less than $2 per day,
the challenge of housing is a simple one: the need for a healthy shelter at an affordable price. In recent years, the concept of
sustainability has become central not just in housing policy, but in the consideration of human settlements, employment,
infrastructure, transportation and urban services. In fact, the concept of sustainability may be one of the most overused
and misunderstood urban policy component in use today.
This paper attempts to clarify the concept of sustainability, leading to what is hopefully an operational definition that
can be used to measure progress toward this desirable state. The ideas developed are then applied to the field of housing
policies, that is, the guidance that governments can give to housing providers, whether they be commercial, public or self-
builders, placing housing activity within the overall framework of the sustainability of human settlements and national and
international economic activity. In the course of this discussion, certain criteria for sustainability will emerge, including the
need for poverty reduction and slum eradication, as well as the broader goal of environmental preservation and the
importance of developing channels for making viable finance available. Of course, without improvements in employment
opportunity and incomes, whatever is done within the housing policy area is likely to lead to disappointing results.
r 2006 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: Developing countries; Housing policy; Poverty; Slums; Sustainability

Introduction

In 1948, 57 years ago, the United Nations, in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stated that
‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his
family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social servicesy’ (United Nations,
1948, Article 25).
In 1966, nearly 40 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including Article 11(1) which provides recognition of the ‘right of

$
This editorial is a somewhat revised version of a keynote address presented at the International Conference on Sustainable Housing
2006, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, 18–19 September 2006.
E-mail address: habitat@ksu.edu.sa.

0197-3975/$ - see front matter r 2006 Published by Elsevier Ltd.


doi:10.1016/j.habitatint.2006.12.001
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everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and
housing, and to continuous improvement of living conditionsy’ (United Nations, 1966, Article 11).
Despite these high sounding resolutions of such an august international institution, it was still necessary in
September 2000 for the United Nations General Assembly to adopt Goal 7, target 11 of what is known as the
Millennium Development Goals, committing member nations to achieving by 2020 a ‘significant improvement
in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’ (United Nations, 2000). Given that the latest estimate
(UNHSP, 2006: 16, for 2005) of the number of slum dwellers in the world is just under 1 billion, one cannot
help but wonder which 10% of the poorly housed in the world will be the winners in this international lottery
and just how the lucky winners will be chosen. Obviously even with the best intentions of the international
community, 90% are expected to remain in housing that is over-crowded, unsafe, temporary, unhygienic, and
very probably illegal even after 2020 and the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals exercise.
The object of this paper is to face reality from the perspective of the poor in the underdeveloped world.
Most of the efforts devoted by international institutions and governments to solve the world’s housing
problem have failed to produce the kinds of results that they promised. In economic terms, the ratio of benefits
to costs cannot be interpreted as being anything but negative. If these policies do not work, what would work?
The idea of developing sustainable housing policies is explored here. Although it is recognized that sustainable
housing policies in isolation will not overcome the urban problems that we face, it is suggested that without
such policies, there is no hope at all in finding a solution.
Before we get to a consideration of policies, however, we must agree on what is meant by the concept
sustainability.

Defining sustainability in housing

The term sustainability has become the one of the most overused and all-too-frequently misused terms in the
development literature. We talk loosely about sustainable cities, sustainable transport, sustainable employ-
ment, sustainable energy, sustainable housing and a wide variety of other sustainable activities, using the term
whether we have thought of what sustainable means or not. At the UN World Urban Forum in Vancouver in
June and the exhibition accompanying the Forum, I even saw something labeled a ‘sustainable exhibit’,
whatever that meant, considering the conference lasted only 6 days.
Virtually everyone is familiar with the definition of sustainability used by the World Commission on
Environment and Development in their 1987 study (WCED, 1987, p. 8), that sustainable development means
meeting ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own
needs’. Yet the concept is a much more complex topic to apply in practice than this simple definition implies.
Actually operationalizing this definition and applying it to real-world human settlements situations are much
more difficult than one might expect.
The concept sustainable development was initially conceived as a term most relevant to macro economic
development (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 1980). It is only
more recently that it has been applied to a consideration of the quality of development in human settlements
and, by implication, housing (Choguill, 1999, p. 133). Given the world record with respect to urbanization and
the enormous expansion of residential areas, and the fact that it is in these very cities where the greatest
resource use occurs and from where the most waste products, that is, pollution, are generated, it is rather
surprising that it has taken us so long to apply this important concept to urban areas. Perhaps part of the
reason for this apparent delay is the complexity that accompanies this shift. Yet if we can do so, we can
supposedly reap the benefits that go with sustainability. Begin with the concept of the sustainability of human
settlements, and from there we will work our way into housing issues.
If the concept of the sustainability of human settlements is to have any meaning at all, it must be defined to
include staying within the absorptive capacity of local and global waste absorption limits (Foy and Daly, 1992,
p. 298), the achievement of the sustainable use of renewable (Daly, 1992, p. 253) and replenishable (Rees,
1996) resources, the minimization in the use of non-renewable resources (El Sarafy, 1989), and meeting basic
human needs (Hardoy, Miltin, & Satterthwaite, 1992, Ch. 6). It is this final inclusion, concerning meeting basic
human needs, that distinguishes this definition from the more general environmental approaches to
sustainability that, while interesting, give us limited guidance with respect to housing issues. Human beings are
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a part of the system, and have requirements like every other part of the system. If these are not met, then the
human race will disappear—a glaring case of non-sustainability.
In an important paper, Tolba (1987), then head of the United Nations Environment Programme, observed
that sustainable development necessarily included:

(1) ‘help for the very poor because they are left with no option other than to destroy their environment,
(2) the idea of self-reliant development, within natural resource constraints,
(3) the idea of cost-effective development using different economic criteria to the traditional approach; that is
to say development should not degrade environmental quality, nor should it reduce productivity in the
long run,
(4) the great issues of health control, appropriate technologies, food self-reliance, clean water and shelter for
all,
(5) the notion that people-centred initiatives are needed; human beings in other words, are the resources in the
concept.’

In a sense, then, Tolba has given us the criteria by which we can judge the human aspects of urban
development, which can readily be extended to housing. In order to be sustainable, housing initiatives must be
economically viable, socially acceptable, technically feasible and environmentally compatible. Government
housing policy must obviously be directed to achieving these desirable aims.
There is, however, another important element that needs to be cautiously included. As a country develops,
the first step on the path of improvement may be merely subsistence. No nation wishes, however, to be frozen
at this point of the development process, particularly when other nations of the world are already well past
that early, basic stage. Therefore, there must be a dynamic element in the definition (Choguill, 1999, pp.
136–38). We move from survival sustainability to something at a higher and more humanly appealing level,
realizing continually that each time economic progress occurs within a nation or city, the opportunities for
truly sustainable development open to the residents of other nations and cities may be constrained. The extent
of this constraint is determined by the amount of carrying capacity that various nations, particularly the rich
nations, are willing to shift to the poor. In other words, at some stage in the development process, a sharing of
development opportunities may be necessary, rather than having all of them accumulated and jealously
guarded by just a handful of economically developed nations.

The evolution of housing policy

Before it is possible to define a housing policy that is consistent with the definition of sustainability that has
been suggested, it would be beneficial to try to determine just where policy makers are with respect to housing
policy formulation. Perhaps the most convenient way to do this is to make a brief review of housing policy,
particularly with respect to the developing world. The reason for this latter focus is that this is where the most
serious deficiencies in generating adequate housing have occurred in the past and where they seem to exist at
present.
In fact, government officials are relatively limited in the number of policy-supported actions they are able to
take in supporting the housing aspirations by their citizens. First, governments can build residential units and
rent them at full or subsidized rates, or give them to recipients. Second, government can take steps to lower the
price of housing, making it more affordable to residents. Third, governments can improve the workings of the
market to facilitate home ownership among citizens through steps as making mortgages and other home loans
more readily available or through improvements to the access to residential land. If one reviews the housing
policies that have been suggested by international agencies and followed by governments around the world,
these three sets of actions, referred to here as phases, despite the danger of over-generalization, appear to have
occurred almost in chronological order.
During the first phase of housing policy development, more or less beginning after World War II up to
roughly the early 1970s when the World Bank entered the housing field, the emphasis was upon the building of
houses, or the public housing approach. Harris and Giles (2003, p. 174) refer to this as ‘permanent housing for
rent’, using the British variation of the approach, as it followed the model developed by the United Kingdom
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for its own people but which it also encouraged in its colonies when resources were available. The problem was
that resources were rarely available, and when they were, and were spent on housing, the housing was only
provided for civil servants and the military (Choguill, 1992, p. 214). Even if houses could have been built, the
poor were rarely in a position to pay the true rents on such structures, and few governments at that time were
able to extend subsidies to housing for the general public. A contemporary World Bank study (Grimes, 1976)
examined the lowest cost house constructed by governments in six cities (Amedabad, Bogota, Hong Kong,
Madras, Mexico City and Nairobi) and concluded that the median incomes of residents was below that
threshold where one could hope to afford such a ‘cheap’ house in all six cities. Even with significant subsidies,
in most of the cases, affordability was still elusive.
With the realization that providing housing for the poor was not going to solve the housing problem,
international institutions and governments turned a second phase based on to experiments involving self-help.
It was argued that if the poor actually built their own houses, even with appropriate external assistance, the
cost could be reduced sufficiently to allow them to enter the home ownership market. From an institutional
point-of-view, this initiative was championed by the World Bank with its sites and services projects, beginning
in 1972. The sites and services concept was a simple one: governments should provide tracts of urban land
divided into plots and basic support services and then let the poor build their own houses on those plots. Full
cost recovery was basic to the approach and essential in that few governments had the funds to subsidize such
housing.
Sadly the results were predictable. Even with minimal government investments, such projects were still too
expensive for at least 20% of most urban populations and, in some cases, a considerably higher proportion
(Swan et al., 1983; Kearne and Pariss,1982). Efforts to reduce standards, a step that was opposed by many
local governments arguing that in such cases sites and services would be little more than instant slums, led to
no more than minimal improvements on this cost recovery record. Emphasis on up-grading of existing
housing rather than the more comprehensive sites and services, also failed to meet the required cost recovery
objectives.
The third phase began in the mid-1980s when the World Bank realized that this sites and services approach
to housing was unlikely to work on the scale that was required to meet the housing shortages that existed.
Thus, along with other international institutions which seemed to have so much influence on housing policy
during this period, thinking shifted toward the creation of an ‘enabling environment’, within which individual
nations could develop policies to solve national housing problems. Attention was directed toward devising
ways of providing the economic, financial, legal and institutional environment that was needed to support the
housing sector (UNHSP, 2005, p. 25).
By 1993, this shift had resulted in the formal adoption of a new housing sector policy statement (World
Bank, 1993) which emphasized enablement, the sector’s contribution to macroeconomic development, and
pro-poor policies involving targeted subsidies where required. Whereas earlier policies, such as constructing
housing and self help were aimed at directly solving the housing shortages in various countries, the so-called
enablement strategy more realistically was directed at removing bottlenecks from the quest for housing
solutions.
At the present time, then, one could say that of the three possible approaches to solving the housing
problems, each has been emphasized for a period over the last 50 years. Has success been achieved in this
process? According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2006, p. 16), the number of slum
dwellers in the world has increased from 715 million in 1991 to 913 million in 2001 and to 998 million in 2005.
Projections to 2020 suggest that the world will have 1.4 billion slum dwellers. Although slums are technically
defined in a slightly broader manner than inadequate housing, even the United Nations Human Settlements
Programme (2006, p. 26) refers to slums as the ‘shelter dimension of urban poverty’. Certainly if the number of
slum dwellers is increasing year on year, it seems rather clear that best practice housing policy is deficient, and
seriously so.

Housing policies for the future

Any future policy package designed to achieve sustainable housing would necessarily have to be designed to
meet three primary objectives. The first of these is that future policies must provide the basis for household
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improvement. Although improvement itself is a value-laden word, few poor families of the developing would
fail to notice if the effect of such policy action led to an improvement or otherwise in their particularly case.
That is, after all, the acid test of housing policy for the lower income groups. Sites and services failed because it
left the lowest one-fifth of the income distribution behind. If progressive improvement in the Turner (1967)
sense is to have any meaning at all, it is essential that this forgotten fifth of the population participate in
improvement as well.
The second objective of the policies which could result in sustainable housing improvement are concerned
with the empowerment of poor people. At least 50% of the urban population in the developing world has been
economically and politically marginalized. Until they can be brought in from the cold, so to speak, it is
unlikely that they will be able to achieve empowerment and, as a result, this must be one objective of such
policies. Not only must they be heard by urban decision makers but they must also have influence on matters
that affect their destinies and future.
The third objective of such policies must be to psychologically give this lower segment of the urban society a
feeling of self-worth. Some might even consider this to be one of the basic foundations of the state of
development. If these people have pride in what they are able to achieve, it is likely that the other two
objectives concerned with the achievement of improvement and empowerment will also be met.
In order to achieve sustainability in the housing sector, then, certain policies in five areas must be devised
and implemented. These will differ in form from place to place, as the underlying causes of present conditions
themselves vary from place to place. There is no such thing in housing as universal ‘best practice’. Reliance on
best practice is simply a substitute for thinking and analysis.

1. The first of these policy areas is the involvement of the community in all steps concerned with planning,
constructing and maintaining planned improvement. Just because this policy issue was central to the self-
help phase of housing policy during the 1970s and 1980s, this is no reason why it should not be maintained
in the future. Designing good housing is much more than just carrying out post-occupancy surveys. The
advantages of such involvement are more than cost savings; they result in the kind of satisfaction that all
housing project recipients deserve.
There is much that government can do in this area. Government can encourage and nurture the creation of
community organizations. They can then work with them to mutually design and carry out housing
projects. When the private sector is involved, government can act with and on behalf of the people to insure
that quality housing is produced. Once constructed, government can offer technical assistance for
maintenance of housing units and the associated residential infrastructure.
I am sympathetic with those who argue that the people should not be obliged to build their own housing
and infrastructure. Unfortunately, experience has shown that if they are not involved, first such housing
will never materialize, second they cannot afford it, and third, even if it is built, without consultation they
will be dissatisfied with it. The involvement of communities is designed to overcome these potential
constraints.
2. The second policy area concerns insuring that those who build housing, whether they are self-builders or
private sector firms, have access to good quality building materials at a cost they can afford. In far too many
situations, it is inadequate access to building materials that limits the kinds of construction activity that
could contribute significantly to the solution of the housing problem.
There is an environmental problem that needs attention within this policy area. Too often building material
suppliers are the greatest destroyers of the environment in the near periphery of rapidly growing urban
areas. Building stone quarries, brick clay pits, brick kilns and the cutting of timber for construction are
anything but environmental-friendly activities. Thus, government, in addition to overseeing certain pricing
and supply issues related to building materials, must also act on behalf of the public with respect to
environmental preservation, insuring that adversely affected areas are restored once building material
production ceases, as this too is an essential component of sustainability.
3. The third policy area concerns building standards. It should not be necessary to even mention this area, as it
has been discussed as a constraint on residential development of poor areas for well over 30 years, yet it is
still with us today. Everyone has their favorite story about some intervention on standards by local and
central governments that restrained in some way finding a solution to a local housing problem.
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Standards affect costs, and what is necessary in solving the low-income housing problem is to reduce costs
to a minimum. Of course, some standards are necessary. They are required to ensure good health, thus
being concerned with water, sanitation and drainage. In addition, certain standards are required to reduce
the danger of fire, which usually implies a minimum separation distance between housing units. However,
at the lower end of the housing market, it would seem that few other standards are really required. If they
are to be imposed, the effect is to raise costs, thus excluding the poor from having a house.
Governments at all levels should recognize their negative powers when indulging in over-regulation.
Flexibility, subject to health and safety requirements, should be the operational guide for such an activity.
4. The fourth policy area where attention is required is in the realm of housing finance. This is an area that is
considered so important by the international institutions concerned with housing matters that it was the
focus of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme Global Report on Human Settlements 2005.
Despite this concern, there is considerable pessimism as to whether this area can be adequately developed
even over the medium term future if current trends continue. As the United Nations Human Settlements
Programme notes, ‘in the next 20 years, there is little likelihood that in many developing countries
conventional sources of funds will be available for investment on the scale needed to meet the projected
demand for urban infrastructure and housing’ (UNHSP, 2005, p. xxiii).
Finance for housing is almost certainly a central government policy issue, although with strong local
ramifications. What seems to be needed most if finance for housing is not to prove a binding constraint on
progress is imagination. Although conventional mortgages are likely to remain central to any area of
housing finance, it is necessary that loan periods be lengthened, that staged mortgages be developed to
assist the poor who so frequently built their houses incrementally, that wherever possible interest rates on
such loans should be subsidized, and that informal sector income be recognized by lenders as justification
for the granting of a mortgage loan. New areas of micro-finance are required to help those still excluded
from the conventional mortgage process, as will be a continued supply of finance to construct public
housing units for rent for the poorest of the poor. This may take the form of community-based shelter
funds where a blanket loan is made to the entire community for the development of housing and
infrastructure.
What is apparent from even this overly brief discussion of urban finance is that much of what is being
mentioned here was virtually unheard of 30 years ago. The demand for new financial products to support
housing will continue to grow, and require the cooperation of the public and private sectors if the needs of
the poor for housing support are to be meant.
5. The final set of policy issues to be mentioned here concerns the fundamental problem of land. There is very
little doubt that this is the major area in which the government must be involved as any transaction
concerning transfer, trade or sale of land almost certainly involves central authorities. Government must
ensure the availability of adequate land for residential construction at a price that householders can afford,
even if it means that government agencies should free up some of their own surplus land holdings. Secure
tenure must be granted in such cases and, once granted, must be respected by urban authorities. Basically
this means that unambiguous titles are granted to land so that the poor are not sucked into legal disputes
over land that are not of their making.

Finally, it seems necessary that governments seriously consider the possibility of capturing planning gain of
their own investments which can then be devoted to community purposes through the existence of an efficient
tax management system. Obviously, if society builds a road through a residential area, the subsequent rise in
value of land adjacent to that road should in fact belong to society and not to the private person who
coincidentally owns land along its route.

Conclusion: will sustainability solve the problem?

If these five policy areas were developed and implemented, it could be said that housing would go some way
toward achieving the title of sustainable, particularly as defined earlier in this paper. Yet the most important
question that needs addressing is not whether housing policy is sustainable, but whether the housing needs of
the poor have been met. Given that 50 years of housing policy development has not solved this problem and
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since the number of people in inadequate housing in the developing world increases each year, there is little
reason to believe that just because we label something ‘sustainable’ it will be any more successful.
The reason for this pessimistic conclusion is that although we tend to think of housing as a distinct and
identifiable sector, in fact it is little more than one sector of the overall urban development challenge, which, in
turn, is no more than one sector of the comprehensive economic development of a nation. Although we can
treat these various sectors in isolation, they are all interrelated and we are unlikely to achieve success in one
without succeeding in others.
In the case of housing, we have to recognize that the major constraint on meeting housing needs is the low
incomes of the economically weaker sectors of urban society. Low incomes are due to, among others causal
factors, an inadequate number of jobs available, the poor education available for workers and low
productivity due to poor health. Causal reasons for each of these factors could also be identified, and the
factors that in turn determine our new set of factors, etc.
My point is that sustainability in housing cannot be viewed as an end in itself. Sustainability in housing
alone is quite meaningless. Nevertheless, sustainability of housing policy can be viewed as a necessary if not a
sufficient condition for success in the housing area. Without thinking through housing policies and basing
them on sustainability criteria, that is, ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs’, there is no chance at all of success.

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