By Rowan Riley
During October 2016 I attended Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador as a Policy Analyst for the University of Sheffield. The third conference of its kind since 1976 promised to put ‘housing at the centre of the New Urban Agenda’, a policy paper that has since been adopted by UN member states. Within the vast programme I focused my time following events discussing the alternative provision of housing in addition to interviewing experts in the field. For an insight into housing markets and (de)regulation you can visit the policy brief by Frances Thompson.
At Habitat III, Leilani Farha, the UN ‘Special Rapporteur on adequate housing’ promoted government acknowledgement of adequate housing as a Human Right that must be provided. In many countries social housing has been rapidly decreasing and replaced by private markets. Speakers raised concerns that this was resulting in the increasing commodification of the home. If not addressed, the United Nations predicts that by 2030, 3 billion people will live in inadequate housing.
Side events promoted ‘community-led housing’ as part of the solution; a term that unifies all situations where local people and communities are involved in providing their homes. This has been adopted as part of the New Urban Agenda:
/‘We will encourage […] cooperative solutions such as co-housing, community land trust, and other forms of collective tenure, that would address the evolving needs of persons and communities, in order to improve the supply of housing, especially for low-income groups […] This will include support to incremental housing and self-build schemes, with special attention to slums and informal settlements upgrading programmes.’
New Urban Agenda, art. 107, p. 14
This policy brief has identified three key recommendations to increase the scale of community-led housing provision:
- Land: Allocate government owned land for local homes and reduce sales to private companies.
- Finance: Provide access to funding that will allow resident groups to leverage further private investment.
- Federate: Create a single easily-identified community-led housing sector which governments can access to provide support.
Recently, government-private partnerships have been adopted for the mass provision of housing, embedding it within a profit-driven system. This gives a falsely optimistic impression of provision while homelessness continues to increase and “prosperity” is driven by inflation due to the excessive demand on housing. The longer private developers own land; the more people need a home; the higher the price they can sell it for. Is it in the interest of a profit-led business to ever solve the housing crisis?
When governments take responsibility for housing they hope to accrue ideological and political capital. To maximise this through efficiencies of scale, mass housing blocks are built for the selected sections of society – who then become spatially segregated within the city. Furthermore, the inefficiencies of bureaucracy often lead to escalating costs which are politically damaging.
When governments fail, however, it is the citizens who take control. The ‘people-powered’ provision of housing is already happening around the world on a terrific scale.
“Out of a total stock of 170 million houses [in India], 120 million are created by people”
Kirtee Shah, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (Habitat III, 21/10/16)
If properly acknowledged and supported, this self-motivated provision of the human Right to Adequate Housing will not result in ad-hoc and poor quality building. Community-led housing offers mass provision through a government and resident partnership where people act together as a mutual community and impose human values on the product.
This policy brief is for government to provide land, finance and support for communities who organise themselves to build their own homes.
When a person provides their own home, they have to balance an economy of human values such as comfort, durability, sustainability, wellbeing, adaptability and aesthetics. In most cases community-led developments aim to provide truly affordable homes and their small-scale organisation enables them to focus their finances on the home itself rather than adapting and enabling it. Future residents often co-operatively negotiate the stages of acquisition and construction so they form a cohesive community before and lasting beyond the provision of their house.
“In countries where community-led housing is really strong it is often because there is an absence of any other form of social housing. So if you take a lot of Latin American countries, Uruguay being one example: 25% of Uruguayans live in co-operative housing […] the way it has been built into public policy, you can look at that as an example”
David Ireland, Director, Building and Social Housing Foundation (Habitat III, 19/10/16)
This indicates just how effective community-led provision can be if acknowledged and facilitated by government as a means of provision. So what are the policies that would allow this?
“I think there are two; one is land and the other is finance […] wherever you go in the world those are the two obstacles.”
David Ireland, Director, BSHF (Habitat III, 19/10/16)
Many governments own land and property, and are selling this to private companies for quick finance and development. This ‘regeneration’ often consists of luxury flats or high-end shops and creates local inflation and unaffordability for existing residents. This kind of privatisation has a long-term detrimental impact.
Instead it could provide long-term affordable homes for the benefit of local residents through an existing mechanism such as a Community Land Trust (CLT). A government can remove land from speculation and lease or grant it for a notional rate in perpetuity to local people to develop affordable homes.
CLT’s have been proven to work around the world. Caño Martín Peña CLT, Puerto Rico was awarded a Building and Social Housing Foundation, World Habitat Award at Habitat III. Informal residents were in danger of being displaced due to land inflation as a result of the local government dredging the flood prone area. Instead, residents formed a CLT and were granted 200 acres of land, removing it from speculation and providing secure tenure for 2,000 families. They now collaboratively educate and organise upgrading of existing homes alongside the provision of new environmentally friendly units.
Private development has been used to avoid government spending. However, as previously stated, government saving results in the public’s expense. I experienced work on a development in London that changed Use Class Order three times from housing to hotel to office as the developer sought the highest commodity and thus extending the design and planning period to over two years. All the time the land gained value.
Government funding for local groups provides them with financial power to utilise private investment. The private sector still contributes to development without having control over the product or process.
Another World Habitat Award winner is Self-Help Housing (Giroscope and Canopy) in the North of England. Through government grants, Giroscope were able to double the amount of homes renovated through apprenticeship schemes and rented at an affordable rate to disadvantaged people. They now have almost 100 houses.
“The [community-led] sector is quite good at being thrifty. Governments can’t build stuff cheaply. […] Being independent you can leverage in other funding. So through the Empty Homes Programme we got just short of a million off the government and we match funded that with probably £1.3 million of our own borrowing or our own income. So you’re taking something but scaling it up.”
Caroline Gore-Booth, Project Manager, Giroscope, Self-Help Housing (Habitat III, 19/10/16)
This is a way of linking and confederating community-led housing groups. The diversity and spectrum of groups is incredible, however this equally makes it difficult for government to quantify what they can achieve through support. A more united approach is required in which all forms of community-led housing can demonstrate a combined scale of housing provision. This will allow the land and finance, which all these organisations require, to be more easily supplied by government.
An example how this might be possible on a global scale is the ‘Social Production of Habitat Platform’ (SPHP) that urbaMonde are curating. Its aim is to unite groups from around the world through regional ‘Hub Meetings’ and a ‘Digital Social Platform’ that is both a database for publicity and research, and enables online interaction between groups. Through this initiative they hope to bridge the North-South divide, integrate with public support actors, create peer-to-peer financial solidarity and link with the ‘Right to the City’ platform. This year the SPHP plans to use its resources to transfer the success of Swiss housing co-operatives by establishing a ‘solidarity fund’ in Senegal and Nicaragua.
Within the UK, BSHF have recently established an informal Community-led Housing Alliance which has already gained much support. This offers the opportunity to provide a coordinated response to the new £60 million annual Community-led Housing fund announced in the 2017 budget.
The existing trend of government-private sector partnerships is failing to provide affordable, adequate and liveable homes. A government-resident partnership is an alternative with human centred benefits.
The sale of publicly owned land to private companies compromises the ability of governments to use this resource for long-term local benefit. Privately owned land is often left empty for long periods of time whilst owners wait for the land value to increase. A CLT is a way of avoiding speculation and providing long-term affordable homes for local people.
Government spending can be more efficient if invested in smaller organisations. This can be balanced with private sector borrowing to maximise the finance available. However, the fundamental benefit of community-led housing is the human value that no other housing scheme can recreate.
To facilitate the government’s acknowledgement of small groups they can unite as one federal body that is allocated funding and land as part of national and municipal planning.
- Limit the sale of government-owned land to private companies for short-term finance that has a long-term detrimental impact on existing residents.
- Land that is owned privately but not being developed should be acquired through a Compulsory Purchase Order. This will help create land for development especially in cities where the availability of land is restricted.
- Land should be granted or leased for local communities to build affordable homes in perpetuity. This is possible through existing mechanisms such as a Community Land Trust.
- Enable easy access to funding for community-led housing groups, allowing them to match this by leveraging private investment.
- Acknowledge more than purely financial economy as reason to invest in community-led housing.
Community-led housing groups:
- Unite to form a single ‘citizen sector’, a federation of community-led housing providers that can be more easily acknowledged by government to provide the land and finance needed.
- ‘BSHF – Promoting Innovative Housing Policy and Practice’, BSHF <https://www.bshf.org/> [accessed 10 April 2017].
- ‘urbaMonde – Social Production of Habitat Platform’, urbaMonde.org <https://www.urbamonde.org> [accessed 10 April 2017].
- Alastair Parvin and Andy Reeve, ‘Scaling the Citizen Sector – Medium’, 2016 <https://medium.com/@AlastairParvin/scaling-the-citizen-sector-20a20dbb7a4c> [accessed 10 April 2017].
- ‘National Housing Taskforce New Sources of Supply Workstream’ (UK Government, 2016) <https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1B2wsmGP_B_WUR3ZGtPWVV3NTg/view>.
About the author
Rowan Riley is currently in the final year of a Master’s in Architecture at the University of Sheffield. His interests are in alternative models of housing supply and design. He attended Habitat III as a policy analyst for the University of Sheffield under the Global Learning Opportunities in the Social Sciences (GLOSS) scheme. He has worked for two years on housing design at Haworth Tompkins architects in Central London after graduating with a BArch from the University of Liverpool. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org