How one state in India leads the world in providing adequate, safe and affordable housing for all

COSTFORD building in Kerala, India. Image courtesy of the World Resources Institute.

Andrew Sudmant, Ross Gillard, Abhijit Datey, Lucy Oates and Andy Gouldson.

If a single target among the 169 presented in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals was identified as most important, a strong case could be made for Ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing.

Access to housing underpins nearly every target of the sustainable cities and communities goal, and is fundamental to addressing poverty, health and wellbeing and reduced inequalities.

Clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy and decent work and economic growth are also dependent on good housing. And as housing is the source of three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions it is also fundamental to tackling climate change.

But the scale of the issue makes realising adequate, safe and affordable housing for all one of the most challenging of the sustainable development targets — almost 1 billion people are without housing today, and 1.6 billion people will be homeless by 2025. In terms of the financial costs alone, it is estimated that US $11 trillion is needed to build 1 billion homes between today and 2025, to say nothing of the cost of services and wider infrastructure.

It is somewhat surprising then, that global lessons on providing adequate, safe and affordable housing should come from a country with a low level of economic development and a high population of slum dwellers.

New research by the Coalition for Urban Transitions finds that Kerala, a state in the south of India, has achieved tremendous success in the last decade providing housing and basic services for those in need. Indeed, figures from India’s flagship Basic Services for the Urban Poor program show that the state has achieved the lowest cost and highest occupancy rates per unit built. It has also built the largest number of homes of any state in India relative to the size of their slum population.


Three characteristics for success

Three characteristics of the approach taken in Kerala have contributed to the program’s success:

1. Acknowledgement that different contexts will need different approaches

Large-scale public housing schemes the world-over have been criticised for focusing too narrowly on the quantity of units built rather than where they are sited, whether community members and family are placed nearby, what alternatives, such as site upgrading are considered, and how local populations feel connected and supported by the process. 
 
 Under the India-wide scheme, housing built without consideration of these factors contributed both to higher costs — due to the fact that new units are often more expensive than refurbishing existing units — and to one in ten homes built under the program remaining vacant after construction.

Considering each slum independently, policymakers in Kerala made determining whether relocation, state-led redevelopment or community-led upgrading would be adopted for each site a primary consideration.

2. Innovative architecture and local design

The Centre of Sciences and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD) is one of the most prominent local architects that helped to design and deliver projects in Kerala. Included in homes built by COSTFORD are a number of innovative design elements, including filler slab roofing, a technique that reduces the amount of steel and concrete needed for floors and roofs by using filling material such as clay tiles, curved corners that save bricks and rat-trap bond masonry, a technique for wall building that uses vertical bricks to create hollow spaces for improved insulation.

Equally important, COSTFORD applied long-established but underappreciated local building practices. COSTFORD avoided fashionable but not functional architectural elements, such as large windows, roofs with changing pitches, and painted walls.

Instead COSTFORD designed buildings with exposed brick, minimal use of concrete and reinforcing steel (both of which are expensive), and jali walls — interlaced bricks with small gaps that provide shade and ventilation. These techniques not only reduced costs, but improved liveability and allowed COSTFORD’s buildings to blend with the existing landscape.

3. Engagement with local communities

Making local community members a part of the development and design process helps to ensure the needs of local population are heard and responded to. Kudumbashree, a women’s community-based organisation meaning ‘prosperity of the family’, played a central role in helping to bring together policymakers, architects and local communities during the consultation process.

Key decisions made through a participatory process included:

  • How and to who funds would be distributed (including, in cases, directly to households).
  • What aspects of the design could benefit communities socially and economically — for example by including communal facilities and creating space for local enterprises.
  • Over what timeline construction and redevelopment would take place.

The demand for housing and land in cities is growing fast. The combination of the current housing deficit and soaring demand suggests that around 110 million units will need to be constructed by 2022, 70 percent for low-income populations who are unlikely to be able to afford them without help. Effective programs, however, such as the one being implemented in Kerala, demonstrate that thoughtful implementation approaches can reduce the cost of projects and increase impact on low income populations.

Read the full report

Find out more about cities research at the University of Leeds