by Mukta Naik
Scholars, bloggers and journalists in the Global North, especially in the UK and the US, have drawn clear links between the process of gentrification and the increase in homelessness since the early 2000s. With the problem of homelessness growing steadily—some 60,000 people in New York sleep in shelters each night as per the Coalition for the Homeless, about 6,500 slept on London’s streets in 2013-24, 70% more than the number in 2010 as per local agencies—quite a bit of passionate soul searching has taken place over its causes. It has seemed logical to pin the blame on the gentrification of erstwhile poor, debilitated areas of the city. Global capital and the greed of investors, sometimes from far overseas, and even the idea of the global city have been named the villains. In short, global capital (the rich) has pushed out local capital (the middle class and the poor) and those at the lowest end of the ‘pushed out’ bunch are now on the streets.
This might well be true, but as this blog on Brooklyn’s homeless problem points out, the real failure lies in the inability of the city’s visionaries to understand that there are new and more complex problems at hand. Plugging the demand-supply gap is no magic solution and housing is far more complex than the solutions that emerge from the government’s simplistic slotting of households into broad income slabs.
Poor targeting in government schemes
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which does an impressive dissection of incomes and housing rentals in the city is planning to “create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing for approximately 500,000 New Yorkers over the next ten years” along with soft support to the homeless in the form of eviction protection services, increased investments in shelters and a program to remove bottlenecks in allocating affordable units to those living in the shelters. What is not explicit in the plan, though, is the recognition that new “affordable housing” units will not be affordable to the majority of the homeless. New York is an example. This sort of poor targeting is a common ailment in policy and in housing policy particularly, where supply side thinking usually dominates.
What then is a possible inclusive housing strategy for this growing group of homeless (or other excluded groups) in the city? What is the role of housing in fostering better incomes and upward mobility among the working homeless? How can government look at housing provision creatively to address different types of poverty, different types of family units, different types of housing problems?
Ostrich syndrome: Won’t see the complexities, will stick to simplistic and seductive solutions
The point about the need to understand the real housing issues within the city, find the inter-connections and then target solutions has been made several times to the government in India as well. In the past five years of working with housing and urban development issues at micro Home Solutions and now at Centre for Policy Research, I have been involved in several consultations and meetings between experts and the government, with Union ministries like HUPA, the Government of Delhi as well as government institutions like DUSIB and DDA (Do read CPR project Cities of Delhi reports on these). At these meetings and workshops, evidence from research projects and pilot interventions have been presented to back demands for a more contextual approach to housing policy. Some of the suggestions have included government investigation into the need for rental housing for the working poor (and middle class), the support of incremental housing rather than its demolition, improved shelters for the homeless, more rational norms for measuring housing affordability and innovative mechanisms for the poor to transition from one type of housing to another, among others. While these suggestions are heard, they are rarely understood. Moreover, they pale in comparison to seductive solutions that propose to remove the jhuggis (slums), clean the city and rehabilitate slumdwellers in flats built in high-rise towers (read Cities of Delhi op-ed on rehabilitation/resettlement of slumdwellers and author’s critique of rehabilitation into high-rises) .
At these meetings, the link between gentrification and lack of adequate housing is often discussed. Politicians understand about market dynamics, they’ve seen enough of elite capture. Any subsidised housing the government offers, they know, will change hands and be appropriated by investors and middle- and high-income people; while the poor will build back the slum! At the same time, the Delhi government, for instance, is struggling to find solutions to fill thousands of empty affordable units located in inconvenient (read poorly connected) parts of the city.
Once again, the issue of correct targeting comes to the fore. Communities like the homeless or even renters remain excluded from policy conversations about government-provided housing, while those that are targeted by government housing schemes are unable to benefit from them for reasons of insensitive design and poor location/connectivity .
A new imagination for housing policy
In Delhi at least, there is no pretence that a larger supply of affordable homes will help the homeless. However, it is precisely in cities like Delhi, where the diversity in housing supply is considerable (much of it located in incrementally built quasi-legal areas of the city) and where mobility between housing types is commonly seen, that we have a chance to envision housing differently. In a bustling resettlement colony in northwest Delhi, we approach a rickshaw puller outside a community toilet complex to investigate the functionality of public toilet. He screws up his nose at us in disdain. “I don’t use that filthy toilet,” he says. “I live in a rental home and we have private toilet facilities.” He pays Rs 2500 a month to rent a room and live in dignity, he says, even if it means there is less liquidity for household expenditure and no remittances go home to the village.
Repeatedly, we observe housing aspirations that revolve around dignity and decent amenities on one hand, and those that obsess about property values and status on the other. Somewhere between these extremes lies the opportunity of a re-imagined housing strategy. One that can provide a life of dignity and a lever for upward mobility, but also create diverse forms of supply that answer to the peculiar complexities of poverty and housing need in our cities. But to realise this, the government needs to think out of the many straight jackets it has created for itself: the income classifications of EWS, LIG, MIG and HIG, the rigid space allocations for subsidised housing (we are ridiculously stuck at 25 sq.m. per household), of rental versus ownership housing, of public housing and public-private partnerships (PPP, the magical phrase with a touch of dread). Is it possible to imagine housing policy without strait jackets?