Shelter for the Poor in Low Income Cities
John D. Nystuen
Figure 1. Table of Parameters
Figure 2. People by the Billions
Figure 4. A collage of squatter settlements.
30,000 people live in this complex.
Figure 6. Table of Cities of over Ten Million
house with lockable door, two windows,
and corn crop that must be guarded.
in the Rapki Valley, Nepal
city-installed outdoor privys for sanitation.
Metered electric power supplied
direct to houses.
with continuous flow when water is available.
district of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.
for home with fruit trees.
Finding shelter for the poor in low-income cities is a problem for now and for the future. The twentieth century saw huge growth in human population. This population is now entering the twenty-first century with enormous and growing needs for sustenance and shelter. Millions of new families are created each year all seeking ways to sustain life, to nurture, and to shelter their children. In the new century, most of the population growth will be in cities. Most of these cities will be poor because their already poor economies simply cannot grow at rates needed to raise the level of living while accommodating their own population growth. In addition these cities receive huge waves of poor, unskilled immigrants who not only are destitute but who are often refugees fleeing oppressive regimes. How do these people live? All these people need shelter. How, in the past seventy years, have four billion more people found shelter? The parameters of this process are migration and growth, poverty, homelessness, and rule of law (Figure 1).
Migration and Growth
In 1930, there were two billion people on earth. It had taken 120 years to grow from one billion. Forty-five years later, in 1975, the population had doubled to four billion people. Twenty-four years later, the population had grown again by two billion people. In the first quarter of the 21st century, another two billion will be added to the total, at least, according to the optimistic forecast by the United Nations, which sees a decline in world population growth but an increasing growth in the urban population. The number of people has increased by the billions (Figure 2).
Basic human needs must be met or people die. Food and health are basic. The first need is to be fed. For poor people, most of their income goes toward finding food. Shelter comes next. Those with extremely low incomes are homeless (Figure 3). Generally, opportunities for making a living have been better in urban areas than in rural regions. The consequence has been a vast rural to urban migration. However, city economies are not able to keep pace. Opportunities for making a living are meager. Many people are homeless or live in spontaneous shelters, that is, self-built, squatter settlements or shantytowns squeezed into marginal spaces in and around the city (Figure 4). Such shelters have different names in different places: bustee in India, gegucondu in Turkey, favelas in Brazil. To meet the housing needs in poor cities, appropriate technologies for self-built housing must be utilized. Hong Kong's population grew eight-fold since 1931. Most of this population has been housed in high-rise apartment buildings (Figure 5). Hong Kong is among the wealthy cities of the world and its economy is buoyant. The Hong Kong Housing Authority has provided for seventy percent of the housing demand through a building program financed by loans from the city government. These loans have been or are being paid back on time and with interest. This payback with interest is possible because the occupants, whose incomes have steadily risen, can pay sufficient rent to meet capital and upkeep costs. This process is not an option for cities where the majority of the people live in poverty.
At the turn of the twentieth century, most of the world's poor could not afford to allocate the recommended twenty-five percent or more of their income to pay for shelter. These huge concentrations of poor people are a legacy of the last century. In 1975, five cities had ten million inhabitants or more. Two of these cities, Tokyo and New York were in affluent nations. In the year 2000, nineteen cities had ten million inhabitants or more with four of them in affluent nations (Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Osaka). The rest are in low-income nations (Figure 6). By 2015 the estimate is for 23 cities over 10 million. Most of their inhabitants live in self-built housing constructed by people with very low incomes and skills who must rely on building technologies appropriate for those circumstances. Consequently, affordable shelter is frequently inadequate in the extreme. The shelters are likely to provide insecure and inadequate protection against the elements and intrusions. They lack access to urban services, and are likely to occupy land illegally (Figure 7). They are hazardous to life. People constantly strive to improve their housing as a way to improve the quality of their lives.
What is missing when you have no home? Shelter is a complex mix of factors each of which contribute to quality of life (Figure 8). We all seek to create a secure and comfortable home place. In fact, most animals do the same by creating nests or dens in which to raise offspring. To protect children is a specie imperative no less for humans than for animals. Factors that are important for a home place fall into the categories site and situation, terms that are familiar to geographers. Site attributes refer to in-place or inside characteristics such as the design and type of building materials used for buildings, the slope and drainage of the building lot terrain, the temperature range or number of days of sunshine. Situation refers to the position of the home place relative to other locations. A home place must have access to community services such as utilities, schools, and generally to connections to the larger society. All these characteristics should be considered when assessing the viability of home places or when planning aid in building human habitats.
Locational (Access) Needs. Three types of outside connections are needed for a home place to function effectively. They are (i) access to physical services, (ii) access to community, and (iii) access to status.
Access to Physical Services A modern American home is serviced by several physical links such as a motorable road, electric power line, and water and sewer lines. There are information links too for mail, newspapers, telephone, and radio/TV. Access to information usually requires a fixed home address and/or fixed receiver equipment, e.g., street address/mailbox, phone jack, or cable TV. Mobile receivers, laptop computers and homepages on the Internet have introduced new spatial dynamics to information exchange by adding a virtual home to the physical home.
Sometimes, depending upon local conditions and availability, services can be provided on-site, such as, well water or a septic tank and drainage field. Such facilities do have neighborhood or locational implications depending upon soil type, aquifer capacity, and nearby housing density. Many of these attributes are absent in the squatter settlements of low-income cities.
Access to Community A home place needs access to social and economic exchange. Principal among these is proximity to work if income is earned outside the home. The home should also be conveniently located relative to other social services, retail stores, government offices, and homes of relatives and friends: in sum, the urban matrix. Schools are important. In Seoul, families move to school districts that have the best schools because students are assigned to school by place of residence. Residential land values in the best districts have soared due to this demand.
In the giant, low-income cities, the people in poverty will crowd into marginal places despite possibly terrible site conditions in order to get access to social and economic opportunities (Figure 9). Low cost, subsidized public transportation is a necessity in large urban areas with a high proportion of the population in poverty. Even modest fares may be a burden to the very poor. They must walk and must therefore crowd housing into places within walking distances of places of opportunity.
Access to Status A permanent home address is often a condition of citizenship. You have to have a permanent address in order to vote. In some places, home ownership is a requirement for voting on property tax proposals. You need to be a resident for your children to attend the public schools or to be eligible for welfare or social services. Children of migrant farm workers in the United States are often denied access to local schools and social services, which only adds to the difficulties in obtaining an education or sustaining health due to their short tenure in any one place.
People of means are inclined to invest far more in their home than is necessary for mere shelter. The home is used for displaying wealth and power to gain or affirm high status in the community. Ostentatious megahouses are characteristic of the nouveau riche in the communities of Silicon Valley and elsewhere across the United States at the end of the last century. The middle class behaves similarly by investing more than is prudent into too large a house and lot. Too much invested in housing leaves assets too concentrated and debt service too high in relation to annual income. The desire to own a large single-family house on a big lot is a major component in urban sprawl.
At the beginning of the last century, Americans believed that a woman's place was in the home. At the end of the century, that attitude had changed with over half the women in the work force outside the home. Still, in many parts of the world, a woman's status is defined by her role in the home. If she is not a family member located in a home place, she is an outcast subject to harassment and danger.
Site Needs. The home place is built or arranged to provide for (i) restoration, (ii) health, and (iii) security. Our home is our castle.
Restoration We have physiological needs that are periodic; foremost among them is the need to sleep. We can sleep anywhere but we find great comfort in returning to our own beds at night (Figure 10). This desire creates the great diurnal movement from homeplace into and back from the urban matrix characteristic of urban life. Other periodic needs are for food and drink. Again, these needs can be met elsewhere but it is efficient and comforting to have a place at home to meet these needs. A place for toiletry and bathing meets a daily need for grooming as we set out for the day. Finally, it is comforting to have a place to relax, to retreat from the alertness necessary in public and/or strange places.
Health The dwelling provides a roof overhead for protection from the elements, rain, snow, cold and heat. It can also be equipped to protect against hazards such as wind, fire, and earthquakes. Keeping the homeplace clean and fresh protects against disease and disease vectors. These elements are deficient to various degrees in squatter settlements. Crowded, unsanitary conditions, flimsy construction, lack of safe water and accumulation of wastes create hazards that threaten the entire urban area with spreading infectious disease or catastrophic fire, wind, or earthquake damage.
Security Strong walls and secure locks can provide for personal safety for one’s self and family. A secure home also affords protection of possessions and wealth (Figure 11). Physical barriers work best when attended to by vigilant concern for who is coming and going. Protection is more readily sustained where private, protected space is buffeted from open public space by semi-public areas. In larger houses, strangers are customarily welcome at the foyer/lobby or in the living room but not the kitchen or bedrooms. In some places, an outside courtyard shared with immediate neighbors can act as a semi-public buffer where strangers are immediately recognized if they enter unannounced (Figure 12).
A sense of security has much deeper roots than mere physical protection. The home place is where your roots are located. It is steeped in memories, memories of childhood, events, commitment, artifacts, landscapes not by sight alone but with memories of smells, sounds, tastes and kinetic senses. People love their homes. When separated in distant places they long for home. They will fight for and die for their home.
The sentiment of home arises from symbolic, shared meaning. Yi-Fu Tuan said that, "A place is a pause in movement…The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value" (Tuan, page 138). The repeated returns to pause at home creates its value. Mostly, however, this is a collective achievement. Sharing the place with family and friends is what makes the place a home. The lonely hotel room or the empty house after the children have left and the spouse has died may be a source of bitterness and sorrow rather than joy.
To some the homeplace helps to define an individual's place or the community's place in the cosmos. Divine or supernatural blessings of the home may enhance a sense of security. In Thailand and Indonesia small house temples are placed at the corner of the home lot to invite spirits to protect the inhabitants. Sacred places are usually not in dwelling places but are nearby in the region accessible for periodic visits, if not daily, perhaps annually. Jerusalem is a Holy City; it is sacred for at least three major religions and is, unfortunately, a highly contested place. People will die to maintain control over it.
Rule of Law
City officials are often at odds with people who construct inexpensive, self-built houses. Squatter settlements are often hazardous. Public safety is always at issue. Settlements may be located on land unsuitable for housing such as in floodways or on very steep slopes: places unworthy for standard housing. Cheap, self-built structures are built without housing codes or subdivision standards. The properties may not be accessible by motor vehicle, which means fire trucks and other emergency vehicles cannot reach residences. They lack public services such as potable water or sewer and waste disposal or treatment. Health hazards that affect the whole city are the result. City officials are motivated to address such issues because of political pressure from more affluent citizens living in other parts of town (Figure 14). Low-income districts may be overcrowded with too many people per room occupancy. Houses located on property to which there is no title are not eligible for public services. Some of the people living in sub-standard housing may be illegal aliens who shun contact with any officials due to their lack of standing under the law.
Financing improvements in squatter settlements is extremely difficult. The economy of the low-income city is not only weak but the government has difficulty in finding funds to provide necessary public services. Urban public transit needs to be subsidized because the clients are too poor to support the system with fare box payments. If public services cannot be provided directly to private properties, it is difficult to recover costs through service charges. For example, if there is only the capacity to provide widely spaced public potable water stands; charging for the water is not possible. The water is free to all users (Figure 15). When this is the condition, water is usually available for only a short time at each stand, perhaps not even daily. The water is distributed piece-meal district by district to avoid complete loss of pressure in the system. Land taxes are not a major source of income for low-income cities. In New Orleans land tax was assessed by linear front foot; hence, the rise of the long, narrow "shotgun house" (Figure 16). The problem is lack of cadastral surveys assigning property to landowners and lack of spatial information management capacity in assessor's offices.
The public policy approach to these issues shapes the way the urban fabric develops. Millions of people have moved to the large, poor cities of the world and more are coming. The formal economies of these cities cannot cope with the growth. Some accommodation by public officials to the informal economies and to the capacity for self-help exhibited by those with little means is called for. Tapping the energy of poor but able people has been tried through site and service programs in which the city lays out streets and property boundaries and allows the occupants to build their own houses, sometimes with some simple building restrictions such as minimum wall heights. Ownership title is then given to the occupant. When this happens the house and lot are usually continually improved. In time a very suitable home emerges (Figure 17).
Yi-Fu Tuan, 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 1999 Revision, Table 5. http://www.un.org/esa/population/pubsarchive/urbanization/urbanization.pdf (downloaded Nov. 1, 2001).
All photos by author.