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The Search for Policies to Support Sustainable Housing

The Search for Policies to Support Sustainable Housing

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The Search for Policies to Support Sustainable Housing
The Search for Policies to Support Sustainable Housing

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Published by: Sustainable Neighbourhoods Network on Apr 11, 2011
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Habitat International 31 (2007) 143–149
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 theworld’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 overusedand misunderstood urban policy component in use today.This paper attempts to clarify the concept of sustainability, leading to what is hopefully an operational definition thatcan be used to measure progress toward this desirable state. The ideas developed are then applied to the field of housingpolicies, 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 andinternational economic activity. In the course of this discussion, certain criteria for sustainability will emerge, including theneed for poverty reduction and slum eradication, as well as the broader goal of environmental preservation and theimportance of developing channels for making viable finance available. Of course, without improvements in employmentopportunity and incomes, whatever is done within the housing policy area is likely to lead to disappointing results.
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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 hisfamily, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services
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(United Nations,1948, Article 25).In 1966, nearly 40 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant onEconomic, Social and Cultural Rights, including Article 11(1) which provides recognition of the ‘right of 
ARTICLE IN PRESS
www.elsevier.com/locate/habitatint0197-3975/$-see front matter
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2006 Published by Elsevier Ltd.doi:10.1016/j.habitatint.2006.12.001
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This editorial is a somewhat revised version of a keynote address presented at the International Conference on Sustainable Housing2006, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, 18–19 September 2006.
E-mail address:
 
everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing andhousing, and to continuous improvement of living conditions
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(United Nations, 1966, Article 11).Despite these high sounding resolutions of such an august international institution, it was still necessary inSeptember 2000 for the United Nations General Assembly to adopt Goal 7, target 11 of what is known as theMillennium Development Goals, committing member nations to achieving by 2020 a ‘significant improvementin 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 cannothelp but wonder which 10% of the poorly housed in the world will be the winners in this international lotteryand just how the lucky winners will be chosen. Obviously even with the best intentions of the internationalcommunity, 90% are expected to remain in housing that is over-crowded, unsafe, temporary, unhygienic, andvery 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 housingproblem have failed to produce the kinds of results that they promised. In economic terms, the ratio of benefitsto 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 sustainablehousing policies in isolation will not overcome the urban problems that we face, it is suggested that withoutsuch 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 thedevelopment 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 termwhether we have thought of what
sustainable
means or not. At the UN World Urban Forum in Vancouver inJune 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 onEnvironment and Development in their 1987 study (WCED, 1987, p. 8), that
sustainable development
meansmeeting ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their ownneeds’. 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 muchmore difficult than one might expect.The concept
sustainable development
was initially conceived as a term most relevant to macro economicdevelopment (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 1980). It is onlymore recently that it has been applied to a consideration of the quality of development in human settlementsand, by implication, housing (Choguill, 1999, p. 133). Given the world record with respect to urbanization andthe enormous expansion of residential areas, and the fact that it is in these very cities where the greatestresource use occurs and from where the most waste products, that is, pollution, are generated, it is rathersurprising that it has taken us so long to apply this important concept to urban areas. Perhaps part of thereason for this apparent delay is the complexity that accompanies this shift. Yet if we can do so, we cansupposedly reap the benefits that go with sustainability. Begin with the concept of the sustainability of humansettlements, 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 toinclude 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 tosustainability 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 thehuman race will disappear—a glaring case of non-sustainability.In an important paper,Tolba (1987), then head of the United Nations Environment Programme, observedthat 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 isto say development should not degrade environmental quality, nor should it reduce productivity in thelong run,(4) the great issues of health control, appropriate technologies, food self-reliance, clean water and shelter forall,(5) the notion that people-centred initiatives are needed; human beings in other words, are the resources in theconcept.’In a sense, then, Tolba has given us the criteria by which we can judge the human aspects of urbandevelopment, which can readily be extended to housing. In order to be sustainable, housing initiatives must beeconomically viable, socially acceptable, technically feasible and environmentally compatible. Governmenthousing 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 frozenat this point of the development process, particularly when other nations of the world are already well pastthat 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 fortruly sustainable development open to the residents of other nations and cities may be constrained. The extentof this constraint is determined by the amount of carrying capacity that various nations, particularly the richnations, 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 jealouslyguarded 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 hasbeen suggested, it would be beneficial to try to determine just where policy makers are with respect to housingpolicy 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 mostserious deficiencies in generating adequate housing have occurred in the past and where they seem to exist atpresent.In fact, government officials are relatively limited in the number of policy-supported actions they are able totake in supporting the housing aspirations by their citizens. First, governments can build residential units andrent them at full or subsidized rates, or give them to recipients. Second, government can take steps to lower theprice of housing, making it more affordable to residents. Third, governments can improve the workings of themarket to facilitate home ownership among citizens through steps as making mortgages and other home loansmore readily available or through improvements to the access to residential land. If one reviews the housingpolicies 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 haveoccurred almost in chronological order.During the
first phase
of housing policy development, more or less beginning after World War II up toroughly 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 forrent’, using the British variation of the approach, as it followed the model developed by the United Kingdom
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