The debate on Housing support services (HSS) and how necessary it is in HMF lending continues. An article from the Accion newsletter, Insight, way back in 2004 set the scene for lively engagement among HMF practitioners. The piece begins with two hypotheses related to HSS:
Microentrepreneurs’ need for technical construction assistance, such as drawing plans, estimating construction costs or supervising construction labor, varies from person to person. Therefore, the construction assistance component of an MFI’s housing loan product (if any)
should be customized to the unique situation of each borrower. A housing microfinance program including an optional construction assistance component can both ensure a high standard of quality in the constructions financed and achieve sustainability (profitability) for the MFI within two years.
The first hypothesis is related to the need for HSS based on the demands of the borrower. This is very difficult to dispute. HSS or any other service for that matter, should after all always be geared to the specific demands of the buyer. The second hypothesis does two things: it correlates the provision of construction technical assistance with higher standards and quality of construction that are likely to be achieved, and asserts that HMF can be done profitably even given the extra costs of providing HSS.
To test the hypotheses, case studies were taken from a pilot HMF product in El Salvador by Fundación Salvadoreña de Apoyo Integral (FUSAI). FUSAI had recognised that many houses built with HMF loans were poorly constructed. Further, loan amounts sometimes did not cover the entire cost of the project, and borrowers often could not afford to pay their loans on time. The pilot loan product twinned with technical support was intended to resolve these issues.
While FUSAI’s pilot acknowledged the first hypothesis, it showed that the main challenge was the difficultly and cost for an MFI to provide a wide range of customised assistance to each borrower. In other words, an approach that emphasises “customized unique solutions” may not be practical. This is a common problem with designing any product. Inevitably, a tension exists between retaining the product’s usefulness and relevance to everyone who uses it, versus making its components generic enough to efficiently produce at scale.
The results of the FUSAI pilot, however, rejected the second hypothesis outright. Analysis of the pilot product showed that intensive construction assistance in fact had no impact on construction quality while greatly increasing the product’s costs. This notwithstanding, the pilot did identify some benefit gained from HSS. This was in helping customers predict the actual costs of home improvements, and allowing borrowers to control their construction budgets and complete their projects with loan funds.
Since this article, we are in many ways wiser. Generally today, there is more support among writers and practitioners for the second hypothesis, recognizing that HSS does indeed ensure better quality housing products. But what still remains unanswered is how to design an HSS product, very much related to the first hypothesis. How much HSS is enough? This is a complex equation taking into consideration cost and financial sustainability and as well as defining what suffices as a good quality house under the circumstances.
In recent, yet to be released, work I am involved in, what has emerged is that that there is a direct correlation between HSS and better quality of the house. In other words, provision of HSS does in fact provide a better quality housing outcome.
However, the answer to “How much HSS is enough” still lingers. While HSS improves housing quality outcomes, often the level and intensity of HSS does not improve this significantly, proportionate to resources put in. As HSS intensity increases, the quality of the house increases, albeit by modest margins. This finding is interestingly similar to one from the pilot case studies from El Salvador above, all those years ago. In that case FUSAI, having examined the results of the pilot study, concluded that they should re-focus technical assistance on other ways of providing more efficient construction advice. The organisation for example developed a series of seven construction pamphlets covering all aspects of home construction. These were to be used by clients to better understand and supervise their builders.
Today, this is the challenge to HSS provision, given there is emerging consensus on its importance. Creating a financially sustainable HSS service means balancing the amount of technical assistance provided with an optimal (not necessarily best) housing result. HSS can be counterproductive, if it becomes too costly or involving for an increasingly diminishing return. Striking the balance in product design is the challenge.