Self-build for housing development: have we come a full circle?

It does look like we are reaching the other end of the proverbial full circle in terms of housing policy and thinking in Africa. There is a very familiar ring to the current debate around providing serviced plots of land to people to self build. A sample of housing development thinking is very instructive.

Initially, the pre-independence period in African countries was shaped by a strong, post-second World War belief in the state’s interventionist powers, and its ability to drive economic development. For example the housing landscape right across the continent, emphasised the pivotal role to be played by state housing banks (SHBs) . These were government-owned or affiliated lenders that were often involved in housing development and made home loans directly to consumers. In very few instances did SHBs deliver as expected and instead more often than not, they were poorly managed, highly politicised and stand accused of crowding out other lenders. Many of their loans were also poorly targeted, and did not reach the intended beneficiaries. Meanwhile these failures happened as urban informality continued to grow.

In the 1970s, John Turner, Charles Abrahams and others espoused an approach which was more in harmony with the natural processes of shelter acquisition and development of the poor themselves. Mayo and Gross, writing of this era, state that such an approach proposed that public programmes capitalise on the untapped energies and resources of the poor through “progressive development” schemes. Practically, this meant providing serviced sites for self-build housing, or housing that was affordable by low-to-moderate-income households and which could be progressively upgraded over time. Complementing these sites and services schemes, were to be slum upgrading or squatter upgrading schemes that focused on improving existing residential areas of the poor rather than on developing undeveloped land.

By the 1980’s and 1990’s, however, the site and services approach fell out of favour.  Critics dispensed of it for enablement, noting that it was unaffordable to the poor, that it had a tendency to subsidise higher income groups and that it was characterised by poor cost recovery which made it unsustainable. In fact, the early ideas of self help housing that drove this movement for sites and services were really never implemented. State led housing production re-emerged as the basis for the sites and services schemes rather, failing to capture beneficiary initiatives in self-help housing.

Fast forward and there are echoes of sites and services policy positions all around us. At the previous World Urban Forum 2010 a sense of de ja vu was noted in calls for incremental housing and the clamour for core housing among development institutions. Now there are claims that the evaluations of sites and services which led to their abandonment were premature and the policy and settlements created by the approach were not given the chance to grow and develop before they were defined as failures. Many also suggest that unnecessarily high building and infrastructure regulations (based on European weather patterns) imposed unnecessarily high standards upon builders. Poor location of the land on which self-build was expected has also been mentioned as instrumental to its lack of  success, noting that these projects were in distant locations. One other important point often raised is that there was never any genuine buy-in especially from the local state leadership, who considered self-help as acquiescence to the growth of slums through the back door.

There lies the difference perhaps this time around. We have the benefit experience and learning from this previous work. While there is by no means universal acceptability, government and donor policy positions have gradually shifted to accept genuine self-help housing by households as an important ingredient to resolving the housing problems on the continent. Importantly we have a finance product, housing microfinance that can potentially support and finance this more incremental development process. Housing microfinance shifts the financing of incremental housing in sites and services settlements away from the state, a previous weakness given fiscal constraints and inefficiencies, and enables households themselves to drive the process.  Applying microfinance lending methodologies to the housing equation, this approach gears household savings and private sector investments far beyond the capacity of the state. Further, it is a product that truly fits in with the incremental self-build process, with small affordable loans dispensed to suit the generally low and uneven income patterns of needy households.

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