3rd debate

Should governments devise and enforce standards for low-cost housing in developing countries?

Final Announcement
Winner of the “best contribution awards”:
The committee members (Brian Aldrich, Edmundo Werna, Gabriel Fauveaud, Gonzalo Lizarralde, and Mahmood Fayazi) acknowledge the engagement of all participants and their thoughtful contributions to this debate. This edition of the debate received interesting comments, but only a few were from students. Thus, the committee suggests delivering only one single prize. They determined that the winner is:
Georgia Cardosi First prize – best comments
1000 CAD$
Congratulations to Georgia!
Our i-Rec – Œuvre durable online debates will now move to another issue and the next debate will be posted in the next few months. We invite you all to participate in it!
vote graph 4

The moderator’s opening remarks:

The Canadian Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Reconstruction Research Alliance (Œuvre Durable for its acronym in French) and i-Rec (Information and Research for Reconstruction) are organizing an on-line debate (and competition) that explores the following question:
Should Governments Devise and Enforce Standards for Low-Cost Housing in Developing Countries?
In 2006, the Colombian Housing Minister announced that his government “would never subsidize a single housing unit having less than two bedrooms.” This comment summarizes what many academics, decision makers and politicians believe: that minimum standards for low-cost housing in developing countries are necessary to guarantee everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living. They note that millions around the world live in life- or health-threatening conditions, in substandard housing and neighbourhoods associated with housing stock dilapidation, overcrowding, sub-standard infrastructure, lack of ventilation and other conditions that do not uphold their human rights and dignity. They often claim that most informal settlements are unfit for human living, and governments and authorities must adopt standards that guarantee minimum infrastructure, appropriate location, the use of proper building materials and design, and sound structural and construction techniques. They typically argue that the definition and enforcement of minimum standards (internationally, nationally and/or locally), are necessary in order to prevent unscrupulous or illegal builders from offering poor quality housing, achieve safety and sustainability, reduce inequality and discrimination, and secure housing tenure.
On the other hand, opponents of minimum standards for low-cost housing raise serious doubts about their usefulness and/or effectiveness. They claim that low-cost housing is characterized by progressive or incremental development, where families build their housing and communities in stages, as their resources permit. They note that homeowners are free to act in accordance with their needs, enabling them to synchronize investment in homes with the rhythm of social and economic changes. They also argue that the adoption of minimum standards exacerbates the housing problem by disregarding the economic and social needs of poor urban settlers, for whom formal construction is often unaffordable. Some analysts contend that minimum standards often overlook environmental conditions, local identity, and culture and traditions, which causes irreversible impacts on communities. Finally, critics also contend that enforcing minimum standards frequently encourages more informal construction and, in many cases, unnecessarily forces the poor into illegal conditions, which in turn exacerbates their vulnerabilities.
In this debate, we invite two internationally-known experts in the field of low-cost housing to defend two opposite viewpoints. Over the next ten days, our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments, but the result of our debate rests in your hands. Do not be afraid to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Even better, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision. We look forward to reading the comments of all of those who participate.
The World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) will launch on April 14th, the Building Regulation for Resilience Program. The following documents are available on the World Bank andGFDRR websites: the Flagship Report, a Feature Story, a Program Brief, and a video.
GonzaloGonzalo Lizarralde is a professor at the School of Architecture of Université de Montréal. He has long experience in consulting for architecture and construction projects and has published important research in the fields of low-cost housing and project management.  Dr. Lizarralde is the director of the IF Research Group (grif) of Université de Montréal, which studies the processes related to the planning and development of construction projects. He is also the co-director of Œuvre Durable, a multi-university research team focused onvulnerability, resilience and sustainable reconstruction. Dr. Lizarralde is the author of the book The Invisible Houses: Rethinking and designing low-cost housing in developing countries and the co-author of the bookRebuilding After Disaster: From Emergency to Sustainability. 
 edmundo-werna4Edmundo Werna 
Edmundo Werna worked for over 35 years on different aspects of urban development with particular attention to municipal management, livelihoods and housing. Joined the ILO (United Nations’ International Labour Office) in 2004. One of his current responsibilities is to provide technical support to the Habitat III process on behalf of the ILO. Involved in ILO’s partnership with the United Cities and Local Governments and many other urban-related activities.Started his career in the 1980s working in field activities such as territorial planning and upgrading of low-income settlements. Prior to joining the ILO, designed and implemented the urban development agenda of UNDP’s UN Volunteers Programme. Also undertook consultancies for several organizations, including local governments, WHO, European Commission, the World Bank, UN-Habitat, UNCDF/UNDP and also the ILO. The consultancies entailed different aspects of urban development. PhD in urban development from the University of London (UK), MPhil in development studies from the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex (UK), and a Bachelor’s degree in urbanism and architecture from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil). Academic experience entailed research and lecturing in British, Brazilian and Italian universities and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the US.
 Brian ALDRICH 4Brian Aldrich
Brian Aldrich received his PhD in Sociology: Social Organization and Demography with a minor concentration in Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1972.  He taught at the University of Minnesota.  He recently retired as a full professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Winona State University in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.  He has been a block group organizer with the Lincoln Park Conservation Association in Chicago, Illinois (1962-63), the Director of Worker’s Education for the Mindanao Federation of Labor, Zamboanga, the Republic of the Philippines (1963-65), and worked for the Presbyterian Institute for Industrial Relations in Chicago, where he researched urban ministries (1965-66). Several of his research papers on housing and community organization in Southeast Asian cities have been published.  He is the co-editor of three books with Ranvinder S. Sandhu: Housing in Asia: Problems and Perspectives, Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 1990; Housing the Urban Poor: Policy and Practice in Developing Countries, New Delhi: Vistaar/Sage, 1995, and Housing the Urban Poor in Developing Countries, Jaipur, India:Rawat Publications, 2015.  His most recent publication is “Winning Their Place in the City: Squatters in Southeast Asian Cities”, pp. 495-501 in Habitat International, Vol. 53 (April) 2016.  He is currently Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Winona State University.
The proposer’s opening remarks

There has been a plethora of arguments against regulation, from the one that the poor should be allowed to live in substandard housing because they cannot afford any better, to, inter alia, that (housing) markets should be deregulated in a general way, including the non-use of standards. While some of these arguments stand, especially those which protect the poor, one should be careful to dismiss standards altogether, and avoid “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. Meaning that standards exist for a reason, and this needs to be taken into account. Some examples below:
– Architectural standards, such as minimum level of ventilation, volume of air in a given room, lighting, smoke exhaustion, sanitary devises, etc. They are regulated because below given limits there would be a health problem or risk to the residents. Cases of accidents, diseases and deaths unfortunately abound. For similar reasons, there are also regulations for building materials such as asbestos (carcinogenic), toxic paints, and others.
–  Construction standards to control the quality of the housing production process, including structural resistance. Cases of individual houses or apartment buildings which collapse after (or during) construction are frequent.
–  There are also other set of standards, such as urban design standards and labour standards. They have important interfaces with housing although may be beyond the scope of this particular debate.
In sum, if standards are not respected, there will be problems. It is unreasonable to accept that a public agency produces or subcontracts the production of a housing unit(s) below standards because it is cheaper, if this will have hazardous effects on the health of the residents.
Producing housing below standard does not necessarily mean better price for the consumers. The savings in building costs may be used to increase the profits of the construction enterprises or/and the real estate investors. It is therefore important that the private sector competes within a ‘healthy’ framework of regulations, otherwise it could be a race to the bottom – i.e. producing housing as substandard as possible and also worsening working conditions (and both can generate a vicious cycle).
Notwithstanding the above arguments in favour of standards, it is important to acknowledge that their regulation should be exerted with caution due to the large numbers of poor who cannot afford higher-quality housing. They should not be penalized for what they cannot afford. Worse still, regulations have frequently been used as an excuse to bulldoze substandard housing leading to eviction, many times with real estate development interests at the expenses of the poor. Standards and regulation should be used in favour of the poor, not against.
In the case of those who cannot afford better housing, governments should act as advisors, explaining the benefits of housing standards and helping to find ways to upgrade the settlements through an incremental approach. Or to redistribute some taxes to make standard housing more affordable – an application of income transfer schemes to the housing sector.
The opposition’s opening remarks

The demand for adequate housing is increasing in the emerging countries. A recent report by HABITAT of the United Nations reports that there were an estimated 860 million slum dwellers in 2006.  They expected that number to grow by six million a year through the first decade of the new century. The result is overurbanization: more population than cities can adequately provide jobs and services for such as housing.  Percentages of residents living in illegal housing or squatting on land that they do not own, can vary from zero (e.g. Singapore) to sixty or seventy percent (Lagos).
The primary cause is a low level of economic development.  If there is low gross city performance, then there is no way to pay for low income housing.  Imposition of strict monetary standards by international agencies may restrict government spending.  Participation in the global economy may limit growth.  International markets for domestic products may fall.  Any or all of these factors can limit economic growth.  The poor and emerging middle class are often affected the most by these ups and downs of the economy.
Access to regularized housing may be limited due to a number of conditions.  These include availability of land, price, lack of legal title, conflicting systems of property ownership, i.e., traditional communal, colonial or market, the power of economic and political elites to manipulate regulations governing access to land, i.e., colonizing unused or vacant land, excessive bureaucratic requirements, kelptocracy or corruption in the state bureaucracy, poorly designed standards, inadequate enforcement, autocratic or single-party control of access to housing, and extensive patronage systems.  In the face of one or more of these limiting conditions, top down planning by the state does not generally benefit the poor.
If the poor are to remain in the city under any of the above combination of conditions, they have to accept whatever housing is available. They are left to fend for themselves, building or renting marginal housing where ever space is available. Typically these sites are on flood plains or hillsides or other marginal areas, and are characterized by crowding and overbuilding with lack of reliable electrical, water and sewage services. They may end up living under bridges, on city dumps, on toxic land near factories or any place at all where they can throw up a shelter or build a house or set up a small factory or work place as part of the informal economy, i.e., unregulated just like their housing.  They may take up residence on desert lands surrounding the city, on vacant government or private land; literally any area they can access. Where the poor are living illegally, they have no chance of regularizing their housing.
The poor are generally in low paying jobs tied to particular sites in the city.  This makes commuting from outlying relocation sites prohibitively expensive, as well as time-consuming.  They are generally cut off from other urban social services as well.
The proposer’s rebuttal remark

In 27 September 2013, a residential building collapsed in Mumbai, killing 61 dwellers and injuring 32 others. According to the ex-post investigation, the disaster occurred due tosubstandard and illegal construction of an extra floor. This is far from being the only case of a negative impact of neglecting standards in housing. There are not only many other cases ofcollapse of residential buildings, but also many other types of problems.
The arguments presented by Prof. Aldrich in his Opening Remarks provide a good description of the plight of the poor to afford appropriate housing. It is true, as he said, that access toregularized housing is limited due to many reasons. This does not mean, however, that standards should be forgotten altogether. The sad illustration presented in the previous paragraph supports the case and reminds us that actions need to be taken to prevent future problems. And there are many other examples.
According to the recent report “Urban Health”(2016) of UN-Habitat and the WHO (World Health Organization) (pages 171-173):
…”Even if the housing structure is durable, lack of adequate ventilation, air-conditioning, heating and use of hazardous building material can cause acute effects on health and comfort”.
 …”inadequate urban housing blights the health of billions of people worldwide… Many slum dwellers live in houses with …poor-quality roofs and walls constructed out of waste materials… These houses do not provide proper protection against inclement weather, parasitic infections or unwelcome human intruders”…
WHO estimates that housing accounts for over 100 000 deaths per year even in a developed region of the world as Europe, due to hazards such as noise, dampness, indoor air quality, cold and home safety.
The aforementioned problems, however, are technically preventable. Standards are benchmarks which are necessary for preventive action. If one does not know what is the acceptable limit, how can one design, promote and produce appropriate housing?
The UN-Habitat and WHO publication “Urban Health” acknowledges that housing standards were originally based on health principles, yet these have been neglected as time went by. Following, the authors call for health standards in housing to be updated.
One could also go on and include other types of standards, such as environmental ones. The built environment (including, although not only, housing), is responsible for the greatest share of environmental impact. Then we are talking not only about the impact on the health of residents. We are talking about the whole planet. I am not saying that the poor are the responsible ones – actually on the contrary. I am alerting about the risks of not paying attention to standards.
Prof. Aldrich mentioned that …”Where the poor are living illegally, they have no chance of regularizing their housing”. Again this is correct, yet again this is not an argument to dismiss the importance of having standards. The examples presented in the current text are testimony for this.
If the poor cannot afford standard housing, we should make efforts to revert this situation. Not to turn a blind eye to the fact that the poor are living below standards. What we need is to combat poverty, and this is also in conformity with Prof. Aldrich’s arguments.
Let me please recap my Introductory Remarks, which stated that the poor should not be marginalized or penalized, and standards should not be used as an excuse for eviction or other actions against the poor. The Remarks also noted the effects of the “race to the bottom” without standards, which we should not forget.
It may well be the case that we need to rephrase the question. It is not whether standards are needed or not. It is how to better use them in way to benefit everyone. My Introductory Remarks made some suggestions in this respect, which could be elaborated.
Coming back to the first paragraph, should we just forget about standards and ‘hope’ that what happened in Mumbai (and indeed in many other places) does not happen again? Or should we do something about it?
The opposition’s rebuttal remark

When I agreed to take the “con” position on the issue of the state imposition of housing regulations and their enforcement on low-income housing by the state, I responded to the full implications of top-down regulations.  The proponent of the “pro” position has softened that proposition to the point that it supports several alternative approaches to the main proposal. Top-down imposition of housing regulations on the poor under the conditions I have outlined above has been a disaster in most instances. Generally, it involves the relocation of the residents of an area, the destruction of what housing exists, and rebuilding for either fewer or none of the former residents.  The land is then used for the building of profitable, upper-middle-class housing, or commercial centers.  Usually, this is done under the control of conglomerates in league with politicians.  The result for the poor is generally marginalization in a relocation settlement at the edge of the growing city; far from needed work sites, transportation, and social and educational services.
The presence of almost a billion poor people living in illegal, substandard housing is a challenge begun by the waves of movement of people to large, metropolitan areas with the development of a global society.  There is tremendous variation in the actual status of low-income groups around the world. I suggest the following incremental approach.
The first necessity is financial resources.  If wealth is not generated by the metro area, then it must be provided from global organizations. If wealth is being generated, the development of an ethic of social housing as a necessity and a right within the society needs to be developed.  These values, or lack of them, guide the use of the wealth being generated.
The organization of some form of demand-based teams of specialists is the key to avoiding top-down housing.  These teams, made up of architects, planners, builders and residents, are there to solve the housing problems for a particular low-income group in a particular area.  In regard to housing regulations, these teams must have the power to negotiate housing regulations and build their own enforcement procedures.  Examples of this approach, with varying degrees of success, are as follows.
A bottoms up, site specific, participatory approach with a design team has a much greater chance of effectively providing housing services to a particular low-income population, than a top-down approach.  In India, there is the case of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP).  The basic model is there and it is being developed into a more effective housing provider.  Thailand has a state-supported program Baan Mankong, which is used to negotiate both large and small sites for groups of squatters.  The staffing has been successful and participation by residents has been effective in the rehousing effort.  An outstandingly successful program for the provision of socially oriented housing (IPEA) has been developed in Brazil.  With high and multiple levels of participation, the goal is not only housing, but integrating residents into the greater life of the city.  The key is a flexible integration of the project into the municipal policies for the area—including the creation of new and more effective community organization.
The proposer’s closing remarks

“As safe as houses”, so the traditional saying goes. Is it really so?
The saying refers to investment. But acquiring a house which causes harm to the residents can hardly be a safe investment, health-wise. Even the financial safety is debatable.
On January 2016, a one-family detached house collapsed in the low-income neighbourhood of Iraja, Rio de Janeiro, killing two residents and injuring three. It was an incremental housing unit. In this case the additions were unregulated and the ill-construction of at least one caused the disaster. Besides the human tragedy, the investment was not financially safe either. The family lost what they invested in the house, and so on. The burgeoning literature on ‘urban livelihoods’ rightly promotes housing as a critical asset for the poor. But this particular house in Iraja is not a good example.
The multi-family apartment block mentioned in my rebuttal was also built incrementally, without respecting standards, and with similar results. I have presented additional data well beyond the two illustrations from Mumbai and Rio. But Prof. Aldrich said that he responded to the full implications of top-down regulations and that I have softened my position. While he made good points in his previous texts, I do not agree with this statement.
More analysis would be necessary for such a full picture, indeed explaining the benefits of non-regulations, bearing in mind the consequences of free markets, a race to the bottom, and the environmental, financial, health and safety (including fatal) impacts on the poor.
In regard to my position, it never changed. I made it clear from the onset that I would defend the rationale of standards yet highlighting that the poor should not be penalized. I have stood for this position throughout. To defend the rationale for standards does not mean that one has to defend a full top-down approach.
Prof. Aldrich suggestions are basically about the incremental approach. They are along the lines of proposals made by Turner (1960s), Gilbert and many others. Even I have written in a similar vein, and had the opportunity of practicing it, hands-on in poor communities. But this does not mean that I agree with housing conditions that affect the well-being of the residents. Again: what happens when standards are ignored? Prof. Aldrich does not address this. I hope that the evidence provided in my texts make a case.
When Turner visited slum areas in Lima in the early 1960s, he was told that they were ‘a problem’. He replied that he did not see a problem, but a solution – in the sense, as is now widely known, that such settlements were a means of empowering the poor. I also see a solution there, but still with some problems… such as the risk of building below standards.
The cases presented by Prof. Aldrich have been successful in proving small-scale housing. Even having myself worked in such small-scale endeavours, I don’t see their replicability. We need millions of (safe) residences.
I do not agree with the rich earning enough to afford housing (well) above what is necessary for comfortable living, while the poor build bit-by-bit in conditions which are at best risky if not fatal. This reproduces poverty and inequality. I reiterate the concrete proposals made in my Introductory Remarks, including about redistribution through taxes. There are public housing programmes in the very countries mentioned by Prof. Aldrich, and beyond, which provided safe housing for many people. One example, inter alia, is “Minha Casa Minha Vida” in Brazil.
It may well be the case that we need to rephrase the question. It is not whether we need standards or not. It is how to better use them in way to benefit everyone.
To conclude with a link to where I started in the Introductory Remarks: I suggested to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. One could even go further and note that, without protecting standards, there may not even be bath water at all.
The opposition’s closing remarks

Dr. Werna and I, opponent and proponent in this debate, are not really at odds.  When I read his opening statement it was clear to me that he did not support the proposition as stated, but rather the proposition that the government should devise and enforce MINIMUM standards.  He made a persuasive argument, based upon both health and structural arguments, that some-minimum-standards had to be imposed in order to preserve life and health in construction of such housing.  I have no disagreement with that position.  What I want to make clear is the danger, impossibility, and impracticality of a full-bolt imposition of standards like the Colombian example of the two-bedroom houses for all.
So, as the old saw goes, “the exceptions prove the rule”.  These exceptions are described in detail in my research just published on housing squatters and the urban poor in the six megacities of S.E. Asia.  Both the city-state of Singapore and the former British colony of Hong Kong are included in that study.  They are outstanding examples of how urban government can, over a period of fifty years or so, rehouse 2-3-4 million inhabitants with a single program of housing regulations and enforcement.  Singapore has built, under close government regulation (no gum thrown on sidewalks; no plants on apartment ledges, etc., etc.), new housing for 85% of the population.  The rest is private housing.  Virtually the entire island has been turned into a single functioning, structural unit which, for instance, renews every drop of water which falls upon it.  It is a peaceful, safe enclave in that region.  It has been governed since its inception in the 1960’s by a single political party with complete control.
Hong Kong, a British colony until almost the end of the last century, also took complete control of the provision of housing for the unhoused millions that ended up there after years of turmoil in mainland China.  Three and a half million people were rehoused, through a scheme in which the government sold the land in section on the open market, from which squatters were relocated.  New towns were built for public housing.  Often, like Singapore, by filling in the sea.  The sale of these public lands have, since the colony’s return to China, has been separated from the function of enforcement.  The problem today is to remove those in public housing who surpass the income level for the receipt of such housing.  Hong Kong housing was controlled for most of this period by the fact that it was Crown Land.  The colonial administration were the ultimate owners and controllers.  It was single party controlled, like Singapore.
The other megacities in S.E. Asia, Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta – all now major metropolises-have not been so successful.  They were not islands (or colonies), but are part of sprawling countries.  I think housing standards for health and safety are needed, as a minimum.  But these will need to be incremental and specialized for the low income and squatter populations.
The moderator’s closing remarks: Social Justice and Housing Regulations in Developing Countries
It’s a YES for standards, provided they do not penalize the poor.
This debate addressed the government’s role in regulating housing conditions in developing countries and the links between standards and social justice. Participants exposed the advantages of housing standards, but also their secondary effects, and raised questions about their effectiveness and applicability. In general, however, they consistently claimed that governments SHOULD devise and enforce standards – about 60 % of votes defended this position during the 10 days of the debate. This is particularly relevant now that the World Bank (a traditional defender of deregulation in developing countries) and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery have released the ambitious “Building Regulation for Resilience Program”.
Generally, participants in this debate fear that, in the absence of standards, markets may have a “race to the bottom,” increasing vulnerabilities and penalizing the poor and the urban population in general. These results effectively answered the main question proposed by the debate, but also raised specific themes that require further analysis and consideration:
(1) Scope: For many specialists, the main (and probably only) goal of standards should be households’ health, protection, and safety. In this view, governments should aim only at MINIMUM standards, and should avoid regulations that may affect culturally and socially based modes of living, even (or notably when) decision- and policy-makers dislike some of these lifestyles and ways of building. However, for many other experts, standards should cover additional important aspects, such as environmental protection, pollution reduction and the protection of households’ investments in housing. But, one wonders, if the door that leads to standards is already open, why stop here? Following this line of thought, some participants argued that standards should inevitably address other “key aspects” such as neighborhood quality, crime control, and even landscape characteristics. It seems that the effective scope of regulations does not create consensus, even among the most committed defenders of standards.
(2) Secondary effects: There seems to be a consensus that housing standards should not, in any case, penalize the poor, and should instead aim at protecting them and their assets.
(3) Target groups: Participants seem not to agree on who should be the target of regulations and policy.  Some believe that standards should be imposed only on housing builders and markets. Others argue that they should also apply to self-built construction and informal settlements, notably during and after slum upgrading programs. Control and monitoring of emerging and non-upgraded informal settlements remain, nonetheless, a significant challenge.
(4) Enforcement: Neither the panellists nor the respondents were sufficiently explicit on how to enforce standards. They seem to favour, however, a stringent position towards builders, unscrupulous developers and markets, and a softer approach towards households who build their own shelters or those who build through informal means. In some cases, they argue that governments should only act as “advisors” towards those who cannot afford regulated, “formal” housing units. It is less clear, nonetheless, whether enforcing construction standards should be a responsibility of central governments or municipalities – or both, depending on the type of regulation.
(5) Scale: Here again respondents seem to have different viewpoints. For some of them, the appropriate scale of intervention should be local (the community, the neighbourhood, the town). Maybe concerned by urban fragmentation and inequality, others instead aim at general policies applied on a national scale. They argue that bottom-up approaches can eventually be replicated on a wider scale.
(6) Time: Timing seems to play a role too. Given that in the aftermath of disasters and calamities residents are more aware of safety and security issues, this appears to be the right time to implement housing standards. At a macro scale in time, however, a different problem emerges. Countries reach a certain level of maturity in their institutions at different moments in time – the failed of State Haiti and a more prosperous Colombia, for instance, are arguably at different stages of economic, institutional and social development. Consequently, it is not fully clear at what stage in the (not necessarily linear) path of development countries should embrace housing standards. More studies and thoughts are still required here.
(7) Effectiveness: Now a personal opinion (I am aware that not all participants agree with me on the following point): There seems to be enough evidence showing the consequences of standards not being applied, including but not limited to destruction, death, disasters, injuries and health problems. More studies, nonetheless, are still required to fully understand the specific benefits of standards – and the potential benefits of not applying standards too. More research is also needed on the intended and unintended secondary effects of housing standards. Surprisingly, this lack of knowledge on the efficiency and secondary effects of standards does not prevent participants from defending their application and enforcement. In fact, defenders argue that politicians and technocrats should engage in drafting, approving, and enforcing low-cost housing regulations, using resources and taxpayers’ money – no doubt a significant investment without a thorough understanding of these impacts, benefits, and secondary effects.
Given all these different layers of complexity, this debate suggests a demanding policy agenda for developing countries, one that must adopt unavoidable ethical considerations. In fact, all the variables mentioned above have profound implications for social justice. They largely determine the success or failure of housing standards in achieving better living conditions for the unprivileged and the poor. Standards can significantly shape settlements, as well as residential and land markets. If properly implemented, they can potentially reduce risks and vulnerabilities, and they profoundly influence the building industry. But more importantly, the discussion in this debate tells us a lot about the way participants respect or think of the least privileged and most vulnerable residents. I hope that this discussion will have a profound effect on decision- makers and politicians and that it will help produce a better housing agenda that addresses issues of social justice. Finally, given my perspective summarized in point 7, I cannot stop believing that this debate also leaves scholars, students, think-tanks and international agencies with a significant research agenda. I hope that they too will embrace this agenda for the sake of social justice.
Thank you.
Gonzalo Lizarralde

More than 30 comments were submitted by participants during the 3th debate:

Gonzalo Lizarralde
David Jacobs, Ramin Keivani and Ksenia Chmutina dismiss the possibility that governments avoid mingling with housing standards. This presupposes that politicians and technocrats should engage in drafting, approving, and enforcing low-cost housing regulations, using resources and taxpayers’ money in this endeavour (given the scope of the task they surely need a great amount of resources and money). However, it is yet not clear WHY should governments invest resources in this endeavour IF we do not actually know how efficient these standards are. Do we really want politicians and technocrats spending massive resources on policies and law enforcement without having hard evidence that they produce positive results?
David, Ramin, Ksenia: Do you have evidence that standards in general – or some standards in particular – actually work? If so, could you please share the information on the blog?
Ksenia Chmutina
A key objective of any building code is life safety; this is why it is important to make sure that each building code is context specific. The earliest known written (and rather draconian) building code is the Code of Hammurabi, in ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to 1772BC; it states that “If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death”. If there is a lack of competencies and access to appropriate tools and materials, the regulations will not be able to change the situation. Therefore it is important to ensure that regulations are not replicated; instead a context-specific approach is critical.
But having building regulations is not enough. They should be easy, clear and concise: this is needed in cases when the competency of building industry is lower than expected; this guidance should be practical and easy to understand in order to be useful for the less skilled construction professionals, and maybe presented in a form of checklist or use vial graphics. It could also be used by the homeowners who would then be able to ‘supervise’ the process of construction.
I feel that that the question we should be answering is not whether building regulations and similar standards should be implemented and enforced, but HOW this should be be happening.
Ramin Keivani
At first reading I find myself agreeing with both proposer and opposition views since building standards are indeed required for ensuring a) safety of the occupants in terms of structural performance of the building, and b) healthy living conditions. Yet at the same time the urban low income population in the Global South face severe income constraints and are effectively excluded from the formal market where such standards can be reasonably enforced. Hence they need to resort to basic shelters to enable them to survive. Therefore if the low cost housing in question is provided through the public or private sectors (often heavily subsidised) then a minimum level of standards should be applied. On the other hand if we are discussing informal low income settlements and self-build then the issue becomes much more complicated.
As a result the main focus for discussion is not whether standards are good or bad in themselves but whether they are a) appropriate for the target groups in question and b) whether they can actually be enforced within the limited institutional and resource capacities of many local authorities in the Global South. Hence more incremental approaches to raising standards in informal low income communities and more generally moving towards performance based rather prescriptive standards have gained traction since they were first raised in the early 1970s. These, of course, pose their own complications and require certain public sector material and institutional capacities. However, they are more in line with the needs of the lower income groups, are supportive rather than penalising, limit the scope for unnecessary forced evictions and will increase resilience in the medium to long term.
In addition important and related issues that are missing here are that of broader planning/land use improvements and settlement conditions/services. These form the basis of most upgrading programmes and provide more immediate results for enhancing resilience and well being to a wider group of people. Thereby a combination of wider settlement upgrading and facilitating incremental building standards improvement may be the best way forward than focusing on building standards per se.
To end therefore I would like to rephrase the question to:
What type of building standards should governments devise for low income housing in the Global South and how can they be implemented that are supportive of low income groups rather than penalising them?
David Jacobs
I’m surprised that this is still a debate. The need for housing standards has been well-accepted for at least a century, indeed thousands of years. It was the introduction of indoor plumbing (as well as improved medicine) that helped to conquer cholera and certain other diseases and led to some of the first housing standards. Lowering standards has not been shown to increase the supply of either affordable or healthy housing, it merely transfers the cost to other sectors such as medical care. The burden of disease associated with inadequate housing is enormous (see WHO report on this subject at:. http://www.euro.who.int/en/publications/abstracts/environmental-burden-of-disease-associated-with-inadequate-housing.-summary-report. This burden exists for both occupants and workers who build, maintain and demolish homes. Readers may also want to look at the National Healthy Housing Standard (http://www.nchh.org/Policy/NationalHealthyHousingStandard.aspx). We either invest in adequate healthy housing or pay unnecessary costs in suffering and higher medical, school, and economic development. Why wait for those higher costs when we can prevent them in the first place?
Gonzalo Lizarralde
Dear Matt: Yes. The devil is always in the details. Yet, both the devil and the details are complex and difficult to grasp, and so it is necessary to clarify advantages and disadvantages separately. Quite often, for instance, opposition to the use and enforcement of standards is based on different arguments: (1) Usefulness: policy is systematically ignored by both the informal sector and unscrupulous builders; (2) Justice: standards further marginalize the poor who can’t have access to quality housing; (3) Sustainability: standards often require lower densities and more expensive
solutions; (4) Culture: standards rarely reflect local, informal, uses of space; (4) Law and crime escalation: what to do when someone does not respect the minimum standards? what is the proper punishment?
What type of standards do you think are more appropriate?
Matt Nohn
Hi there:
the question is (deliberately) ill-phrased, I think. To answer it one would need to look into the (de-facto) objectives of the regulations: if the regulations (i) lower the entry cost into the formal housing market and (ii) support a positive (or resilient, as Gonzalo says) trajectory of the urban poor towards better housing (aka incremental housing, cf. Turner and others) then, yes, the government should uphold development control regulations. However, if the building code stipulates unachievable standards, which keep the poor out of the formal market and stigmatize them, then of course, no, the government should not. Thus, it depends…
Best wishes,
Matt Nohn, LF
Gonzalo Lizarralde
World Bank used to favour deregulation – a typical neoliberal response to market-oriented economies. However, a new approach seems to be developing now. One that promotes building regulations for resilience.
See this video promoted by The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFEJJFsDpvI&feature=youtu.be
Is this the right way to enhance resilience and reduce vulnerabilities in developing countries? Participate now in our online debate on this subject: https://oddebates.wordpress.com/
Online Debates
Before posting the opening remarks on April 11th, 15 participants considered that governments should devise and enforce standards for low-cost housing in developing countries, and only 11 thought differently (57% Yes – 43% No). Yet, the opposition’s opening remarks couldn’t change this trend (still at 57% for Yes – 43% for No). Your active participation and thought-provoking comments can effectively change or confirm this trend. Please follow the debate and do not hesitate to share your thought with us.
The real issue is more about the necessity of devising ‘adequate’ housing standards for low-income households. Sometimes, as it was the case in Kenya in 1995 with the Code 95, it can be a revision of existing standards, but also a ”repackaging of the new codes (CODE 95) into more comprehensible and user-friendly formats for awareness raising and training purposes” (Majale, 2004). Basically, housing standards to be successful, should be more affordable and simplify procedures.
There exist evidence of successful standards revision through pilot projects in Kenya and Zimbabwe. For instance, the Enabling Housing Standards and Procedures (EHSP) project, implemented in the period 1996-1999, was based on ITDG’s findings that inappropriate standards and procedures are a major constraint to access to legal affordable housing.
Here is the paper: Majale, Michael (2004). Improving access to adequate and affordable housing for the urban poor through an integrated approach.
Gonzalo Lizarralde
Dear Georgia: Thank you for this interesting and inspiring reference in defence of housing standards.
Majale’s (2004) paper specifies that the EHSP project: “sought to introduce and disseminate revised housing standards in Kenya and Zimbabwe. The ultimate aims of the project were to actively involve low-income housing stakeholders in this process, and to make housing standards more affordable and simplify procedures” (p. 6). Results show that in Zimbabwe “innovative building technologies, particularly stabilized soil blocks (SSBs) and micro-concrete roofing (MCR) tiles which were allowed by the revised standards, can have a significant impact in making legal and affordable housing”. Yet, the approach became more than just a technical solution and was based on a wide consideration of housing issues and its success depends on this integration. The paper concludes that “An integrated approach to urban housing development, as adopted in the IUHP, means taking into consideration physical, financial, human and social assets, as well as policies, institutions and processes. From project experience, it is evident that integration should happen at both the level of activities and the level of partners (i.e., between actors at all levels, from local to national). Whether integration could happen only at the settlement or neighbourhood level or whether it should extend to the town or city level is, however, debatable”.
Brian Aldrich
Yes. Another good example of user-oriented housing programs which regulate housing from the bottom up. How much latitude did the householders have in regard to the housing regulations? Were they tailored to low income groups (and different from standard market housing? Brian Aldrich
All seem to agree that the principle of housing standards is correct; unfortunately we live in an unprincipled world. The positive case studies cited are sort of like existence theorems in mathematics, demonstrating that solutions exist. What hasn’t been done is to sort out the messy details of under what conditions do these solutions work – and more importantly – under what conditions do the “solutions” do more harm than good. Throughout the world – developed and developing countries alike – the working poor are effectively forced into less than desirable housing conditions. Whether it is corruption or developers chasing the almighty dollar, this has become a fact of modern life.
I hesitantly voted “for” standards, in recognition that a standards regimen was ultimately the best for the working poor. But “hesitantly” in recognition that a standards regimen imposed from the top down – esp. if done without consideration of local conditions or dire unintended consequences (e.g., actually reducing the low-income housing opportunities available) – will be more harm than good.
Gonzalo Lizarralde
Plodinec raises the very important issue of the gap between “desirable principles” and “unintended consequences of implementation”. It seems that we have neither proof of the usefulness of standards, nor enough evidence of these unintended consequences. This seems to open the door for fruitful research projects.
Gonzalo Lizarralde
The new texts by Edmundo and Bryan seem to tackle the issue of SCALE. Whereas for Edmundo, standards can (should) be implemented at a larger scale to address issues of safety and security, for Bryan the small scale (arguably community-based) is more appropriate for devising and enforcing performance measures. The small-scale argument raises, however, issues of inequality and urban fragmentation. What is the appropriate scale of intervention?
Jason von Meding
It is hard to vote either for or against the question, as phrased. My comments are particularly to follow up on what John Plodinec has said, ‘under what conditions do these solutions work – and more importantly – under what conditions do the “solutions” do more harm than good.’ I think that this is right on point.
We are overwhelmingly forced to operate in a neoliberal context, and I would argue that when considering ‘low income housing in developing countries’ we must first determine who policymakers do indeed serve, based on the evidence available. A third of urban dwellers in developing countries are part of informal settlements…do we really believe that without a complete reorganisation of the socio-economic order a push for enforcement of building standards would have much impact other than further victimising the poor?
We need the standards of course. However, I don’t think that enforcement is effective in the present context if we truly want to achieve social justice, reduce inequality and protect the poor.
Therefore I could choose for or against the proposition😉
Kirti Joshi
I support the argument that it is not a question of whether or not regulations are needed but what type of regulations are needed (SCALE), how to ensure desired results are achieved (EFFECTIVENESS), and how best to implement regulations (EFFICIENCY).
Following the devastating April-May 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal (casualties: 9,000; buildings collapsed: 0.6 million), the government published a set of building designs to be followed by the earthquake-affected households in order to qualify for housing subsidy. The problem? It took more than a year to prepare the approved designs, and even worse, the designs failed to address the thorny issue of affordability given the meager amount of subsidy. Despite the government’s good intention to ensure risk-resilient housing, the end result disappointed the economically weaker households who had been waiting for the housing subsidy for more than a year.
Although this example implies that some regulations can be inefficient and a waste of resources (including time), it does not discredit regulations as a whole.
The objective of building regulations is to maximize social welfare. From economic viewpoint, building regulations are imposed in order to internalize negative externalities arising from the construction of buildings (see Joshi and Kono, 2009, RSUE) such as traffic congestion, blocked sunlight or view, threat to neighboring buildings during seismic shocks, or other vulnerabilities such as inferno. However, apart from costs of implementation, building regulations also increase housing price in case of regulation-induced decrease in housing supply (see Bertaud and Brueckner, 2005, RSUE for a study on Mumbai’s stringent FSI), and thereby may promote informal housing. There are certainly trade-offs involved in terms of costs and benefits of regulations, and although stringent regulations are generally welfare-reducing, some regulations are always necessary to protect the occupants themselves as well as their neighbors from health- and hazard-related risks.
Each year, several incidents of inferno are reported in different parts of Nepal with massive damage to properties (see http://www.myrepublica.com/society/story/40419/massive-inferno-wipes-out-two-dang-villages.html). Often the fire starts from one house, and spreads to the whole settlement. Properly designed and implemented building regulation would definitely minimize threats such as inferno.
The main issue, therefore, is the SCALE and EFFICIENCY of regulations. My argument is that building regulations should be less stringent for low-cost houses, and should be developed in consultation with the concerned communities rather than imposed top-down. Of course, the government can develop a general guideline but the more contextual design and implementation could be managed – at least in Nepal’s case – by the local governments viz. municipalities or village committees.
One question may still arise: how should building regulations address incremental housing which is pervasive in developing countries? In the April-May 2015 Earthquakes, most of the buildings that collapsed were “incrementally” built with new floors, sometimes even 2-3 layers of concrete floors over already dilapidated structures originally designed for timber floors up to 3 floors. Incremental housing is a necessity in a developing country but Nepal’s experience shows that incremental housing requires to be regulated.
Regulations are tools which need careful handling; otherwise they can hurt.
Mechanisms of deregulation applied through the Structural Adjustment programs during the 1980s have caused the withdrawal of the state in developing countries. It is agreed that the imposition of deregulation (an oxymoron) has negatively affected the countries’ production, and consequently, the provision of infrastructure, services and housing by the state. In turn this has caused high unemployment and lack of income, the major causes of poverty, inequality and marginalisation, while encouraging the proliferation of informal ways and arrangements, in all sectors - economy, services, housing, etc.
Thus, housing is a process (and not an object, argued Turner) that should be developed concurrently with measures aimed at reducing poverty and promoting socio-economical inclusion. It is not wealth that must be produced, as the poor’s access to wealth can equally be impeded by corruption, kleptocracy and all the issues related to economic and political powers that M. Aldrich has listed above. Rather, it is employment and income opportunities that have to be enhanced in tandem with increased access to affordable land and adequate housing.
Actually, though slowly compared to the scale of the problem, new approaches have been emerging with respect to an integrated vision of housing that may constitute a valid base for developing local (municipal, provincial, or national) housing standards. For instance, an integrated approach, the Social Business Model for Low-Income Housing, is adopted by Pamoja Trust in Kenya and based on the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD): ‘’Social business is a conjunction of development, economics and human rights. It is a housing model borrowing from M. Yunius fame that unfettered markets in their current form are not meant to solve social problems and instead may actually exacerbate poverty, disease, pollution, corruption, crime, and inequality. The model is therefore about both asset building that is grounded in deliberative dialogue towards secure tenure and housing’’ (http://www.pamojatrust.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95&Itemid=311)
To support and develop the argument of scale, the Kambi Moto project in Kenya suggests that successful housing and upgrading projects at the small scale should be taken into account by the government and the city authorities to develop adequate housing standards, through a process of improvement, adjustment and stabilisation of the results achieved in a certain community to the larger scale. F.Guerrero and J.Wanyoike explain in fact : ‘’ Inspite of Kambi Moto being proof that a community-led initiative can improve lifes, and bring most benefits to the community, the scale of the project is too small considering the large slums in Nairobi today. The slum upgrading efforts in Nairobi need to bring together all the available forces. Definitely the Nairobi City County should take into account Kambi Moto project lessons and look for effective ways to take on larger projects that benefit more people. This will be a positive move towards promoting the rights of the people under the constitution, by improving access to adequate housing and facilities for all persons’’. (http://www.centreforurbaninnovations.com/content/kambi-moto-unique-case-insitu-housing-upgrading-project)
Although regulations can achieve dramatic effects if not confronted with the real needs of the poor, the development of adequate housing standards for low-income households cannot be a choice. It is fundamental to enhance societal advancements. Rather, we should look at it in a fresh way: to cite Pamoja Trust ‘’realising housing for the poor requires concerted organizing. We have to realize that we have to build people before we build houses’’ (http://www.pamojatrust.org/index) and this definitely applies to all stakeholders involved in the housing standards development.
Dear all,
I find six common main themes in the discussion. Please let me know if my reading of the results is accurate:
(1) Objective: It seems that the main (and probably only) goal of standards should be households’ health, protection and safety. Thus governments should aim only at MINIMUM standards, avoiding regulations that may affect culturally and socially based modes of living – regardless of the fact that decision and policy makers may dislike some of these forms of living or building.
(2) Secondary effects: There seems to be a consensus that housing standards should not in any case penalize the poor.
(3) Target groups: Here the issue is still less clear for me: Should standards be imposed only on housing builders and markets? Or should they apply also to self-built constructions and informal settlements? If so, how can they be monitored and controlled?
(4) Enforcement: I understand that participants and the panellists suggest that governments should enforce standards among builders and markets, but not among households who build their own shelters or that build through informal means. It seems that governments should act only as “advisors” in the case of self-built settlements.
(5) Scale: Here again the issues are less clear for me: Should standards address communities and specific settlements or regions or nations as a whole?
(6) Effectiveness: We have sufficient evidence of what happens when standards are not applied (destruction, deaths, disasters, injuries, health problems, etc.). More studies are required, however, to know what are the specific benefits of standards (and of not applying standards too) and what are they intended and unintended secondary effects. It seems that more empirical research and data are still needed in this area.
Kirti Joshi
In reply to Gonzalo.
(3) TARGET GROUPS: I don’t see any reason why someone or a group needs to be “targeted”. We are talking about building regulations no matter whether the construction is done by a builder or an owner. We are talking about internalizing negative externalities that could arise from the construction of buildings. In case of “not penalizing the poor” (mentioned in Point 2) or from the perspective of a Rawlsian policymaker, the poor households could be a target group, implying less stringent regulations for them (as discussed in Point 1).
(4) ENFORCEMENT: Again, I would like to highlight that the original question was whether or not a building needs to be regulated (who constructs a building is secondary). In many developing countries, majority of residential buildings are owner-built. The formal-sector buildings can be regulated, if needed, through regular laws such as building codes and bylaws (In many societies, access to basic services such as water supply and electricity is denied for unregulated buildings). The issue of enforcement is more thorny in case of informal housing. Apart from the process of mainstreaming informal housing (a topic beyond the scope of current discussion), minimum/basic building regulations could be enforced with the help of NGOs/CBOs with the active participation of the residents themselves. Contrary to popular belief, informal settlement does not necessarily imply complete lack of system and understanding among residents.
(5) SCALE: Standards are case or context-specific, aren’t they?
(6) EFFECTIVENESS: There are many studies in the urban economic literature that discuss the merits and demerits of building regulations. Most studies agree that stringent regulations are welfare-reducing. However, the impact of housing regulations on poor households needs more investigation.
In reply to Kirti Joshi.
Thank you Kirti for these interesting comments. They will help me prepare the final remarks.😉
We have recieved interesting comments on our Facebook and Linked IN sites. Here comment 1: The way we build our cities determines how vulnerable we are to earthquakes etc. Yet here in New Zealand, post earthquakes we have seen the Government decrease building standards in the form of introduced Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Guidelines – while delivering substantial cost savings to insurance companies, they have left Canterbury with ill-repaired buildings and homeowners deprived of their entitlements. https://thechristchurchfiasco.wordpress.com/
Here Comment 2:
Is that ‘really?’ surprise that the World Bank is promoting this, or skepticism about the idea? Implementation is the big challenge in developing countries, obviously, but building codes and land use planning are the only way to avoid building more massive risks into our cities. So many urban areas in Asia and Africa are now on flood plains, exposing more and more people to the most prevalent form of disaster almost annually – flooding. Thousands of people die every year just from buildings collapsing, even without earthquakes (I tracked news reports on this one year). People in cyclones/hurricanes die or lose everything simply because their homes are not designed to withstand the winds – and this is not just about cost of materials, but design and regulation. My question is – if not this, then what?
In reply to Gonzalo.
1) OBJECTIVE: I do not agree that the main, or even only, objective of housing standards is the households health, protection and safety. We cannot limit the significance of housing standards to the unit level. Housing standards can have much wider implications at the cluster, community and urban level. They may play a fundamental role in breaking the cycle of marginalization and poverty, if integrated with urban standards, through planning and designing of public spaces, street layout, open spaces, etc. This has already been demonstrated in the Aranja project (India) led by the Minimum Cost Housing Group (https://www.mcgill.ca/mchg/pastproject/aranya): ”In 1992, MCHG concluded 8-year collaboration with the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in India; this was the CIDA-supported “Human Settlements Training” project, which focused on the formulation of appropriate housing standards for new housing developments in India. The project was recognized with the prestigious P/A (Progressive Architecture) Award, in 1991”.
In reply to Kirti Joshi.
There is another aspect of the main question lurking in your comment: the temporal dimension. The time at which standards will be most accepted is immediately after the disaster. However, if it takes the disaster to provide the impetus to prepare adequate standards then there will necessarily be a lag time. If standards writers rush the process there are likely to be more unintended consequences (Nepal, cited above). On the other hand, if they are too deliberate, fading memories of a disaster’s impacts may dampen the impulse to promulgate standards. In the US, we saw promulgation of appropriate standards in New Orleans a year after Katrina; and then a partial retreat 2-3 years later driven by the costs of compliance. In standards setting, it seems that time is never on the side of the angels!
Online Debates
Here comment 3:
Maybe part of the answer can be found in Alejandro Aravena’s incremental housing idea. See Iquique project in Chili. This attitude seems like it could both include a minimal standard while including creative, spontaneous and individual expression of needs over time.http://www.elementalchile.cl/en/projects/quinta-monroy/
Online Debates
Here comment 4: Minimum Standard of low cost resilient housing and it’s enforcement by government in LDCs and middle income countries is critical to reduce disaster risks and save life. Examples and experience show that lack of standard resilient houses and absence of enforcement created catastrophe in Haiti, China, Pakistan and many other countries. It’s important to invest on low-cost resilient housing by experts and governments do that it becomes affordable for poor families. Governments of LDCs should ensure such housing schemes for poor under its social safety net programmes.
Online Debates
Here comment 5:
This an area mostly not focused on. Normally most people when they talk about poverty they think of the rural masses. It is evident that migration of people from the rural areas to urban centres is on the increase versus the available houses..Mushrooming of shanties is therefore on the increase Another vivid example is had floods in Mzuzu city (Malawi)where many houses collapsed but the fact is that most of the houses that collapsed the makeshift houses of the low income households where some lives were lost.