The Housing Issue: Parallels in the United States and East Asia

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

June 5, 1998

The following is a summary of the breakout group on housing, as reported by Shyama Venkateswar, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

Moderator Corazon Soliman (Community Organization Training and Research Advocacy Institute) initiated the discussion by asking the American and Asian participants to share their views on what they felt were some of the barriers to adequate housing for citizens on both sides of the Pacific. Although the participants represented countries with different levels of economic development and political regime types, they agreed on the existence of a common set of barriers.

In the United States as well as in Asian countries, a major issue is the scarcity of affordable housing and access to credit. Even when housing is available, the prohibitive costs of renting or purchasing and the lack of easy access to mortgage or lending systems place decent housing beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

A second barrier is the insecurity of tenure and property rights. Both Soliman and Kenneth Fernandes (Asian Coalition for Housing Rights) raised the issue of how in Southeast Asia the lack of secure titles and the prevalence of informal ties to land often result in eviction. Without proper documentation of ownership, those evicted, usually the poor and the marginalized, have no recourse to the law.

The American participants were divided over the value of having property rights set within a clearly defined legal system. While some participants commented that a tight legal structure was simply a way to tax and charge citizens during the transfer of property or the closing of a transaction, others, like Harold O. Wilson (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) argued that a formal legal structure supported by the state was necessary in order for the state to provide affordable housing to low-income groups.

This led to a discussion of a third category of barriers connected to the role of government: overregulation and bureaucratic rigidity. Some participants expressed the need for government involvement in the provision of infrastructural necessities like sewage, water, and the like; others argued that the involvement of government often led to abuse and corruption. Participants from the United States and Asia identified instances where government involvement often hurt ordinary citizens. Wilson gave an example of communities on the U.S.-Mexico border that are unable to afford to build their houses because of the stringency of building codes in the area. As an example of bureaucratic rigidity in Asia, Fernandes mentioned that many of the standards in place in Asian countries are designed by Western-trained bureaucrats and planners, who appropriate laws that are wholly incompatible with local conditions. Fernandes brought up the case of Karachi, another example of government involvement, where only 5 to 8 percent of the government-sponsored housing projects were occupied by low-income groups, with the rest occupied by middle-income groups who bought their property on speculation.

Class, race, age, and gender discrimination pose another set of barriers. Tom Jones (Habitat for Humanity International) noted that even in the United States, where there is a willingness to help find affordable housing for people of different cultures, races, and classes, there is still a general attitude of NIMBY (not in my backyard). In other words, supporting the idea of housing for all is fine in theory, but it is difficult to implement such plans. People are reluctant to integrate and share neighborhoods with those from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

The group turned to the question of finding common solutions for the housing crisis on both sides of the Pacific, and specifically to the means of providing affordable housing for all citizens in both rural and urban communities. A common thread was the need to empower ordinary citizens by organizing them, thereby giving them the opportunity to engage with policymakers and planners in decisions regarding their neighborhoods and communities. Lawrence Chickering (International Center for Economic Growth) gave examples of housing initiatives that his organization has led in California. By organizing tenants to create self-governed organizations in public housing projects, the NGO was able to turn dysfunctional crime-ridden communities into productive communities with less crime and fewer racial tensions.

Citing another example, Wilson described a successful initiative in Honduras in the 1960s. A housing foundation started giving small, starter loans to squatter communities with the stipulation that the loans be repaid. The foundation also help form cooperatives, NGOs, and credit unions to serve those particular areas of the community. The key, according to Wilson, was organizing communities. Once that had been achieved, the loans were repaid, and soon afterward the shanty towns constructed from cardboard had been replaced by concrete and cement structures.

Soliman asserted that it is important for Asians and Americans to work with their governments in planning and developing communities. She gave the example of the Philippines, where NGO groups advocating for housing rights actively search out planners and technocrats to elicit from them ideas about how to develop communities. She cited a land-sharing agreement in Bangkok, in which slum dwellers had negotiated with the government and the monarch to divide the land on which they squatted; a portion of it was used by the crown property to build commercial buildings where business was conducted, and the rest was used by the people to design houses for themselves. Institutionalizing that kind of interaction, Soliman argued, helps cities to move in the direction of being “people-owned” rather than “planner-owned” or “government-owned.” However, she cautioned that these attempts in Asia tend to be more successful in secondary cities, as opposed to megacities like Metro Manila and Bangkok.

All the participants agreed that this work could not be accomplished by the NGO and nonprofit communities alone. It is essential that local community organizations and housing advocacy groups work in close cooperation with the relevant branches of government to find solutions to the housing crisis and to build sustainable communities. Jones and Fernandes offered concrete examples of such successful collaborations in the United States and in Cambodia, respectively.

Although ownership is construed in different ways—in the United States, in a legal manner and in Asia, more informally—the participants stressed that giving people property rights and secure titles to land would result in their being able to use the property as collateral, to invest time and energy in their communities, and to become politically active in demanding local schools, roads, and hospitals. In their personal experiences, these participants had found that providing secure titles and soft loans motivated people to create and build their communities according to their own definition of quality of life rather than that of government bureaucrats and elite planners.

The group also discussed the role of intermediary institutions like the U.S. community development corporations (CDCs) at the community, city, and international levels that determine policies in cooperation with city planners. In this context, the participants noted the value of intermediary national-level groups that help to aggregate resources for community-based organizations and train them in advocacy. By amassing funds for low-income and disenfranchised people and bringing together those who own capital and those who own land, CDCs help people to build their houses, organize, and empower themselves. Wilson brought up the Self-Help Housing Program as a model in place in rural America. Under this program, the Department of Agriculture makes grants to CDCs to organize families to construct their own houses through low-interest loans.

Underlying the discussion of barriers and solutions to the housing problem is the notion that housing is not simply a matter of building concrete structures or infrastructure, but is intrinsically a social and human problem that relates to the empowerment of local communities. Related to this are two questions on democratic values: What is the common good and who defines it? What is the optimal way in which governments can be involved in regulations so that the common good can be preserved? The idea of people-centered solutions to housing problems highlights the importance of people’s access to and control of their own resources, and their ability to participate in larger decision-making processes that relate to their lives. Finally, building decent homes and communities is strongly linked to creating economic value for the families living in them. The participants concurred that focusing on housing development is the first step in generating economic development in rural and urban areas in the United States and Asia.