Saturday, November 14, 2009

Housing the Poor: Talking with Ashoka Fellow Pratima Joshi, Pt. II

Prior to 1970 in Pune, the land policy was to just knock down slums to get rid of the illegal squatters. Pune soon learned, like most other cities, that they just come right back. A new approach has evolved. The city sees value in the land underlying the slums, which are generally one or two floors - a waste of space. The government has extended a market-based deal to developers and dwellers: destroy the slum, plan out organized housing units on half of the land, give the the homes for free to the poor at the developer's expense, and allow the developer free reign with the rest of the land. While construction is occurring, the developer provides temporary camps for the families. Efforts are just starting in Pune, but Bombay already has experience with this approach.

The downside, I feel, is that the poor are still concentrated together. Since the 1930's, the US has grappled with how to house the poor. The US government has settled on mixed-income housing using block grants and housing vouchers. The argument goes that the poor shouldn’t be concentrated together in a project, as Pune and SA are doing, because it concentrates the problem and creates a negative environment. I liken this negative environment to The Simpsons episode where the teacher brings Homer and Marge in to talk about Bart’s problems in school. She shows them a funnel with Bart’s desk representing the center and all other desks around him being pulled down the funnel by him.

In support of mixed housing, Pratima explains that when she first moved to Pune, she lived in a bungalow, behind which lived two servant families. She says, “They shared a special relationship with my husband's family which was almost symbiotic.” Fifteen years ago the bungalow was torn down, and the new development had no such servant quarters. She feels that changes like this in India have encouraged the polarization between the "haves" and have nots". “It’s always good to encourage mixed types of housing," but in defense of SA's housing projects, she says "I think people need to understand that they are not one big homogenous group.” However, there are certainly different income levels within a slum, and many people doing different trades, but the living conditions and problems are quite similar (for example, alcoholism among household heads is pervasive, consistently cited at around 50% by the local residents).

Then you have to wonder, if you did mixed housing, would there be a mass exodus of the rich, who don't want to live near the poor? (similar to the phenomenon of "white flight" to the suburbs, although it should be noted that whites were encouraged by FHA wasn't all racism). Economist Douglas Krupka finds that mixed-income communities aren't stable. The economic forces underlying business and residence decisions are simply too strong. For example, with mixing, travel distance to Harris Teeter might be very long for the wealthy if their ratio is too low in the community. Conversely, the poor might have to travel far to get to a lower end chain like Food Lion if their ratio is too low. Businesses want to locate near their target population, and people want to live near amenities to which they are accustomed. However, with government subsidies, who's to say it can't be done? It's simply a matter of how much we value diversity, I suppose. If mixed-income communities are in fact unsustainable, perhaps Pune and SA's strategy of concentration is on the right track.

And what’s next for SA? Pratima has a rule: “Anyone who has lived in Pune for more than three years is not in poverty. Because the cost of living is so high, if he is alive, he can’t be poor.” Thus, for the past 8 or 9 years, SA has been focusing its work more on smaller cities, like Sangli. It will be interesting to watch how their GIS mapping revolutionizes slum rehabilitation in India.

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