Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Housing is about access

BBC Radio had an interesting documentary about the role of nonprofits, also known as "NGOs," in India. I was particularly struck by the story (starting at 14:50) of one nonprofit, SPARC, whose solution to the problems of the "pavement dwellers" (people who live in shacks on the sidewalk) in the Mumbai neighborhood of Byculla was to "resettle" them in new houses way the hell out in the suburbs (near a nuclear reactor, a fact not mentioned in the story).

A woman named Famida said that the new housing came with its own problems. "My life is very happy," she starts out, but it turns out it's not so happy. "There's no 24-hour water supply, so we have to wander around for water. We order water tanks, but the water is contaminated. A lot of people get sick from drinking it. The electricity bills are too high. There's no work either. We have to come here to work. In Mankhurd there are no hospitals, no schools. Everything is so far away. There are no facilities for kids, no playgrounds. There's nothing good there."

Housing is not just about shelter. It's not even about shelter and utilities. If it were, we'd have no problem housing everyone in the world. In fact, it's my understanding that most of the pavement dwellers came from rural villages where they had decent houses and sometimes even clean water and places for the kids to play. What they didn't have was work, hospitals or schools, and that's why they went to Byculla in the first place.

The housing problem is about access: access to jobs, but also to shopping, to government and private services. It's also about access to education, to social networks and to the levers of government. If you don't believe that last one, compare the cleanliness of streets in the South Bronx with those on the Upper East Side.

As the old real estate motto goes, "Location, location, location." But of course access is not just about location, it's location plus transportation. If the location is less convenient, as Famida tells us, you need to spend more money and time on transportation for the same level of access.

Our friends at the Center for Neighborhood Technology have added those up to put a price tag on access for most of the United States. The results show that "drive till you qualify" was a misguided myth. More about access and housing soon.

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