The question of affordable housing amidst increasing wealth inequality

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We’re facing many obstacles in the world today whether economic or political, one of the very overlooked but devastating ones is the lack of affordable housing.

We’re running out of homes for people and it is becoming more and more apparent after the pandemic. According to the most recent statistics, the urban housing shortage across India was at 18.78 million houses for the period 2012-2017 and 95 percent of the gap was for low-income households which forced more than 35 million people to live in informal housing that lacked adequate services. A huge part of the 35 million people live in slums where 71 percent do not have underground sewers, 41 percent have a dry-pit latrine or “Indian Toilets” as many call them here, and some percentage of the 41 percent do not have access to toilet facilities at all which contradicts the government’s claims saying that every single citizen has access to a toilet and open defecation doesn’t exist anymore.

17 percent of all of the urban population in India lives in such slums which is more than 13 million households. Now you might think that there must be no houses available for them but at the same time there are 11 million houses that are vacant across urban India. So if there are enough homes for more than 84 percent of the slum dwellers to live in then why hasn’t the problem been solved yet?

Ghost societies of Greater Noida, UP

The answer is wealth inequality, a thing that is at an all-time high after the pandemic. Wealth inequality is the reason a lot of major problems still exist like malnutrition. There is enough resource for everyone but it just isn’t distributed equally.

Double burden of malnutrition worries young mothers in Musahar villages

Anyhow, the government’s response to this issue has been making it worse if not doing anything. The thing about living in slums is that you have no tenure security and the government can just bulldoze your house in the name of “beautification” because nothing says pretty other than people forced on the streets.

Between 2017-19, 280,000 people were evicted from their homes in the slums. This would be a good thing if the government was providing them with proper housing but that just isn’t the case.

The lack of housing is being faced in most places on earth and people believe that building skyscrapers and 90 story buildings is doing anything to solve it. However, skyscrapers are nothing but a status symbol which just symbolizes the level of wealth inequality today.

Statistics say that most skyscrapers are completely empty and I believe that there is no need to build them in 99 percent of cases. This is because skyscrapers are just riddled with problems similar to cars, and their environmental impact is very high.

According to ‘The Guardian’, studies reveal that electricity use per square meter of floor area was nearly two and a half times greater in high rise office buildings (more than 20 stories) than low rises (6 stories or less), the gas used for heating was about 40% more for tall buildings and the total carbon emissions from these buildings was twice as high.

But just because the building isn’t eco-friendly doesn’t mean it can’t solve the lack of affordable housing, which brings us to the second point which is cost.

Skyscrapers are mostly built by companies and investors who seek returns so that takes away the affordability aspect completely since it takes a lot of money to build them and the investors would choose to build luxury condos and penthouses for the rich because that is the most profitable option.

The second point alone eliminates all possibility for skyscrapers to be affordable unless the government steps in but there is no point in doing that since 5 ten story buildings have more capacity than the Burj Khalifa and it costs significantly less. The higher you build, the costlier it gets.

Those aren’t even the only issues with skyscrapers. Living on the 50th floor promotes alienation and isolation because if you wanted to socialize you’d have to go down to a park or public space but it just isn’t the same as going down from the 5th floor. One takes 5 minutes while the other takes fifteen.

Skyscrapers are also a logistical headache when you take the outside world into consideration. A large residential skyscraper would need to be supported with adequate public transportation and parking spaces. A building with such capacity would also require daycares, elementary schools, and a hundred other things.

So if skyscrapers are not the solution to the lack of affordable housing then what is? The free market is not going to solve the problem as it’s not profitable so it’s up to the government to build homes.

Panel khrushchyovka in Tomsk

This was tried earlier by the Soviets, they built buildings using very cheap materials to make them affordable. These buildings are known as “Commie Blocks” today and are highly criticized due to how boring and bland they look. Just this reason has set a narrative to believe that public housing is dystopian and bad for our cities.

The thing people don’t acknowledge about the commie blocks is that this was absolute paradise at the time. Eastern Europe was in complete shambles after the second world war with a lot of homes destroyed forcing people to live in improper shelters or on the streets. The commie blocks may not look the best according to the high American standards but they certainly look and are better than the slums.

Creating affordable housing is not easy at all and companies aren’t usually profited from it so they only focus on building tall skyscrapers, luxurious apartments, and large office spaces which is only logical for them to do.

So we have theorized that the lack of housing can only be solved by the government building homes but has this worked in real life?

Singapore is a very popular example where 80 percent of all homes are public housing that is enjoyed by both the poor and the rich. These apartment complexes have also ended segregation on a wide scale making different types of people live next to each other.

Singapore did this without becoming a communist state. There is also no merit to the accusation that building affordable housing is communism and hence bad. A different type of example is Mexico where they built 20 million homes which was enough for one sixth of their entire population but buildings also need to be maintained. Wells that supply water to a lot of those houses are filled with waste or are simply dry, there’s no access to electricity in many of them and quite a few of them are unsafe buildings that are about to or have already fallen.

So when we talk about affordable housing, we don’t just want buildings to be built, we need homes that have adequate facilities like water and electricity.

The lack of affordable housing is also caused by bad zoning. Yes, building affordable apartments is literally banned in most of the US and Canada. Most of the land for cities is reserved for only single family homes that are very expensive to live in and far from affordable for a low income household.

To conclude, I’d say that the affordable housing crisis is another result of wealth inequality that we saw coming for decades but didn’t do anything about and that the only solution is for government initiatives like the example of Singapore.

This article was part of the series “The Housing Crisis is the Most Important Problem”

Shilyn Shekhar is a middle school student of St.Mary’s, Safdarjung Eclave, Delhi. He is interested in Future Tech, Space and their relation to society. This article is part of his writing project.

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