Skip to main content

Hazard of cramped spaces: Covid-19 makes strong case for affordable housing

By Moin Qazi*
Among the many challenges that have gained urgency in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, housing requires a highly creative response. The huge exodus from cities to villages was necessitated on account of lack of proper housing in cities. Expanding access to affordable housing is essential not just for equitable development but also social stability.
When residents don’t have proper places to live, the stress on families and neighbourhoods can create severe social implications. Coronavirus has been referred to as a “housing disease” because of the strong links between overcrowding, poor housing conditions and higher mortality rates. The disease spreads quickly when households live in cramped spaces without access to water and sanitation.
COVID-19 has highlighted the high social and economic costs of this gap in the safety net. People living in poor-quality, overcrowded, or unstable housing cannot follow directives on safe shelters or maintain social distancing. As a result, they are at a far greater risk of contracting the virus, along with other illnesses. There is mounting evidence that Covid-19 could be airborne, and the lack of adequate ventilation increases the risk of transmission. Coronavirus has been referred to as a “housing disease” because of the strong links between overcrowding, poor housing conditions and higher mortality rates.
The central dilemma of poor housing has been wonderfully captured by Jacob Riis in his inimitable style: “The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements… The gap between the classes in which it surges, unseen, unsuspected by the thoughtless, is widening day by day. No tardy enactment of law, no political expedient, can close it. Against all other dangers our system of government may offer defence and shelter; against this not. I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.”
While we continue to record improvements in dealing with poverty, homelessness has elicited but an unimaginative response from policy doctors. The apathetic approach of successive governments is symptomatic of the disease that ails India’s housing system. Slums constitute 17% of urban households in India; in Mumbai itself, they make up 42% of the households. They also lack necessary amenities like private toilets and availability of clean water. Dense living and a weak public healthcare system means that populations who are already susceptible to COVID-19 carry further risk of transmission of the virus. Essential precautions like social distancing cannot be practised in such living conditions.
Housing is only part of the equation when it comes to addressing historical inequities and ensuring healthy communities. Human health and well-being depend on a range of interconnected social, economic, and physical factors that impact the environments in which we live. The key to good and healthy housing is to make sure that residents have access to transportation, affordable healthcare, living-wage jobs, small business investment, education and cultural activities, as well as other essential services. A decent habitat and shelter can contribute not just to their well-being but also catalyse overall economic growth. It is thus critical to recognise housing investment as a basic, fundamental building block of economic activity.
There is nothing more critical to a family’s quality of life than a healthy, safe living space. Sustainable and inclusive housing solutions could bolster economic growth quickly and efficiently and hence should be given priority over education and health.
Housing is not a standalone issue: It is closely intertwined with and often the cause of a slew of health and developmental problems. Poor ventilation and inability to maintain basic hygiene are major causes of poor health. Fragile building structures undermine safety and vastly increase vulnerability to disaster. Lack of lighting and space limits the ability of children to study. Inadequate privacy and lack of sanitation contribute to a host of diseases, thereby perpetuating poverty.
For many people in the developing world, the land on which they live is their only asset. If that property is not publicly recognised as belonging to them, they lose out on several social benefits.
Land ownership is often the bedrock of other development interventions. Owning land boosts nutrition, educational outcomes and gender equality. The converse is equally true. Where land security is absent or weak — that is, when men and women do not receive recognised legal rights to their land and can thus be easily displaced without recourse — development efforts flounder, undermining conservation efforts, seeding injustice and conflict and frustrating efforts to escape poverty.
For most of India’s poor and the vulnerable, secure property rights including land tenure, make for a rare accessible luxury. Many who live in slums have little to no control over or ownership of the property they live on. The lack of official land titles is a major impediment to the acquisition of housing finance. People do not have documentary proof of being owners of the piece of land on which they live and are, therefore, legally insecure. Many low-income villagers have owned their land for generations but lack formal ownership documents. Hence they do not have access to formal financial services. Once their inhabited land gets formally titled, they could obtain access to several public benefits including loans.
Traditional housing finance has not been able to offer products tailored to low-income people but a range of financial institutions are applying good microfinance practices to housing finance. This is allowing them to successfully deliver much-needed services to economically weaker customers. The increased provision of housing microfinance has resulted in safe and healthy housing conditions for millions, thereby improving families’ social and economic resilience. With its roots in traditional microfinance, the housing microfinance sector provides larger, lower-interest loans that align with low-income households’ incremental building practices.
Successful housing microfinance providers have married the core principles of the micro-credit — peer-based borrower selection and repayment enforcement, close follow-up on repayment and so on — with the technical expertise required to investigate land ownership and other classical housing finance principles. This model has been highly successful wherever governments are offering long-term tenancies and shared-ownership housing. But the sector is still in need of more sustainable business models to get legitimacy in mainstream finance.
Housing micro-finance is broadly defined as small, non-mortgage-backed loans dedicated to housing activities, offered in sequences to support the incremental building practices of low-income populations. It can include a range of financial services that support improving or upgrading housing such as home repair and expansions, additional cooking space, water and sanitation services, energy efficiency upgrades, the purchase of inhabitable land or permanent structures and the construction of new housing.
Housing micro-finance intersects both housing finance and micro-finance. The emerging practice encompasses financial services that allow poor and low-income earning people to finance their habitat needs with methods adapted from the micro-finance experience: 
  • Loans are for relatively small amounts and are based on clients’ capacity to repay;
  • Repayment periods are relatively short (especially in comparison to mortgage lending) and are on par with mid- to high-end micro-finance individual loans;
  • Loan pricing is expected to cover the real, long run costs–operational and financial–of providing the service;
  • Loans are not heavily collateralized, if at all, and collateral substitutes, such as tax receipts or para-legal documents of land lease are often used;
  • Loans tend to finance habitat needs in an incremental manner with short repayment periods and relatively low monthly payments;
  • If the provider is an MFI, credit services for housing can be linked to prior participation in savings or more traditional microenterprise loan services; and
  • A housing loan is combined with a small working capital loan for economic activity. Such combined loans are known as productive housing loans.
The demand for housing microfinance is high. Clients already channelise a good portion of micro-enterprise loans to home improvement. Micro-entrepreneurs also use their homes as productive assets for generating income. A home can be a place to store inventory, produce goods and run a business. A home is also a personal asset that usually appreciates in value over time. Home improvement, thus, not only enhances living conditions but is also an investment.
The Government also needs to use creative approaches in making rental housing a safe option for house owners. Its share in overall housing has been steadily declining. There is clearly need for replacing current rent control laws with a modern tenancy law, which would give full freedom to tenants and owners to negotiate the rent and the length of the lease. Rules with respect to eviction also need to be reformed to restore the balance between the rights of tenants and the owners.
We need a differently structured and more professional market rental sector. A Model Rent Act is needed to promote rental housing. There should be mutual agreement between the landlord and the tenant for a stipulated lease period prior to which the tenant will not be allowed to be evicted and after the expiry of the lease period, the tenant will not be permitted to continue in the housing unit.
Rent control laws give tenants so much security that landlords worry that they may not regain possession of their property at the end of the lease period. People often leave their properties vacant until they get a tenant they are comfortable with.
It is time the Government puts rental housing to use. Its share in overall housing has been steadily declining. There is clearly need for replacing current rent control laws with a modern tenancy law, which would give full freedom to tenants and owners to negotiate the rent and the length of the lease. Rules with respect to eviction also need to be reformed to restore balance between the rights of tenants and the owners.
We need a differently structured and more professional market rental sector A Model Rent Act is needed to promote rental housing. There should be mutual agreement between the landlord and the tenant for a stipulated lease period prior to which the tenant will not be allowed to be evicted and after the expiry of the lease period, the tenant will not be permitted to continue in the housing unit.
Policy-makers, financial institutions and housing experts also need to evaluate their current policies, cultures, and ways of working. With a thoughtful approach, they can be better prepared to tackle this humongous problem. The government will have to change course and shift away from the legacy mindset before the problem gets out of hand.

*Development expert



Crucial to revisit roots, embrace core Hindu principles: love, compassion, harmony

A note on religious leaders'  Satya Dharam Samvad in Haridwar: *** In a groundbreaking gathering, more than 25 religious leaders including Swamis, Acharyas, Pujaris, Gurus, and Sadhvis from all over India convened to discuss the tenets of Hinduism on September 16th, 2023, in Haridwar, to discuss and discern the current trajectory of Hinduism. This brand new initiative, the Satya Dharam Samvad, was inspired to organize its first assembly in response to the December 2021 Dharma Sansad, where hate speech and calls for violence against the Muslim community contravened the essential principles of Hinduism. Religion is being used to incite riots among Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, etc. In the face of such hatred, Swami Raghavendra felt that something meaningful should be done in the present climate. 

Maoist tendency of mechanically adhering to Chinese path ignores Indian conditions

By Harsh Thakor  The C.P.I. (Maoist) formed in 2004 with merger of the C.P.I. (M.L) Peoples War and the Maoist Communist Centre has demonstrated courage in intensity compared to any great revolutionary struggle in the history of the world. It leads the largest armed movement of a Peoples Guerrilla Army in the world today and proved themselves as the true torch bearers of the Indian Communist movement.

Significant step towards empowering and particularly engaging with informal workers

ActionAid note on drive to empower informal sector workers Odisha with the support of District Labour Department: *** The Odisha Unorganised Workers Social Security Board (OUWSSB) facilitated an Unorganized Workers Awareness Camp at the Red Cross Bhawan in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. The event took place in collaboration with the District Labour Department at Khordha, Centre for Child and Women Development and ActionAid Association. This informative event aimed at empowering informal sector workers by disseminating crucial information regarding their eligibility for various social security schemes provided by the Government of Odisha.

We need to resurrect Neruda, give birth to poets of his kind amidst neofascist rampage

By Harsh Thakor  On 23rd September we commemorate the 50th death anniversary of Pablo Neruda, whose contribution to revolutionary poetry was path breaking. Pablo Neruda’s poetry manifested the spiritual essence of revolutionary poetry and how poetry was a weapon for a revolutionary struggle. The story of his life illustrated the spiritual transformation undergone a human being to transform him into a revolutionary and how environment shapes the lie of revolutionary.

Dev Anand ably acted as westernised, urban educated, modern hero, as also anti-hero

By Harsh Thakor  On September 26th we celebrated the birth centenary of legendary actor Dev Anand. Dev Saab carved out a new epoch or made a path breaking contribution in portraying romanticism and action in Bollywood cinema, giving his style or mannerisms a new colour. Arguably no Bollywood star manifested glamour in such a dignified or serene manner or struck the core of an audience’s soul in romantic melodies. Possibly we missed this evergreen star being cast in a Hollywood film. Dev Anand is like an inextinguishable soul of Bollywood. Although not as artistic or intense as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor or Ashok Kumar ,Dev Anand surpassed them all for liveliness or flamboyance, with his performances radiating g energy on the screen, in realms rarely transcended. In his own right, Dev Saab, was a craftsman, like his classical contemporaries, with a characteristic composure. Perhaps never was a Bollywood star so suave, bubbling or charming as Dev Anand, who often looked like an Indian versi

Grassroots NGO enlightens people of Kupwara with intricacies of Right to Information

J&K RTI Foundation and Founder Civil Rights Movement Kupwara note on how RTI Pend is empowering Kupwara with insights on Right to Information Act: *** RTI Pend, the grassroots initiative aimed at democratizing access to information, hosted its 2nd event in Kupwara. On the request of the Civil Rights Movement Kupwara, this event was tailored to enlighten the people of Kupwara with the intricacies of the Right to Information Act, presented in their local language and dialects. The event successfully bridged both offline and online participation, addressing queries on the spot and offering applicants practical solutions.

Abrogation of Art 370: Increasing alienation, relentless repression, simmering conflict

One year after the abrogation by the Central Government of Art. 370 in Kashmir, what is the situation in the Valley. Have the promises of peace, normalcy and development been realised? What is the current status in the Valley? Here is a detailed note by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties , “Jammu & Kashmir: One Year after Abrogation of Art. 370: Increasing Alienation, Relentless Repression, Simmering Conflict”:

Agro-biodiversity through seed identification, conservation, replication, crop selection

By Kuntal Mukherjee, Basant Yadav, Shivnath Yadav* This article is mainly based on a journey of the three of us since 2010 based on field experience, study of different articles, reflective journeys with local community based organisations, villagers and practitioners in Chhattisgarh. The slow growth of Agriculture in India with near stagnation in productivity since mid ‘80s in contrast to the remarkable growth during the green revolution period has come to the front as a great concern. In post WTO era Indian Agriculture has been witnessing structural changes, uncontrolled influx of agriculture goods and commodities from foreign countries due to open market nature. The gradual reduction in subsidies from internal production leads to increasing cost of production of agriculture produces at the farm gate. It causes gradual decrease in internal production as well as productivity and posing threats to small farm and stakeholders. 

Indian youth can choose political career which offers tremendous opportunities

By Sudhansu R Das  The Indian political sector is growing faster than any other sector in the world. This sector has been fully liberalised. Political career in India is open to any age group starting from 25 plus to 90 plus; people with any educational background, even an illiterate person can contest election in India. An old man or woman with multiple organ failure can become leader of a political party; they can control party workers from the hospital bed also. Social status, physical and mental ability seldom stand in the way of a political leader. Advanced age is not an issue which can be reversed with effortless ease. 

Commodification of road accident deaths: The hidden health hazard of motonormativity

By Chandra Vikash*  Jahnavi Kandula, an Indian student from Andhra Pradesh, studying in America was killed in a road accident by a police motor car in January 2023. Now, 8 months after the accident, a bodycam video of Daniel Orderer, who is the vice president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, has gone viral on social media. He was laughing at her death and saying that “she was 26 years old, anyway… she had limited value… just give her $11,000 (ie Rs 9.13 lakh)”.