WASHINGTON (July 12, 2017) — According to a new report from World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, 330 million households in cities around the world, equivalent to 1.2 billion people, do not have access to affordable and secure housing. Without immediate action, the problem will become even more critical, as this housing gap is projected to grow by 30 percent to 1.6 billion people by 2025.

“Cities are the engines of economic growth and policymakers need help prioritizing solutions,” said Ani Dasgupta, Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “Supporting affordable housing is one of the best ways to help fast-growing cities in the global south run smoother and provide benefits to all residents.

“Two and half billion additional people will be living in urban areas worldwide by 2050, with Asia and Africa seeing nearly 90 percent of this growth. The housing gap has a human cost and is a major drag on the economy and the environment. We need to take immediate action to avoid creating cities that are less productive, less efficient and less inclusive—something that would truly impact everyone.”

The latest installment of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report “Towards a More Equitable City,” which examines whether prioritizing access to core urban services for the underserved will create cities that are prosperous and sustainable for all people, emphasizes housing as one such critical core need.

“Housing is often seen as falling into discrete categories such as public or private, formal or informal,” said Robin King, lead author and WRI Ross Center Director of Knowledge Capture and Collaboration. “But we view housing options on a spectrum that combines different elements of ownership, space, services and finance. In some cases, land may be public while the dwellings on it are private. This spectrum allows a more nuanced analysis of the reality of housing markets in the global south and consideration of a wider range of possibilities.”

“The paper is coming out at a very important time, when the discussion about affordability, adequacy and issues of secure tenure have become very critical in global cities of the south,” said Sheela Patel, founding member and Chairperson of Slum/Shack Dwellers International. “Cities produce aspirations. If you don’t fulfill those aspirations, which start with safe neighborhoods, a good environment, a good education—these are all settlement and neighborhood related amenities and services—you produce discontent.”

The study focuses on three actionable approaches city officials can use to address the housing crisis, while highlighting specific examples from around the world:

  1. Participatory approaches to improving housing without relocating residents to the urban periphery (_in situ_upgrading) Demand for housing has outstripped supply, leading to a proliferation of informal and substandard settlements. “Slum-free cities” is often code for displacement of people to the periphery. Finding ways to accommodate people where they are, rather than displacing them to far corners of a city, taps into community knowledge and energy while retaining links to existing social and livelihood networks. This approach is harmful to the city at large. An example of success: Thailand’s Baan Mankong program directs government infrastructure subsidies, soft housing and land loans to poor communities who then negotiate with land owners for formal tenure and use the funds to upgrade their housing. By 2016, 1,903 poor communities in 345 cities had been fully upgraded under the program; 101,224 poor families had secure land decent houses and healthy living environments.
  2. Expand rental markets for people across all income levels. Home ownership is over-emphasized in urban development, which hurts those who lack the resources to buy a home and those who need flexibility such as those working in the informal sector. Expanded rental markets for people of all income levels, with legal protection for landlords and renters, can help meet the housing needs of the urban poor while maintaining flexibility and encouraging market-driven development. Gauteng Province, South Africa, which includes Johannesburg, tackled a housing shortage of 687,000 units by making it legal to rent out formally illegal informal backyard apartments. This made it easier for low-income people to find places to live and encouraged development of services without government subsidies.
  3. Convert under-utilized, centrally located urban land into affordable housing in cities. Policies that drive the poor to the periphery leaves prime locations under-utilized or totally unused, even as new residents seeking housing come into the city. Political will to address housing needs is critical. By converting this land, especially publicly held land, into affordable housing, cities can avoid sprawl, take advantage of existing resources, and spur economic growth. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, 420 families live in the María Auxiliadora Community on land purchased and held in trust as community-owned property, an approach commonly referred to as a Community Land Trust. Its unique governance structure rotates leadership among women in two-year terms, rejects men who engage in domestic violence and provides community-managed support to families. The land cannot be sold for profit, which keeps the housing affordable.

“These solutions will help urban policymakers in fast-growing cities meet the demand for housing while encouraging economic development and cleaner, safer environments,” said King. “Closing the housing gap by providing access to affordable, adequate and secure housing will benefit everyone, not just the poor and underserved, as cities become more productive, environmentally sustainable, and truly places for all.”