Helping the urban poor upgrade their slums

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 30, 2019 - January 05, 2020.

About a billion people live in slums and that could double by 2030

Somsook: We let the poor community be the key actors in implementing and planning these projects

Some of Bangkok’s informal settlements along the canal are being upgraded with squatters getting secure housing and canals improved with better flood control

-A +A

The face of poverty is everywhere, from a back alley in Asia to a street in some of the world’s most central cities. That is hardly surprising since one of the effects of urbanisation is an increased number of urban poor, especially prevalent in developing countries. According to a UN report, about a sixth of the world’s population, or nearly one billion people, live in slums and this number could double by 2030.

Poverty, more than simply not having enough money or having limited access to resources to meet basic human needs, is a complex societal issue that requires attention. When poor people lack the necessary resources to get out of poverty, it becomes a cycle and the poor remain poor throughout their lives, perpetuating the unhealthy social and physical conditions around them.

Although charities and donations are all there to help, Somsook Boonyabancha believes in helping the poor help themselves. The chairman of the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights (ACHR) has spent the last 40 years working for the urban poor. She is also the former director of the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), a Thai government institution established in 1992 to support people-driven development in Thailand’s urban and rural poor communities through a variety of funds and programmes.

Somsook notes that the urban poor are innovative people and have the capacity to upgrade their slums into proper housing settlements on a citywide scale with the right support. “If you look at these people from a different perspective, you will see that they are amazing. Whether they are evicted, chased out or stopped, they will always find a way to house themselves wherever possible, whether legal or not. When we cannot find a way to solve the problem, people find their own solution.”

She presented her report in the Cagamas and World Bank Group conference, entitled “Constructing and Financing Affordable Housing across Asia”, held in Kuala Lumpur in April this year.

According to Somsook, government and private-sector affordable housing developments in most countries mainly focus on the low to middle-income communities. “It is difficult to reach the [bottom] 30% of the urban poor,” she highlights.

Nonetheless, organisations such as ACHR and CODI do focus on communities that are very poor to lower-middle income. “We help these people change their existing slums into a beautiful settlement in an affordable, easy and organised way that is managed by the community,” Somsook says.

ACHR is a 31-year-old coalition made up of professionals, NGOs and community organisations, among which is the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) programme that has been supporting community-driven slum upgrading activities in 215 cities across 19 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mongolia.

The coalition works with the belief that the key resource to solving Asia’s serious poverty and housing problems is the people themselves as those who are experiencing the problems are the ones who most urgently want change and are most motivated to resolve those problems.

“We help support them to do a more organised housing project using the demand-driven approach and let the poor community be the key actors in implementing and planning these projects,” says Somsook.

To do this, you have to first get the people together by doing a citywide survey, getting the poor to register and finding out what they want. “When the poor are isolated, they are weak. But if they work as a group, they can help each other and will have stronger negotiation power in terms of tackling land and infrastructure issues and getting access to finance,” she says.


Building a community finance system

Financing is an integral part of the community-led housing process. “We have to set up a system in which financing is possible for them as a group. With access to finance, they can get the housing project done quite easily. We can then support them on the knowledge aspect in terms of planning the new settlement as a group with an architect and engineer,” Somsook explains.

Using CODI in Thailand as an example, she notes that the government organisation manages a US$200 million revolving fund provided by the ministry of social development and human security and from which grants and loans are provided to the community housing groups using a margin of interest.

“Repayment so far is 97% and the model can support 130,000 units of housing. The loans that are working well will be refinanced by the Government Housing Bank. This way, the fund can continue to revolve,” she says.

Successful projects include the Ruam Samakki Slum Reconstruction project and the Charoenchi Nimitmai Reblocking Upgrading Community project in Bangkok.

At the former, everything was demolished and reconstructed. “It was cheap and it became very nice. We are talking about US$6,000 per unit,” Somsook says.

As for the latter, 81 units were evicted and reblocked to a 0.7ha site and the new homes cost a monthly repayment of THB1,100 to THB2,000 (or about US$27 to US$50).

A major community-led project in Thailand is the canal housing reconstruction. There are 1,161 canals in Bangkok and 23,500 households are living in informal settlements on the narrow strips of public land along those canals, which are typically in disrepair and used as a dumping ground for sewage and solid waste.

According to Somsook, all the canal housing in Asia can be upgraded. “Squatter housing can encroach on the canal and waterways and a very organised reconstruction, going block by block, can be done,” she says.

One of the most visited housing projects in Bangkok is along the Bang Bua Canal where 13 canal-side squatter settlements have been redeveloped. The project was beneficial on all ends with the squatters getting secure housing on a long-term collective land lease and the city getting an improved canal with better flood control. Somsook believes in upgrading such settlements rather than evicting them.

With housing loans from CODI, most of the communities are able to reconstruct their houses on the same site with little displacement. As the land along the canal belongs to the public, the government has granted long-term collective leases of 30 years to the community at a rental rate of US$1 to US$4 per square metre a year. At the Ladprao canal housing project, for example, the houses cost between THB200,000 to THB500,000 (or US$6,250 to US$15,625) per unit — about 25% of existing market prices. CODI also provides bulk housing loans to community cooperatives at 4% annual interest repayable over 20 years. Monthly loan repayments will be THB1,500 to THB3,000 or US$46 to US$93. The government also provides subsidies to such projects through CODI.

Under the ACCA programme, ACHR sets an extremely modest budget of US$40,000 per city. One of the most important objectives of the ACCA programme is to develop new financial systems for the poor. The most basic building block of the system is the community savings group where the people build, use and manage their own resources. As at 2014, community savings was practised in 206 of the 215 ACCA cities.

Additionally, ACHR launched its ACCA regional loan fund, which works like a revolving fund, in 2010. This fund is drawn from the ACCA big housing project budget of up to US$400,000 and gives loans of up to US$50,000 to country groups at 4% annual interest, to be repaid half yearly. As at 2014, the fund had given eight loans to groups in the region, and all but one have followed the repayment schedules with most payments made in cash.

Apart from managing and delivering public funds to the communities and strengthening community finance systems, organisations like CODI and ACHR are useful platforms through which communities can collaborate and support one another; links between community groups and government institutions or authorities; and legal and institutional backup to formalise and legalise what the community groups are doing in order to elevate their living standards.

More than just building houses, community-led housing projects also shape a community, says Somsook. “Many of these housing projects bring people together, something not found in private-sector developments. A community that develops and solves issues collectively as a group becomes resilient and has good collaboration with local authorities. Development organisations also encourage these groups to become even more active than the regular citizen. Solving poverty and housing issues is just the starting point in resolving many of the deep-rooted issues found in poor communities,” she concludes.