Have we made any progress since Vancouver 1976?


I believe no significant progress has been made since Vancouver 1976, since we still don’t understand how the programs to provide shelter to the poorest should actually be. Housing policies implemented by developing countries are not conceived to help the poor, but to help building contractors and urban land owners to make a great deal of money. We insist on providing unaffordable solutions, and small budgets for housing result in building fewer houses than needed, which are often not even reached by the poorest of the poor.

Governments have still not listened to the homeless, who know much more about social housing than state bureaucrats, and even than academics who are paid a fairly good salary at universities for studying how poor people live.

What do the poor know that governments don’t?

1. That you’d rather have a shack now, than a solid house in 10 years.

Why do poor people believe so? Because they know that no shelter now means living in cramped conditions with relatives, which ends up destroying any family. In ten more years, the couple is no longer together; children have grown up, and probably will never attend school, etc.

2. That what it really matters is the land, not the house.

Why do the poor struggle more for the land than for the house? Because if you have the land, housing construction comes with time, as it may be proven by millions of poor households in slums. And also because as land holders, they feel they are part of the city and that they can get organized to force the government or the municipality to supply them with water, electricity or sewerage.

However, in many countries it is harder for a poor to get a piece of land than a house. Land owners, both public and private, prefer to keep their plots of land to build houses for the rich, or to build social houses, but earning the increase in value generated by investments paid by the poor themselves with their taxes. Afterwards, they all declare that “poor people deserve decent housing”. Is it that the poor now waiting for a house are living in a decent way?

3. That the poor first inhabit and then build

It seems that bureaucrats and businessmen –at their carpeted offices and wealthy neighborhoods- only realize that poor people live in the cities when they appear to receive a house. As if before the opening of a new locality, those families did not exist. They forget that homeless poor people are living somewhere, whether in cramped conditions or in insalubrious housing. Poor families have to manage to get some shelter first. Afterwards they can work out how to improve it.

The poor have taught us that slums and shanty towns are not the problem, but the solution they are able to find to live in an unfair society that does not give them any other choice. This is why it is so ridiculous to struggle against their efforts to survive in slums. On the contrary, we should help them to build more hovels and shacks, but hovels and shacks with hope, with some certainty of permanence, located in such way they may be part of the cities.