What Is Behind the Housing Crisis?

ON THE outskirts of a large African city, 36-year-old Josephine lives with her three boys, ranging from 6 to 11 years of age. To make a living, she collects empty plastic containers, which she sells to a nearby recycling plant. This backbreaking labor earns her less than two dollars a day. In that city, this is hardly enough to feed her family or pay for their schooling.

At the end of the day, she returns to what she is forced to call home. Its walls are made of baked mud bricks and clay held together by thin twigs. Loose, rusty iron sheets, along with tin and plastic, serve as a roof. Pieces of rock, wood, and old metal plates are stacked on top to keep the roof in place during strong winds. Her “door” and “window” are torn gunnysacks, which offer no real  resistance to bad weather​—let alone would-be intruders.

Even this modest home, though, does not truly belong to her. Josephine and her children live in constant fear of eviction. The land on which their inadequate home stands is to be used for the expansion of a nearby road. Sad to say, similar situations exist in many lands throughout the world.

A Toxic Home

In “poverty housing,” says Robin Shell, a senior official of an international housing assistance program, “children are ashamed of the house, . . . the family is always getting sick, and . . . they never know when a government official or landlord might come and sweep away [their home].”

Living in such conditions forces parents to worry constantly about the health and safety of their children. Instead of being able to work to better their situation, they often end up spending the majority of their time and energy struggling to meet their children’s basic needs, such as food, rest, and shelter.

Looking on from a distance, it might be easy to conclude that the poor could remedy their situation if they showed more initiative. But merely telling people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is not the answer. There are powerful factors involved in the housing crisis that are beyond any individual’s control. Researchers point to population growth, rapid urbanization, natural disasters, political upheaval, and persistent poverty as the main culprits. Like the five fingers of a clenched fist, these forces are squeezing the life out of many of the world’s poor.

Population Pressures

It is generally estimated that each year the world needs to house an additional 68 million to 80 million people. According to the United Nations Population Fund, world population passed 6.1 billion in 2001 and is expected to reach between 7.9 and 10.9 billion by 2050. Even more sobering, 98 percent of that growth during the next two decades is forecast to occur in developing countries. Those estimates in themselves represent a formidable housing challenge. Yet, that challenge is further complicated by the fact that the fastest growing areas in most countries are the already overcrowded cities.

Relentless Urbanization

Major cities​—such as New York, London, and Tokyo—​are often viewed as vital symbols of a country’s economic growth. As a result, thousands of rural people annually flock to such ‘greener urban pastures,’ mainly to seek education and employment.

In China, for example, the economy is expanding rapidly. As a result, one report estimates, over the next few decades, more than 200 million new housing units will be needed in the major urban areas alone. That is almost  twice the total number of housing units that currently exist in the entire United States. What housing program could possibly keep up with such demand?

According to the World Bank, “each year, some 12 to 15 million new households, requiring an equivalent number of dwellings, are added to the cities of the developing world.” Since not enough affordable housing exists, these urban poor are forced to find shelter where they can, often where no one else chooses to live.

Natural and Political Disasters

Poverty has forced many to occupy areas prone to floods, mud slides, and earthquakes. For example, it is estimated that in Caracas, Venezuela, over half a million people “live in squatter settlements on steep slopes that are continuously affected by landslides.” Recall, too, the 1984 industrial accident at Bhopal, India, where several thousand people were killed and many more injured. Why the high human toll? Primarily, it was because a nearby shantytown had grown to within just 15 feet [5 m] of the factory’s boundary.

Political disasters, such as civil wars, are also increasingly responsible for housing problems. One report published in 2002 by a human rights group pointed out that between 1984 and 1999, as many as 1.5 million people, mainly villagers, may have been displaced in southeast Turkey during civil strife. Many of them were forced to find shelter wherever they could, often crowding in with relatives and neighbors in makeshift dwellings, rented accommodations, agricultural buildings, or construction sites. One group of families was reportedly living in stables, with 13 or more to a room, using a communal toilet and a single water tap in the courtyard. “We want to get out of this life,” one of the refugees said. “We live in a place built for animals.”

Economic Stagnation

Finally, the relationship between housing and the economics of poverty cannot  be overestimated. According to the World Bank report referred to earlier, in 1988 alone, 330 million urban dwellers in developing countries were said to be poor, a situation that was not expected to change much in the following years. When people are too poor to afford such basic necessities as food and clothing, how can they afford to rent or build a decent house?

High interest rates and inflation push bank-loan payments far out of the reach of many families, and soaring utility costs make it difficult for people to get ahead. Unemployment rates as high as 20 percent in some lands make it almost impossible to make ends meet.

These and other factors have forced hundreds of millions in every corner of the earth to settle for substandard housing. People live in old buses, shipping containers, and cardboard boxes. They live under staircases, plastic sheeting, and scraps of used lumber. Even abandoned industrial sites have become settlements for some.

What Is Being Done?

Substantial efforts are already being made by many concerned individuals, organizations, and governments to address the crisis. In Japan, several agencies have been set up to help construct affordable houses. A housing program initiated in South Africa in 1994 has seen the erection of more than a million four-room houses. In Kenya the aim of an ambitious housing policy is to construct 150,000 housing units in urban areas and twice as many in rural areas each year. Other countries, such as Madagascar, have directed their efforts toward identifying construction methods that will result in inexpensive housing.

International organizations, such as UN-HABITAT, have been set up to show the world’s commitment to “prevent and ameliorate problems stemming from massive urban growth.” Nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations are also trying to help. One nonprofit organization has helped more than  150,000 households in various lands work their way out of substandard housing. By 2005, it estimates that it will have helped a million people to find simple, decent, affordable housing.

Many of these organizations have developed readily available, practical information to assist people living in substandard housing conditions to make the best of their circumstances or even to better them. Certainly, if you find yourself needing help, you can take full advantage of these provisions. There are also many basic things that you can do to help yourself.​—See the box “Your House and Your Health,” on page 7.

Regardless of whether you can improve your personal situation, there is little hope that any one person or human organization can unclench the fist of global forces shaping this crisis. The international community finds itself falling further and further behind the urgent and growing demand for economic development and humanitarian aid. Each year millions of children are born into this downward spiral of poverty. Is there any real hope for a permanent solution?

[Box on page 7]


According to the World Health Organization, in general, to promote good health, a house should have at least the following items:

▪ A good roof to keep out the rain

▪ Good walls and doors to protect against bad weather and to keep out animals

▪ Screens of wire netting at the windows and doors to keep out insects, especially mosquitoes

▪ Sunshades all around to protect the walls from direct sunlight in hot weather

[Box/Pictures on page 8]


For many years traditional African houses dotted the landscape. They came in different sizes and shapes. Some communities, such as the Kikuyu and Luo of Kenya, preferred circular walls and a thatched conical roof. Others, including the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, adopted a somewhat rectangular shape. In coastal areas of East Africa, some of the houses had a thatched roof that touched the ground and resembled a beehive.

Since much of the construction material used in such structures was readily available, housing problems were few. Mud could be obtained by simply mixing soil and water. The many forests nearby made it possible for wood, grass, reeds, and bamboo leaves to be obtained easily. So, regardless of how rich or poor a family was, acquiring their own house was generally within reach.

Of course, such houses also had their disadvantages. Since most roofs were made of flammable materials, they posed a high risk of fire. Also, an intruder could easily gain access into the house by simply boring a hole through the mud wall. Not surprisingly, therefore, in many areas today, traditional African homes are slowly giving way to other more durable types of construction.

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Source: African Traditional Architecture

Huts: Courtesy Bomas of Kenya Ltd-A Cultural, Conference, and Entertainment Center

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© Tim Dirven/Panos Pictures

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© Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures; J.R. Ripper/BrazilPhotos

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JORGE UZON/AFP/Getty Images; © Frits Meyst/Panos Pictures