How Covid-19 can be used as a trigger to finally correct the many anomalies of the Indian housing market.
Every crisis often exposes other issues that have always existed but not seen as worthy enough to be in the limelight and hence, do not attract resources urgently.
With Covid, the problems we have in the housing space are bubbling up on top, and are to be tackled on priority.
Let us list them: We had too many homes built or started, but not sold. There are not enough homes for the low-income families or labour (construction, services, factories, household).
The homes built to be low-price were in places that had zero infrastructure for travel and no opportunities for employment. And rural housing was not a priority for anyone.
Post Covid, there are solutions that can be worked out, that can repurpose what we have, to get what we lack — create a positive from two negatives. While it may sound utopian, these are not hard-to-do or expensive ideas.
Take the issue of developer trouble – they are in debt as homes are not sold and are hence looking for a bailout. The government can buy unsold/incomplete projects and turn them into rentable housing spaces.
Workers stay in these and employers pay House Rent Allowance (HRA) to the government; a part may be waived off by the government for a few months (after which the employee can pay).
The developer must take on the responsibility for maintenance in the first two years, and their final payment will be based on their performance.
Such a purchase will provide debt relief for developers, or give them money to complete projects/start new projects; employers get assurance that employees will remain with them; workers get a place to stay; and authorities can ensure health and wellness of people who may otherwise be at risk due to poor quality of living quarters.
And occupancy of homes far from the city can, rather than be a problem, present a great opportunity post-Covid, when physical distancing is required.
It may be time to dust up the PURA (Provision of Urban amenities in Rural Areas) scheme and look at action points from there.
One way to get started would be for the government to provide transportation, not unlike the JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission). Unlike public transport, it would be a bit more customized — to manage the timings and transport congestion and do health checks on the way to and from work.
This will ensure that housing developments in the back of beyond do get used and people are able to earn employment while travelling safely to the city.
These homes could be government-owned and rented out or can alternatively be owned by the residents, by providing access to funds.
Work Near Home
And in places where housing developments have happened but there are no infrastructure or jobs in the vicinity, the government must bring industries rather than make people ‘go’ where the industry is.
Basically, move from ‘job’ focus – travel or relocate to a place where one can earn – to ‘people’ focus – create jobs where people want to live. Think of it as a variant of work from home — work close to home.
In the past, large factories that came up in an area would include housing colonies also developed by the corporate that was putting up the infrastructure.
Dalmia in the South and Tata in Jamshedpur are some examples of corporate cities that were developed.
Now, employers do not have any extended responsibilities for their employees. And it may be time to rethink this.
For example, can we have corporates think through and ensure that the ‘human’ supply chain is secure by way of place to stay, commute and has access to services such as healthcare, food, education, transport and leisure?
We also need to rethink solutions from the policy level. For example, discussions on housing are often heavily focussed on urban housing challenges. But this was in the backdrop of growing urbanisation and the projected need based on this trend. And the answer was throwing up a bigger problem - more concrete housing colonies, that the low-income families had to ‘buy’.
Post Covid, the reverse migration we see can give a second chance to work on the urbanisation challenge. It is possible to consider better thought-out solutions for housing, as we open-up in a controlled way and hence better manage urban population growth.
That said, it may be tempting to say that keeping folks in rural areas and improving housing in villages will be a better answer. But it may be premature to think that people do not want to move out of their village. Yes, they returned to it, and that was less due to the ‘pull’ of the place but more from the ‘push’ from lack of support systems in the places where they had migrated.
At the micro level, we also need better design around homes. For example, while ‘work from home’ may be new for urban, it is well-known for low-income families – many homes include cattle or goat sheds as an integral part; likewise, homes are built for weaving or agri-processing.
Only lately, we have been pushing developer-led models of cookie-cutter homes that are identical for all but work for none — especially those who make a livelihood from their home. It may be time to rethink these designs and look at village-in-a-complex models.
It may also be time to look at high-rise buildings and the issues that come with high population density. If lifts become risky during epidemics, how can we ensure the safety of residents?
And with loneliness a serious issue during lockdowns, aren’t we losing out when we stack up homes?
Spread out models and closer-to-the ground may be solutions we must consider for future developments, even in cities.
Role of Innovation
In all these solutions, innovation and small providers can play a big role. For instance, when the government manages rental properties, startups can be service providers who manage day-to-day running of the rental premises. There can be software, Internet of Things, drone, data-analysis solutions and many technical platforms and products to ensure that the residents are cared for without a lot of cost/overheads. These solutions can also bring transparency in operations.
Likewise, transport services need not be state-run but the vehicles can be funded through MFIs and run by smaller players who may be more open to trying out newer technology tools to ensure better service and efficiency.