Affordable Housing: Learning from Cities Worldwide


In the rapid growth of world population in last decades, almost all countries experiencing problem in housing issue. As most of the people especially in the developing countries still live in low-income and poor living condition, thus the issue of ‘Affordable Housing’ becomes important. In some naming, ‘Affordable Housing’ are called ‘poor housing’, ‘low-cost housing’, ‘subsidized housing’ or ‘social housing’ as well. According to Sam Davis in his book The Architecture of Affordable Housing, ‘Affordable Housing’ is housing that receives direct or indirect financial assistance, housing that is developed outside the purely market-rate private system (Davis 1995, 1).

In this short essay, we will look closely the affordable housing issues and development in four countries; Ethiopia, China, Russia and India which are presented as ‘Capita Selecta’ lectures series at TU Delft in 2012 by several practitioner architects that work in those countries. It is interesting to compare how housing in developing country, newly industrialized country and developed country are designed and developed with their own unique socio-culture and political conditions. Further, this essay will infer several points that can be learned from those countries.

Affordable Housing: Learning From Four Countries

When it comes to the discussion of affordable housing, it is wise to learn from case studies in different countries in order to develop and find the best solutions for our own condition. The four countries here have their own unique position and problems which they share the same similarity with the growing population.


Addis Ababa, as the capital and the most populous city in Ethiopia which is built on indigenous settlement structure, is facing problem of urbanization like other major cities in Africa. In their urban development process, they tried to implement several system imported from outside such as in 1936-1941 with Italian’s influence, later in 1950-1965 with technology and architects from Europe but failed. Realizing that the rate of urbanization is increasing fast and raises many issues; therefore, in 2004 the government launched the “Grand Housing Project” (GHP) as integrated housing development program to provide a better housing for the people. GHP is a different type of development compares to 100 years housing tradition in Ethiopia.

In this program, German’s architects proposed systems such as go vertically in housing, using cheap material, pre-fabrication and fast construction method with standardization in building components. However, implementing Western concept to a local and unique tradition as in the case of Ethiopia is not as simple as some think because of the social and cultural differences – way of life. This new type of housing forced and changed the way people live and doing their daily activities. Other reasons for the lack of success from GHP’s implementation, as highlighted by Zegeye Cherenet in his lecture at TU Delft, are the questions on the ability of people to afford utilities’ cost of new housing, to maintain the building over the time, and building materials used as they are still imported from other countries such as cement and steel. But most importantly, as Zegeye concluded in his lecture is the lack of awareness for local context condition.


When China began to adopt its reform and open-door policies, it was the period of economic growth and housing reform focusing on an emerging market orientation (Lu 2001, 14). Accordingly, urbanization started in coastal provinces transforming farmers to industrial workers causing gated compounds are built next to the factory with its public services. Initially, China took example from the former Soviet Union which housing was designed and constructed with a standard model and according to state standards and rules. However, this was change after housing is commercialized under the socialist market economy of China (Lu 2001, 16). There are more varieties and choices to offer to the market. In number of new housing development, China has achieved remarkable success especially over the last twenty years. However, from the design point of view, there is not much new practice and experiment on housing types and systems. Consequently, we see very few examples of housing projects that consider with local climate, culture, community, economics and technological conditions (Lu 2001, 9). Moreover, due to the rapid increasing of new housing demands, there is no available space to develop new residential areas. Therefore, a vast number of new housing is built by the government or developers by demolishing old neighborhood in order to replace it with high density and gated superblock complex. In this case, the erasure of old existing urban memory occurs and changes many aspect of communal life. Thus, one of the Chinese architect Liu Xiaodu tried to find new typology of housing with Chinese character while considering local condition, climate and so on through his project “Tulou Housing Project” in Guangzhou which the main idea is returning to Chinese way of living by adopting one of the traditional housing type and system.


When we discuss about India, Mumbai is an interesting city to be taken as case study. It was not an indigenous Indian city but was built by the British for maintaining trade links with India and was never perhaps expected to become a large city (Dwivedi 1995, 8). Mumbai was being primarily set up as a port and grew with settlement after settlement being added to the core of town. It was not planned (Dwivedi 1995, 8). Mumbai expanded enormously and becoming a collage city with different urban forms and many ethnic and social groups that colonized the area with slums scatter across the city. Poverty is part of Mumbai’s city life characterized by slums’ existence side by side with wealthy neighborhoods and middle-class suburbs. The diversity in the slum area is very high as Mumbai is a financial center in India, as well as film production center; attracting people come to the city. This causes variations of slum from place to place; there are slums that have consolidated and already have a strong social and political life and identity, as well as those which are transitory. There are dynamics slums where improvement is constant, and there are also places in continuous degradation, places with no hope (Desai 1995, 20). In addition to the city problems is also the usage of land which is poorly used and developed even in the most congested areas. The land is not only illegally occupied but also in general used carelessly (Desai 1995, 112).

Thus, along with city’s development, the need to improve living standard of its citizens, and economic value interests, the government implements new housing development by building blocks of residential towers replacing the temporary huts and low-story buildings in the slum areas. However, this solution through the removal of the homeless poor to the peripheries or through the relocation back into the new development are still not economically feasible and facing some problems similarly the case in Addis Ababa. From the 1980s, there have emerged in Mumbai, citizens’ groups and environmentalists who are motivated to reverse the physical deterioration and social imbalance in the development of the city (Dwivedi 1995, 322). One of the example is P.K Das and his community group who fight to reclaim back the public space to the community. This community participation is also a means to achieve better project results and consequently better housing conditions for the community. Since people themselves know best what they need, what they want and what they can afford (Desai 1995, 47).


In the case of Russia, there was change in housing policy with privatization of housing system. Privatization is the single most distinguishing feature of the transformation of the housing sector from the Soviet, centrally planned model to a more market-oriented system (Struyk 2008, 192). Privatization has formed the housing market by increasing the number of units potentially for rent or sale. The unit became a commodity with value which attracts private developers to build housing and considering locations with highly valued. Hence, privatization will facilitate the process of redevelopment of the old city of Moscow like the projects presented by Sergey Skuratov, Russian architect, in his lecture. The old buildings or unused factories are turned into new residential blocks. However, this privatization may have unfavorable consequences for lower-income families (Struyk 2008, 194). In central Moscow, there is a concentration of housing in poor condition. Then also there is economic interest to sell renovated or newly developed units with high price rather than to sell at a low rent to the original tenants. The effect was to displace low-income tenants from central areas and encourage high-income groups or as we called gentrification in the city.

Conclusion: What We Can Learn

From the discussion above, there are several points that can be inferred and learned from those countries:

  • The scope in the discussion of affordable housing can range from different scale. It can be viewed from public space and rooms or from building to city scale. It can be about material, or about the construction method. As architects, we must consider these aspects beside the design itself.
  • We need to define who needs affordable housing in order to make right decisions.
  • The importance of local cultural conditions must be explored where housing needs climate and local sensitivity, codes and customs, material used and economic value comes into consideration.
  • The design and development of affordable housing should also consider community’s participation and integration as we do not want to create an individualist community through our new scheme.

Housing must be seen as integration of other aspects of life and as depending on some factors at macro and micro level (Amis 1990, 123). Housing is not merely shelter but also a key in community building. Also, without underestimating the role of objective factors in planning for housing among the urban poor, it is essential to recognize that the physical quality of housing facilities can only be meaningfully mediated in terms of culturally constructed standards (Amis 1990, 124).

In the same time, reflecting from the lectures series and this essay’s discussion, hence, some questions are raised which these could open up another further research and discussion in the future:

  • Do we need projects of high density in cities to accommodate the urban poor? Is density the only matter?
  • Likewise, is building large projects that gain economies of scale the best way to lower costs and increase production?
  • If we could find more efficient ways of building, could we make more houses for more people? Is standardization and replication of building the best way to lower housing costs and built a better living condition for people with different background?

In the end, in developing affordable housing concept, as architects we should consider the importance of the sustainability in the future uses in order to create a sustainable city. Creating a vast number of housing proposals and developments without this consideration will bring a ‘rat race’ scenario to our city.


Amis, Philip, and Peter Lloyd, eds. Housing Africa’s Urban Poor. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Davis, Sam. The Architecture of Affordable Housing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Desai, Vandana. Community Participation and Slum Housing. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995.

Dwivedi, Sharada, and Rahul Mehrotra. Bombay: The Cities Within. Bombay: India Book House, 1995.

Lü Junhua, Peter G. Rowe and Zhang Jie , eds. Modern Housing in CHINA 1840-2000. Munich: Prestel, 2001.

Mathur, G.C., Low-Cost Housing in Developing Countries. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH, 1993.

Pickvance, C.G., ‘“Environmental and Housing Movemements in Cities after Socialism”: The Cases of Budapest and Moscow.’ In Cities After Socialism, edited by Andrusz, Gregory, Michael Harloe and Ivan Szelenyi. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. (accessed June 29, 2012).

Struyk, Raymond J. “Housing Privatization in the Former Soviet Bloc to 1995.” In Cities After Socialism, edited by Andrusz, Gregory, Michael Harloe and Ivan Szelenyi. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. (accessed June 29, 2012).