Quinta Monroy, housing project in Iquique (Chile) by Elemental; Image taken from Eduardo Rojas presentation at the IADB
Most of the cities in developing countries have been constructed using incremental housing techniques. This form of urbanization – generally used by low income households to access land and housing – involves the incremental improvement of housing, passing from very basic constructions -that are usually sub-standard and have little access to basic services- to more consolidated structures with higher density.
During the past couple of years NGOs and international organizations have started thinking of using incremental housing – that low income household have used for decades- as a methodology for reconstruction following natural disasters and, more recently, as a new way of producing affordable housing. The use of incremental housing techniques for reconstruction of houses after Natural Disasters has already been experimented in a number of countries (Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan…), has proven to be more efficient than standardized top-down approaches and to lead to higher levels of satisfaction, as households rebuild according to their preferences. I will discuss incremental housing for reconstruction in another post and will concentrate on incremental housing as a source for affordable housing.
According to Eduardo Rojas from the IADB around 60% of the population builds their own home through incremental improvements that generally last around 12-15 years. But why does it take so long for households to improve and consolidate their homes? Basically there are a number of steps in the improvement process that can rarely be led by an individual household and require either the involvement of public authorities or an organized community. Providing access roads, potable water, drainage and higher security of tenure are among the incremental improvements that fall under the previous category. So how can governments use incremental housing to create more affordable housing?
In a first stage governments can coordinate the provision of components that need require the involvement of public authorities such as access roads, tenure and basic services, and leave to households the initiative to construct and improve dwellings. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It does sounds a lot like Site & Services policies applied in the late 70s. So how is incremental housing for the production of affordable housing different from the Site&Services policies applied in the 70s, or more important, how can we avoid making the same mistakes that we made in the past?  This is a question that remains open.
One of the main arguments against the involvement of governments in incremental housing policies for the production of affordable housing is that it leads to the acceptation of sub-standard dwellings. Or as George L. Gattoni indicates incremental housing policies is less about informal versus official and more about making official more like ‘informal’. This certainly leads to a moral dilemma as it means solving ´informality´ by redefining its meaning. See our recent post from Silvia Soonets on ‘The Risks of toying with informality in Venezuela’.
So far, what can we really say about incremental housing as a tool for increasing low income access to housing? In my personal view, it is a very interesting solution which allows to better match households preferences to housing characteristics – making the latter more flexible. However, (1) it does not propose a real solution to the biggest barrier between low income households and housing: having legal access to affordable land; and (2) supposes a moral dilemma that leads to a dangerous redefinition of informality with unpredictable consequences. I think that, as the population in cities in developing countries continues to grow we need to start thinking about original solutions to improve access to land to low income households while at the same time avoiding urban sprawl. As land is a scarce commodity, the only way of doing this is by recycling urban land that had other land uses before (i.e. Industrial, etc) or increasing density.
Here are some interesting links I found on incremental housing:
 What we learned from Site&Services (1) many of the beneficiaries were not poor but belonged to the middle class, (2) most of the projects were located in the periphery of the cities with little access to transport and other basic urban infrastructures (hospitals, health center, schools, jobs).