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At the hand of a global pandemic, the world as we know it is changing. Our cities are more vulnerable than they have ever been, and the need for sustainable urban solutions meeting the challenges ahead is ever-present.

While the current pandemic has slowed global migration for the moment, cities have and will be under tremendous pressure to accommodate incoming masses of people. When cities cannot maintain pace or anticipate such prodigious growth, informality, specifically informal housing, grows out of necessity. Low-income and displaced families migrating to urban centers end up sprawling in informal settlements in and around cities, pushed to the fringe or crowded into overly dense quarters, because affordable housing is low in stock.

A neighborhood to the south of Mexico City with a mix of formal and informal housing development. Photo by author, 2019.

The refugee crisis raging on in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, exacerbates these market discrepancies. Every year, masses of families seek refuge from political and social unrest in their home countries, many dependent on the supportive services provided by international aid. While these agencies provide temporary relief in the form of basic needs provisions, they have little bureaucratic infrastructure to support integration efforts, or systems in place to address longer-term housing needs. And so, many refugees and asylum-seekers around the globe are pushed into informal living.

Informal Syrian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. Photo by author, 2017.

Whether they move to urban centers because of economic motivation, civil unrest, or natural disaster, the story remains the same for many cities. Urban home prices and mortgages are out of reach for vulnerable households, and rent is far too expensive. Even when affordable rental housing is available, competition for these units is extreme. Households either in the periphery or excluded entirely from the formal housing market are left with few options.

Policymakers and municipalities often focus on minimizing the quantitative housing deficit through programs that promise and encourage the construction of new units – an expensive and time-consuming strategy. There is also a critical need to mitigate the qualitative housing deficit, a challenge which home improvement programs are ideally suited to address as an innovative and practical solution for urban housing crises. New housing development is costly and constrained by a lack of land. Home improvement programs provide a model to better housing conditions and even create new housing in place, providing a path for vulnerable households to integrate into the urban framework by leveraging the preexisting assets of households, communities, and governments. They work in and around the systems in place and are adaptable, multipurpose solutions that tackle issues beyond providing shelter. For this reason, home improvement programs are well-situated to be sustainable housing solutions for both low-income households and refugees.

Neighborhood in Amman, Jordan developing with a mix of formal and informal construction. Photo by author, 2019.

Home improvement programs offer a holistic response to supporting displacement-affected communities.

The Syrian civil war triggered a global dispersal of millions of families forced to flee their homes. Jordan received 1.2 million Syrians during this crisis,[1] compounding the Jordanian housing crisis with a skyrocketing demand unmet by the preexisting affordable housing shortage. Rental prices soared, pushing many Syrian refugees in temporary shelters. With much of the current affordable housing stock in need of repair and developable land limited, there is a strong need for a long-term solution to integrate refugee households into the formal housing market.

The Norwegian Regional Council (NRC) Urban Shelter program is an exemplary model for innovative incremental housing program that addresses the root of Jordan’s housing crisis while providing Syrian refugees a bridge for integration. The Urban Shelter program provided funding to property owners to upgrade their unfinished or uninhabitable properties in urban areas in exchange for leasing the unit to a refugee family rent-free for 18 months. The NRC-provided grants allow Jordanian homeowners to retrofit their homes with an increased number of rooms or floors, with the option of either renting their homes to Syrian families or putting it into the rental market after the initial rent-free period. In either case, the program incentivizes landlords to add new, quality units to the rental market, increasing the total available housing stock.

Using incremental housing as a way to accommodate refugees, the NRC program leverages urban systems already in place in Jordan to support refugees. By investing in rental housing, the NRC program invests in the host community while simultaneously creating housing opportunities for Syrian families. It creates jobs and demand for local materials and contractors and bolsters the local economy.

Whereas refugee cash assistance programs may saturate rental markets and increase rental prices, an incremental housing model is a shift away from this practice and provides a multipurpose solution to refugee housing in dense urban centers. Ultimately, the practice provides a workaround for some of the largest barriers to urban housing and creates an entry point for Syrian households otherwise living in temporary or informal accommodations.

Apartment building in Beirut, Lebanon that was partially improved as part of a pilot NRC program in Lebanon to support Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities.
Photo by author, 2017.

Home improvement programs are elastic, flexible solutions to complex housing problems endemic to urban areas. Whether housing shortages are induced by rapid urbanization, refugee influxes, or environmental disaster, incremental housing is an invaluable development tool that is fast and long-term. This blog constitutes the first in a series of blogs investigating home improvement programs that provide solutions to a range of housing issues around the globe.

We hope to reveal the potential home improvement programs have in the future of cities and their effectiveness as an urban development tool.

This blog was co-authored by Mary Margaret Yancey, an Analyst at the Affordable Housing Institute.


[1] Alshoubaki, Wa’ed, Harris, Michael, “The impact of Syrian refugees on Jordan: A framework for analysis” Journal of International Studies, 2018

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