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A series of blog posts highlighting an important topic or trend in the development through enterprise community. In the most recent Big Idea series, NextBillion partnered with Ashoka to showcase affordable housing innovations.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beyond Four Walls

By Melissa Scott

Potential customers during an HFA interview in Patna

Editor's Note: NextBillion has launched month-long series on Housing for All in partnership with Ashoka. This special series coincides with two upcoming Ashoka publications on best strategies to achieve Housing for All, Ashoka's initiatives using its Hybrid Value Chain framework to leverage changes in the affordable housing sector in Brazil, Colombia and India. Please follow the series HERE and Join the discussion with your thoughts and insights. 

A house is more than a roof overhead - it gives a sense of security, empowerment, and hope. This is a core belief that drives Ashoka's Housing for All (HFA) program - along with the principle that the affordable housing market is ripe for market-based solutions.

I learned this at the start of my summer internship with HFA's India team this year. Yet the meaning of it didn't really sink in until my visit to a potential housing site in an impoverished area of Patna, Bihar.  The time I spent there deepened my understanding of the tremendous importance decent, affordable housing has in the lives and possible futures for those I met, who in turn stand for millions more throughout India.

Finding potential clients ready for a decent new home

Market-based affordable housing targets the "top" of the bottom of the pyramid in India, where there is still no common definition of poverty. Nor is there reliable government data to help citizen organizations or private real estate developers target where to build or what kinds of housing would fit families' needs. Without such planning tools, HFA developed its own surveys of BoP consumers to more clearly understand affordable housing demand. As I accompanied the survey takers HFA had trained to do interviews with slum dwellers, the striking common thread among diverse families is their total financial exclusion from the formal market opportunities in housing. Lack of income statements means no access to banking services, let alone credit. Without credit, there was little chance they could ever improve their living conditions.

It was of great importance to work with a trusted, grassroots community sector organization to reach these potential housing clients, and getting honest answers to our survey questions, such as: Where do they currently live? Why do they want to move? How many are in their family? How many could earn an income? What is the ability of the household to pay for a home? Do they need a space for a home business? What would their dream home look like?  

From the moment we stepped into Patna's slums, all eyes were on us. Who were these outsiders? What did they want to know? Mostly children gathered in front of us, with adults standing back hesitantly. Some had looks of skepticism, others curiosity, others excitement.

We walked from house to house, neighborhood by neighborhood, gaining insights.  What first struck me was the love of telling stories - each and every person wanted us to understand their family's dynamic and history -- regardless of if they were speaking of a "high-paying" government job or a struggle of four family members selling eggs from a street side cart.

Housing and the Gender Divide

What caught my attention most during our interviews was the gender divide. When we spoke to the men of a household, they stuck strictly to the facts - answering each question thoughtfully, keeping the kids quietly to the side while they dealt with "business."

In contrast, when we spoke to the women of the household, immediately they showed an emotional spark when asked about housing. Often while holding or feeding their children, they did not merely report the socioeconomic data of their family, but were passionately inquisitive.  They wanted to know what they needed to do to own a home. "Teach me!" "Help me!" and "Show me!" were their common pleas.

Moreover, housing was only one piece of the puzzle for them:  How can they get access to more work? What can they do to get their kids a better education? How do they break this cycle of exclusion and poverty to ensure a brighter future for their children?

(Pictured left: Skeptical at first, this woman quickly opened up about her needs to find more work to feed her family of 10).

My experience was that women were ready to take any possible steps necessary to create a better life for their families. Perhaps they spend more time at home, worrying about where the next meal would come from.  Perhaps women are more natural storytellers than their male counterparts. Whatever the reason, their energy and hope drove home the importance of getting these women involved in creating the solutions to their housing needs, to get them to share the information embedded in their stories directly to the private sector - to architects and building  materials producers and distributors, contractors and designers, who would then do a better job of developing new housing.

Experiencing their skepticism, or their frustration over not knowing how to find solutions to their families problems, made me realize how much these potential customers needed an ongoing range of services. For instance, understanding what it means to be a homeowner and how to save regularly, how to get the confidence to speak up in meetings with businessmen and officials, to feel involved in home design or urban planning process, and to continue their journey to economic empowerment. In my opinion, women are the key drivers to the success of these value-added services beyond access to housing.

Homes as assets: the road to financial inclusion

Citizen sector organizations also are critical to help families understand that a better future for their children lies in their slowly but surely changing their patterns from surviving off the grid, in the informal economy, and entering the formal market. There, they can show their level of responsibility, for working hard and having income, to be credit-worthy and to save in banks, which then know their capacity to repay a loan.  A house isn't just any asset, but an asset that can lead to greater financial security.

One such citizen sector organization partner of Ashoka's HFA program in India is Shelter Associates in Pune, which champions community-designed solutions to problems such as housing and sanitation. Another partner in Pune, the Mann Deshi Foundation provides a variety of non-financial services to their women clients aimed at improving the quality of life. Supported by the Mann Deshi Corporative Bank, a bank run for and by women with over 100,000 customers, the foundation is tracking success.  An assessment of their financial literacy course showed that clients who completed the course increased their weekly savings, took out more frequent, larger loans for more productive purposes, and repaid them on time more consistently.

Covenant Centre of Development (CCD) in Madurai  provides financial literacy to BoP families, with training and materials about family budgeting through a simple ledger system, among other tips. These tools allow banks to track the expenditure patterns of families, while also creating a greater understanding of financial management of the consumers, hopefully reducing defaults and allowing them to increase the number of good housing loans they can make, thereby spurring the private development of better homes.

Market-based solutions such as Ashoka's HFA have begun to put a dent in the demand for 26 million affordable homes in India. To go beyond just the four walls of affordable homes, however, to create long-lasting economic empowerment, families (and in my experience, particularly women) must be given the tools to answer the bigger questions about work, education, and an overall brighter future.

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