Lower Tipolo Homeowners Association Inc. housing construction site in Lower Tipolo, Mandaue City, Philippines. Its construction makes use of interlocking compressed earth blocks for low-cost housing. Photo by: Rémi Kaupp / CC BY-SA

Eighty-three per minute, 120 in a day, 44 million a year.

Those are the number of people flocking to already densely populated cities in Asia and the Pacific, creating a shelter demand of more than 7 million annually — demand that is only likely to grow further given the region’s rapid rate of urbanization.

But mass housing has not been able to keep pace with demand, due in part to its politicized natures, especially in the local context.

“While there’s a whole host of moving pieces here, it’s really a complex issue,” Rajesh Krishnan, founder and CEO of Mumbai-based social housing finance firm Brick Eagle, said during the fifth Asia-Pacific Housing Forum in Hong Kong attended by Devex. “We need to be able to deal with the local realities of the landscape with lands approval, zoning, local politics, etc. There’s a whole host of local issues.”

Low-cost housing not only depends on the ability of land developers and shelter-focused organizations to provide and construct decent and low-cost units, but also on whether national policies and regulations would allow relevant stakeholders to even build the houses in the first place.

Prasoon Koomar, founder and CEO of Singapore-based nongovernmental organization Billion Bricks, echoed this statement. While it is important to pay attention to the fine print, solutions should take the larger picture into consideration so that they can succeed and be replicated in other cities and communities.

“We have to go in and ensure that everything we do is not in misalignment with the national government’s plan … if we do that, it’s not replicable again,” he told Devex on the sidelines of the forum. “We can do it in one community, but if existing policies do not technically support it, then how can we do it in the other thousand villages that we want to work in?”

Providing shelter, however, goes beyond just building a four-walled structure with a roof for every household that needs it. Part of the reason why housing efforts remain largely ineffective, especially for the poorest people, is the lack of understanding of the importance of security of tenure and sustainable housing.

“Security of tenure is often mistakenly understood as the legal right of ownership of land,” Irantzu Serra-Lasa, Habitat for Humanity’s Asia-Pacific director for housing and human settlements, said at a presentation during the four-day event. But it actually refers to the right of every person to be protected by the state from forced eviction, she explained.

“Increasing security of tenure creates incentives for progressive improvements in slums and housing, which leads to sustainable communities and aids urban resiliency by fostering communities that are better prepared to cope with disasters,” the 18-page paper reads.


Stakeholders continue to learn from their successes and failures, all in an attempt to come up with best practices to address the mass housing problem.

Forced relocation, for instance, has been among the more popular solutions implemented in the past couple of years. Studies by Habitat for Humanity International however revealed that “forcible slum clearance and involuntary relocation have been repeatedly demonstrated to fail and have far-reaching negative impacts.”

The Philippine government, for example, relocated Typhoon Haiyan victims to low-cost housing communities. The government provided the land, while the houses were built with help from the international community. But many of the recipients of these shelters went back to the location of their old homes — some of which have been deemed no-go zones, and often to land they don’t legally own — because the communities were too far from school or places of work.

Marja Hoek-Smit, director of Wharton School’s International Housing Finance Program, told Devex that while permanent housing can still be a viable solution, what people in the bottom of the pyramid — or those living on $2 a day — might need more help with are on rental solutions.

“You have to realize that they can’t be pushed into home ownership. I think that is where we are all going wrong,” she said. “To think they can build a house in a very good location in urban areas is nearly impossible. So you need rental solutions for those people [and] that rent should be subsidized.”

This is where the private sector can offer support, the University of Pennsylvania professor said, noting that the government “cannot fund enough housing by itself to fulfill the demands for low-cost housing.” But it can ease the entry point for these private mechanisms by crafting policies that “create the proper investment environment … [to] invest in low-cost housing and that is the biggest challenge.”


While there are a variety of ways to tackle housing issues, partnerships are essential, regardless of the solution that is tapped.

Kate Landry, director of programs and partnerships for Build Change, told Devex that creating collaborative and fruitful relationships between stakeholders, particularly with the government, is very important when pursuing housing programs.

“Working together and collaborating is good to know what each party can bring to the table so the partnership can be more productive,” she said. “[Also] listen and figure out what the needs of the stakeholders are. If you’re going in a partnership, don’t assume that you know everything. It’s important to listen and learn.”

A U.S.-based NGO, Build Change started working in the Philippines months before Typhoon Haiyan struck the country. It has been assisting communities and sharing expertise, and Landry said promoting open communication channels and a collaborative environment at all levels has resulted in more holistic and sustainable programs.

This is echoed by Koomar, who stressed that focusing on communities is not a problem, as long as people also look at the bigger picture.

“The biggest challenge we faced is partnerships and alignment. We need to be able to show value … [and] we need to ensure that the programs are part of a larger vision that the other stakeholders are looking to do as well,” he said.

Still, as in any other development pursuit involving multiple stakeholders, Landry said it is important to be flexible in the way interests, risks and expectations of all parties involved are managed to find common ground without losing sight of the original objectives.

“It is important to really develop those relationships and not to go in and ask for something on the first meeting, [but to] listen and find out how you can contribute more to work things out and develop better solutions,” she concluded.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.