What you missed at the Asia Pacific Housing Forum

Participants at the sixth Asia Pacific Housing Forum in Hong Kong. Photo by: Asia Pacific Housing Forum

HONG KONG — Community-led design, drones for land use mapping, and why housing partnerships are particularly tricky: These are just a few of the topics discussed at last week’s Asia Pacific Housing Forum, which welcomed more than 300 housing experts, government officials and civil society representatives to a rainy Hong Kong.

Sandwiched between 2016’s Habitat III and the World Urban Forum in 2018, the Habitat for Humanity-convened forum focused on current challenges and advancements in addressing shelter issues from across the Asia-Pacific region, while also addressing urbanization, resilience and financing for low-income populations.

A notable session posed the question of whether technology can solve the housing crisis in the Asia-Pacific region — but it quickly escalated into a chuckle-inducing debate over the role of tech, the private sector and policy in housing solutions. The (predictable) takeaway? Tech isn't the "end all, be all" solution — and neither is policy.

But forum participants shared more than a few helpful examples of what does work in harnessing community voices, using data to inform housing projects and creating a more successful market for affordable housing along the way.

Here’s more of what you missed.

1. It’s about housing, but it’s mostly about people.

The sixth annual Asia Pacific Housing Forum carried the theme of “housing at the center,” but conversations more frequently revolved around people: human-centered, inclusive design and backing community involvement with both brains and budget.

“The data informs the kind of project that will be more feasible and practical on the ground, but the community determines whether it’s possible.”

— Pratima Joshi, executive director of India-based CSO Shelter Associates

In Hong Kong, architects working with residents of the city’s subdivided housing units learned a valuable lesson about trust, shared Juan Du, associate professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. Architects can offer smart designs of quality furniture, for example, but their clients rightfully desire designs they feel an emotional connection to, something they would want to take with them if they leave. In the end, establishing trust with the community was the most important part of delivering a successful furniture design, Du shared.  

Meanwhile, Pratima Joshi, executive director of India-based CSO Shelter Associates, called on her experience in Western India’s municipal corporation of Sangli, Miraj and Kupwad, where 34 city slums needed to be relocated. Shelter Associates called on spatial data to propose a plan to relocate the slums into existing nearby slums located on government land, rather than uprooting communities and “throwing them outside the city,” Joshi said.

Joshi and her team showed communities where they would be moving using Google Earth. And in order for community members to understand the space they would be receiving — space that had been designed without standing kitchens and with livestock areas to fit their specific needs — Joshi drew a live scale version of the area on the terrace of her office and built a model out of bamboo and cloth, inviting the community to come and see for themselves.

“The data informs the kind of project that will be more feasible and practical on the ground, but the community determines whether it’s possible,” Joshi said. “Too often, governments don’t leave aside funding for community engagement.”

2.  There’s plenty of room for innovation in affordable housing and shelter.

Talk of tech and innovation at the forum ranged from drones to coconuts to budget hotels.

A group of NGOs in the Philippines have created a “community of practice” in order to share the costs of drone mapping, according to drone service company SkyEye founder and CEO Matthew Cua. Now, often following a disaster, if Cua is mapping schools for Save the Children, he’s likely also overlaying damage per house for World Vision and maybe who lost their house for International Organization for Migration.

“With one dataset we are able to pull enough metadata out of it that we can share it among ourselves to be more efficient,” Cua said.

Forum attendees also learned about Coco Technologies Corporation, based in the Philippines, which developed a cocoboard project to help coconut farmers turn the annual 25 million tons of coconut husks into construction material. The company in the future expects cocoboards — fiber and particle boards made of the husks — to be a cheaper building material compared to imported wood.

And a young woman is looking to shake up India’s affordable housing sector with Chototel, a private sector alternative to social housing. Chototel’s 25-year-old founder Rhea Silva, who received Habitat for Humanity’s Innovate Shelter Award, is opening her first tech smart, “super budget” hotel outside Mumbai, geared for the 50,000 informal workers who lack affordable accommodation in the area.

3.  Housing partnerships are complicated — but crucial.

Many attendees called for innovation in the form of partnerships and policy — actions in some ways harder to realize than tech or other resources. This was illustrated during a lively discussion between Chandran Nair, founder and CEO of Global Institute for Tomorrow, and Richard Northcote, chief sustainability officer for Covestro, a leading supplier of high-tech polymers used in energy efficient panels.

Northcote presented a positive take on tech, and talked of the importance of the private sector’s willingness to leave behind a typical business model focused on volume and price in order to allow for patience and small investments to transform an underserved market over time.

But Nair bashed the idea that business can do public good or more than “pretend” with CSR — and pointed to government policy as the way toward progress in housing: “If you have policy, things change. If you don’t, we all just kind of muddle around trying to help brown and black people,” Nair said.

“Without incentives, no one builds low-end housing.”

— Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International

In housing, successful partnerships do often come down to getting incentives right, according to Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, who pointed to what is often a “market failure” when it comes to incentivizing building low-income housing.

“If you’re a private developer, you’re going to make more money by building high-income apartments until you’ve saturated that market and then you’re going to make more money building middle class … but without incentives, no one builds low-end housing.”

Reckford pointed to an example from the Philippines, where the government is requiring that developers allot 20 percent of future high-end apartment buildings as affordable housing. The private developer isn’t necessarily unwilling, Reckford said, but they have to make the math work — which likely comes from some sort of government incentive. The math is followed by questions like: How do we culturally mesh our upper income and low-income families, and what’s the process for selection?

“That’s where civil society and NGOs can come in and not necessarily be better at construction, but be better at providing that social glue of having the community participate so that each sector is playing a different role that they’re good at,” Reckford said.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.