Incremental housing

Incremental house building is a construction method that is used worldwide by millions of individual households. In the literature, different terms are used for the description of house construction methods that in principle have the nature of self-construction of houses by households. One can speak of ‘self-help housing’, ‘assisted self-help housing’, self-managed-housing’, and ‘incremental housing’.

Since the 1950s/1960s, it has been recognized that self-help housing is a very important factor in housing production. Self-help housing is based on the private power of the low-income households, which often have no other option but to create their own shelters. The possession of a private plot to build on is crucial. Institutional housing in the form of social or public housing was and still is missing in many developing countries. As a consequence, millions of households have to use their own labor, knowledge, materials and savings for the construction of their home, or otherwise, have to search for a rental facility. In the latter case, it is usually the private rental market that provides shelter, over and over again at high (market) prices. In the initial phase, self-built homes can be very simple, and regularly consist of waste material and second-hand building materials. In later phases, the houses are greatly improved and expanded step by step by the inhabitants themselves. They often make use of the help of family members and friends and sometimes hire skilled construction workers and small contractors for the execution of specialized works. However, not all households that start a building or renovation process, can or will succeed. In these cases, help from governmental or non-governmental organizations is necessary. Some local and national governments support this self-construction of homes. When this is the case, one can speak of ‘assisted self-help housing’.

Since the 1970s, international institutions such as the World Bank and UN-Habitat have recognized the vital role of self-help housing in providing affordable housing solutions to (and by) the urban poor. Even today the cities in the developing world have been built for a large part on the basis of informal self-building activities. Based upon the recognition of the enormous potential and capacity of self-builders to meet the urgent housing challenges, the mentioned international institutions started developing tools for public housing policies to assist the urban poor. National and local governments also adopted the notion of ‘assisted self-help housing’, by accepting rather than completely clearing squatter settlements and by facilitating the ‘incremental’ self-build processes in such neighborhoods. Incremental house construction implies a stage-wise informal building process, realized by individual families, only if and when their financial situation allows them to take further steps in the building process. This approach has the advantage of excluding the risks of long-term financial obligations in the form of mortgages. On the other hand, it means that the entire process of finishing a self-built house may take a long time. The adoption of policies supporting incremental self-help housing reflects a major break with earlier common practices, such as the eviction of the illegal inhabitants and the demolition of their provisional shacks in squatter settlements.

Since around 2000, the term ‘incremental housing’ has been used more and more. Some researchers have found that incremental self-help housing (or the step-by-step self-managed housing) is a phenomenon of great importance in housing production worldwide. Incremental housing can be defined as a gradual step-by-step process whereby building components are appended or improved by owner-builders as funding, time, or materials become available. In this way, the costs of housing construction can be reduced, especially compared with the housing delivery by contractors. Incremental housing requires flexible, relatively small short-term loans that are responsive to the intermittent demands of housing. In contrast, conventional mortgage finance requires enough funding to purchase or build a complete house. Incremental housing development can be an effective catalyst to engage people (social development) and to promote local businesses (economic development) of poor households and communities.


The Housing Research Group, Utrecht/Amsterdam, with: Studio for International Development.

This network involved a series of researchers in pro-poor housing policies and practices in Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. It also initiated research on general themes such as: self-help incremental housing, housing finance, rental housing, housing cooperatives, land market management, and sustainable housing and planning issues.
Coordinators: Dr. Jan Bredenoord, Dr. Paul van Lindert (UU) and Dr. Peer Smets (VU).

Latin America Housing Network (L.A.H.N.), University of Texas, Austin

Third Generation (3G) Housing Policies in Consolidated Low-income Settlements in Latin America. The research network comprises a multi-city comparative research project that was established in 2006. It includes leading researchers from the following countries and cities: Argentina (Buenos Aires), Brazil (Recife), Chile (Santiago), Colombia (Bogotá), Guatemala (Guatemala City), Mexico (Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara), Peru (Lima), Uruguay (Montevideo) and the Dominica Republic (Santo Domingo).
Coordinator: Dr. Peter Ward.

MIT/SIGUS, Global Consortium for Incremental Housing

Informal builders provide the bulk of affordable housing and define large areas of our cities. Originally created for those long considered as poor and unable to house themselves, over time the resultant informal housing generally matches higher income standards. This incremental process has been adopted by governments into programmes called ‘site and services’, focusing on housing and land development, and embracing process as the key. A methodology to capture this process has been developed which offers a base for developing effective policies in supporting the incremental builders.
Coordinator: Dr. Reinhard Goethert.

Cities Alliance

The ‘Case for Incremental Housing’ by Patrick Wakely and Elizabeth Riley makes the case for governments to initiate and support incremental housing strategies as a major component of integrated urban development.

The World Bank

Supporting Incremental Neighborhood and Housing Development

The World Bank’s knowledge and discourse on housing policy, in particular on incremental housing, have gradually retreated. Outside the Bank, few if any study has taken a holistic approach and investigated incremental housing policies in operational details. This study revisited incremental housing approaches and developed a Guide to consolidate global experiences on incremental housing development.

The main activity of this study is the development of a ready-to-use Guide based on global experience. Case studies of two pilot cities – Jinja in Uganda and Malabon city in the Philippines – were conducted to provide practical implications to the Guide development. A review on Korea’s The Guide aims to provide a practical guidance for local governments to implement incremental housing development which can be led by individual households or by a group. The Guide is structured into eight modules. Each module includes several headlines with practical points of departure for the understanding and support of the incremental affordable housing processes. In addition, instructive examples and references for further consultation are provided.

The Guide has been developed in tandem with pilot testing case studies. Pilot testing is important to make the Guide applicable and practical in actual implementation. The case studies of two pilot cities and the review of the Korean experience in the implications for leadership and community participation were implemented and also reflected to the Guide development as supporting examples, such as the Joint Redevelopment Program of Korea for stakeholder mapping, the activity of savings groups in Uganda as an self-help group, etc. The other way round, guidelines from the Guide have been applied to the case studies. For example, the establishment of the Self-Reliance Centers (SRC) in Uganda has been significantly guided through the Guide. Moreover, the Uganda and Philippines case studies have been conducted according to the implementation steps introduced in the Guide. The main results of these case studies are reflected as textboxes throughout this document.

The World Bank’s Development of an Incremental and Affordable Housing Policy Toolkit and Technical Assistance to Pilot Cities (2015-2016). Information on this project will be provided in the second half of 2016.
Coordinator: Dr. Seunghyun Kim.


World Bank Headquarters, Washington, D.C., March 2015.
From left to right: Jan Bredenoord, Joon Park, Ellen Hamilton, Seunghyun Kim, and Hyoung Gun Wang.



Documents on incremental housing:

Habitat for Humanity:
Shelter report 2014. Step by Step: Supporting Incremental Building Through Housing Microfinance

DPU Working Papers:
Urban public housing strategies in developing countries: whence and whither paradigms, policies, programmes and projects

Wilson Center:
Innovation in Urban Development: Incremental Housing, Big Data, and Gender

Lund University:
Thesis Ivette Arroyo Baquero (2013) “Organized self-help housing as an enabling shelter & development strategy. Lessons from current practice, institutional approaches and projects in developing countries.”


The work of Architects: John Turner, Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi, Alejandro Aravena and others.

John Turner

<Text below was derived from:>

John Turner is a British architect who has written extensively on housing and community organisation, his writings being influenced by a formative period spent working in the squatter settlements of Peru from 1957-1965. There, Turner studied and advised on a number of reconstruction and slum upgrading programmes which were part of a nation-wide community development initiative. During this time Peru was also a leading centre for debate on housing policy, community development and the role of self-help housing. Turner’s own theoretical stance was formed in this context and combined aspects of the work of the Peruvian urban theorists Fernando Belaúnde, Pedro Beltrán and Carlos Delgado.

Turner’s central thesis argued that housing is best provided and managed by those who are to dwell in it rather than being centrally administered by the state. In the self-building and self-management of housing and neighbourhoods, Turner asserted that the global North had much to learn from the rapidly developing cities of the global South. Through a number of empirical studies, some of which were published in a collection for Habitat International Coalition entitled Building Community, he showed clearly that neighbourhoods designed with local groups worked better since people were experts on their own situations and should be given the ‘freedom to build’, a phrase that became the title for an edited collection by Tuner. Whether this freedom was granted by the state or wrested from it through squatting was less important. Within this framework the state as well as private professionals such as architects and engineers, act as enablers, resulting in a shift in thinking that valorises experience and local know-how over technocratic and professionalised forms of knowledge.

In contrast to the ‘aided self-help’ policies of the World Bank, for which Turner is frequently credited, his vision was far more radical as he not only contended that residents should build their own houses and neighbourhoods, but that they should also have control over their finances and management. In Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process, which was first published in 1972, Turner sets out these views, which remain relevant today. Whilst there have been some attempts in Europe to involve residents in decisions regarding their built environment, such as the work of the participatory architects of the 1960s and 1970s, the Scandinavian cohousing movement, the community technical aid centres of the UK and the work of architects such as Walter Segal, the full potential of such an engagement has not yet been realised.

Charles Correa

Charles Correa (1931-2015) was a great architect from India. He defined modern architecture in the country, moving on from the designs that Le Corbusier made in the new city of Chandigarh and in Ahmedabad in the early years after India’s independence. Correa acted as a President of the Indian National Commission on Urbanisation and was a pioneer in the field of affordable housing, and he constantly called attention to the crucial link between affordable housing, public transport and work areas. At the beginning of the 1960s he and two colleagues were advocates of this concept and they came up with a proposal for a radical restructuring of Mumbai (then called Bombay), where the growing number of illegal settlements in the city would be addressed. The then foreseen new town was designed to accommodate 2 million people and is now known as Navi Mumbai (New Bombay). By developing land on the other side of Bombay’s port, he would convert the North-South-development development axis of Mumbai into a poly centric urbanization model around the Bay. Navi Mumbai is a large-scale new town and one of the largest in the twentieth century. It is also the location of a smaller-scale experiment: the Belapur Incremental Housing project. As an architect Correa designed only one residential tower in his own city Mumbai, but this has become an iconic building, showing his Indian approach to architecture, using local building forms based on Indian living cultures. His Kanchanjunga apartments in Mumbai, 84 metres high, have courtyards in the air and luxury units that run from one side to the other to create through drafts.

Charles correa tower Source: Charles Correa Associates/ RIBA

Initially, Correa applied his ideas on housing and living to low, single houses, to incremental housing and to high-rise living. The ‘tube house’ in Ahmedabad (1962) is an early model of sustainable design for down-to-earth housing. It is a prototype of low-income housing, having a natural ventilation system and large living spaces; it was affordable as well as climate friendly. Only one tube house was built which finally was demolished in 1995. Nevertheless, the design is seen as iconic influencing the later work of Correa in the 1960 and 1970s, such as with the GHB-2 housing project (of the Gurajat Housing Board) in Ahmedabad, and designs for the PREVI (Experimental Housing Project) affordable housing project in Lima, Peru, where he showed the advantages of low-rise, high-density housing, with a cluster of incremental row-houses, with fluctuating widths, open-to-sky spaces and central double-height spaces covered by ‘wind-scoops’ for ventilation.

Knipsel tube house

Charles Correa’s work on housing has led to another iconic project, namely the Belapur Incremental Housing project realised in 1983 in Navi Mumbai. The project reveals the possibilities of the high-density, low-rise principle, based on a courtyard unit shared by a group of seven incremental houses. The project grew into a fully-fledged housing project to accommodate 600 households. The houses of the Belapur Housing are of one or two storeys, and were built traditionally, which fits well with the household’s life styles. The features are: high-density, incremental growth, small communities.

Knipsel ontwerp correa   charles-correa-hotels-apartments-townshipsresidences-30-638

Images : Charles Correa Associates/ RIBA

Balkrishna Doshi

The architect Balkrisna Doshi (1927) is another famous Indian architect who is dedicated to the social housing questions in India. He received the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2018. The jury stated that “with an understanding and appreciation of the deep traditions of India’s architecture, Doshi united prefabrication and local craft and developed a vocabulary in harmony with the history, culture, local traditions and the changing times of his home country India”. During many decades Doshi created an extensive collection of educational, cultural, public administration buildings and residential projects. His designs reveal the architect’s relationship with building, history, tradition, culture, and modernism.

Architect Balkrishna Doshi designed the Aranya Low Cost Housing project that was realized in 1989 in Indore. The complex accommodates over 80,000 residents through a system of low cost housing with courtyards and internal pathways. The community is comprised of over 6,500 residences, amongst six sectors – each of which features a range of housing options, from modest one-room units to spacious houses, to accommodate a range of incomes. The homes were designed with extension and adaptability in mind. It won the Aga Khan award for architecture in 1995, and was praised for its integration of mixed-income groups. Balkrishna Doshi about the Aranya Low-Cost housing project: “They are not houses but homes where a happy community lives. That is what finally matters.” Furthermore he says: “It seems I should take an oath and remember it for my lifetime: to provide the lowest class with the proper dwelling.”

Knipsel ontwerp doshi  Aranya housing foto 1

Images: VSF

Other architects working on social housing and incremental practices.

The problem with social housing in developing countries is that almost all the constructions are done by households, while architects are hardly involved. Clearly, in these countries architects can – besides designing and constructing – also develop strategies for incremental housing, together with communities to achieve housing solutions that not only address today´s necessities, but that can also be extended over time as families grow, once again by themselves and later without architects.

Alejandro Aravena

A new generation of architects is demonstrating the ability to connect social responsibility, economic demands, design of human habitat and the city. With his group ‘Elemental’ the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena – is the recipient of the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize. He and his team have been changing several design aspects of social housing, and also public policy concerning housing. What really sets Aravena apart is his commitment to social housing. Since 2000, he and his collaborators have consistently realized works with clear social goals. Calling the company a “Do Tank,” as opposed to a think tank, they have built more than 2,500 units using imaginative, flexible and direct architectural solutions for low cost social housing. The ELEMENTAL team participates in every phase of the complex process of providing dwellings for the underserved: engaging with politicians, lawyers, researchers, residents, local authorities, and builders, in order to obtain the best possible results for the benefit of the residents and society. An understanding of the importance of the aspirations of the inhabitants and their active participation and investment in a project, as well as good design, have contributed to the creation of new opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds. The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly responded to this challenge. Below: images of incremental growth in ELEMENTAL’s structures:

stringio elemental 1   elemental_3-960x701Source:

SPARC with Filipe Balestra, Sara Göransson, Prasanna Desai.

The architects have been doing research and design sessions in India, invited by Sheela Patel and Jockin Arputham from SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers) to develop an Incremental Housing Strategy that could be implemented anywhere. A team of international architects, urban planners, landscape architects and graphic designers volunteered to set up the strategy which uses the existing urban formations as starting point for development. Organic patterns that have evolved during time are preserved and existing social networks are respected. Neighbours remain neighbours, local remains local. When the architects started working the Indian government would initiate a grant of 4500 euro per family for making their homes incremental – at a national scale. The grant is now active and it can be given to any family who lives in a kaccha – an old temporary structure, not suitable for living. It is called City In-Situ Rehabilitation Scheme for Urban Poor Staying in Slums in City of Pune Under BSUP (Basic Services to the Urban Poor), and JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission). The strategy strengthens the informal and aims to accelerate the legalization of the homes of the urban poor. Their strategy was arranged to fit the parameters of this grant. This study was done with SPARC and Mahila Milan (Women Together).

About SPARC: the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers is one of the largest Indian NGOs working on housing and infrastructure issues for the urban poor. In 1984, when SPARC was formed, it began working with the most vulnerable and invisible of Mumbai’s urban poor – the pavement dwellers. SPARC’s philosophy is that if they can develop solutions that work for the poorest and most marginalized in the city, then these solutions can be scaled up to work for other groups of the urban poor across the country and internationally.
Since 1986, SPARC has been working in partnership with two community-based organizations the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan. Together, they are known as the Alliance. Today, the Alliance works in about 70 cities in the country and has networks in about 25 countries internationally. Sheela Patel, the Director of SPARC was awarded the Padmashree Award in 2011.

The Pune Municipal Corporation followed a participatory approach to implement an in-situ slum upgradation project under BSUP scheme of JNNURM to provide an alternative housing solution in high density slum areas of Yerwada region.

Collage-above-remy  in-situ rehabilitation scheme

Images by Filipe Balestra and Sara Söransson of Urbanouveau.

In situ-rehabilitation scheme in the scheme focuses on individual housing to be added in an existing neighbourhood. However, contemporary housing projects of the Gurajat Housing Board are more high-rise than in earlier decades, which is caused by the need to produce a huge number of dwellings each year. Incremental expansion of the dwellings is hardly possible herewith (see below).

Gurajat Housing Board projectSource: Gurajat Housing Board


Patricio Samper Gnekko, Bolivian architect and town planner

In Bogotá, Colombia, Ciudad Bachué is a high-density pilot project for social housing, that was built between 1978 and 1982. The project featured single and multi-family progressively expanded units, in total 7,124. Initially, the urban housing area Ciudad Bachué was located at the periphery of the Bogotá city centre, and later became well-connected to the city by various public transit lines. Meanwhile, the area is fully part of Bogotá’s urban fabric to the North. The project combines ten different housing types all less than 100 m2: five types are single family, five are multi-family, ranging from 1 to 5 story. All housing types were intended to be expanded progressively, except for the 4 and 5-story buildings with duplex apartments on top. Ciudad Bachué is a successful urban housing settlement, in terms of the experienced housing growth, and the evolution of community facilities and services of the settlement. Households of single-family and multi-family dwellings developed their homes within a built structure, which gave them the possibility to finish and refurbish their homes. One result of the incremental housing development is a sense of belonging, and a form of community development. The building blocks are small but incredibly dense and are mostly pedestrianised; only a few streets are wide enough to accommodate cars. The buildings are long and narrow with boxy additions stacked on top of the other onto the original structure.

Ciudad Bachué 1

Pedestrian street in ciudad Bachué. Photo by Chris Erb.




The people’s struggle for affordable living space. The role of self-help housing from 1950 – 2010 and beyond (revised 2016)

General introduction

The housing conditions in developing countries are determined strongly by self-help initiatives and the most vital actors in the shelter delivery are the households themselves. Very many families are busy with self-help, in one way or another, mostly because other options are out of reach. Early ‘aided self-help housing projects’ were built-up since the 1950s, as sites-and-services combined with (some) additional assistance for self-builders. In many countries, housing delivery was mainly provided through self-help. In some countries, such as Peru, Nicaragua and Bolivia, self-help housing, around and after the 1970s, was seen as the most suitable form of housing and (simultaneous) urban growth. Self-help housing is still a common practice in many countries. But formal attention such as integrated land development and neighborhood improvement became more popular within a broadened habitat approach, while institutional housing came up in several countries with Mexico as an important example. In national housing plans, self-help is only slightly present, while the focus is moving towards decent housing programs, benefitting the middle- and lower middle-classes. The most actual question is how to overcome the world’s housing deadlock; herewith well organized large scale solutions might be needed while self-help housing will remain a basic activity. If mutual aid within a family or group is possible, a self-building process can run easily. Other families are practicing a more advanced form of self-help housing, contracting out works and becoming building principals.

juntandomanosleon-003  juntandomanosleon-107  mexico-2008-laatste-015

1        The people’s struggle for affordable living space; an introduction

1.1    Affordable housing: the gap between the offer and the demand

The gap between the offer and demand of reasonably priced housing in developing countries is huge. The urban demand for houses is being influenced by the well-known urbanization trends caused by rural-urban migration, and more recently, by autonomous urban population growth. Besides the immense urban growth, the poverty of large parts of the (urban) populations is of vital significance. In order to determine the realistic housing demand in a country, the housing products (the ‘offer’) must be coupled with the affordability, a path that probably will lead toward a ‘housing differentiation’. Affordable housing for all social target groups reckons on a wide range of housing forms, from simple ‘sites provision’ with some services (no house) to complex forms of ‘public housing’. Being aware of the national and local housing markets is essential, while the key question is to create a realistic offer, knowing that families have mostly (fluctuating) low incomes. The nature of self-help housing is individual and private but supporting it means public involvement. Other interventions in a housing market -to support social target groups- concern e.g. the building of (subsidized) rental dwellings and owner-occupied houses by housing institutions or NGOs, individual or in the form of apartment complexes, core-houses at private plots, etc. Institutional housing delivery systems (‘public housing’) for low- and middle-income families are essential in some countries and emerging in other ones. While attending the housing needs of the poor, self-help should be a central element of a housing policy, national or local, but never the only solution. Institutional house production will eventually appear, but there are great differences in policies and practices of nations. The quest for affordable housing in a country shows an enormous demand and because of the housing debate might attend the next questions: how to increase the production of modest and reasonably priced houses?; how to discuss the qualities of houses for low-income families?; and how to improve housing finance for the poor? The latter is being broadened in some countries and, as a consequence, new finance systems emerged, such as the A-B-C-system (A-B-C housing finance is mixed finance: Savings (A), Subsidy (B), and Credit (C), in some Latin-American countries (see e.g. Klaufus, 2010). Current UN-Habitat (2010) viewpoints demonstrate new attention for pro-poor housing policies, e.g. through the question: ‘how to achieve access to adequate housing for the rapidly growing urban population of the developing countries’. This subject is also a Habitat statement with the new phrase: ‘Equal access to shelter’, presented after around two decades of gross neglect of the world’s housing problem (to be discussed during the 5th World Urban Forum, March 2010). This statement makes the ‘affordable housing question’ very actual.

1.2    Self-help housing related main issues

The ‘self-help housing’ that has been described by a range of authors (1960 – 1992) is linked with low-income families having only their own hands and skills for the building of their shelter. ‘Aided’ – or ‘assisted self-help housing’ as public housing instrument, got very much attention (see e.g. Harris’ historical overviews, 1998, 1999, 2003). The phrase ‘aided self-help housing’ was used often and the aid or assistance means among other things: land for construction, urban services, knowledge development and the option to construct a house step by step (the latter is also called ‘incremental’). The people’s power to construct the house, with or without ‘assistance’, happens almost everywhere in the countries of the South. In due course, the scarcity of land and the increasing land prices make sites-and-services projects quite hard to develop. For example: where to find appropriate and enough land to be divided into parcels and to be sold for self-help housing and/or public housing? Another issue is how to improve individual houses and even whole neighborhoods with constraints? Ultimately, there will be a need for densification of urban neighborhoods, in order to prevent the uncontrolled urban sprawl. Moreover, the growing demand for new urban land is causing financial and organizational difficulties for local governments. In the past, aided self-help housing was more or less the same as sites-and-services. In 2016, self-help is still a very important element of the improvement of the existing housing stock and this will be the case in the future, while sites-and-services plans will be required as part of urban growth. Urban planning, public land policy, building control and the definition of ‘housing products’ are important issues of (future) municipal planning; self-help is linked with all of these.

1.3     Self-help housing is normally linked with informality

While looking at the dilemma of houses for low-income people, one can find mostly: 1) the need for the betterment of living and housing circumstances in the ‘slums’, and 2) the need for preparing new land for housing as a result of the expectancies related to the population growth and the growth of cities. Realizing a mass public housing system in a country is difficult and will cost time, because of the lack of land and public managerial skills and financial means. All the millions not having enough financial income for the purchase of a plot or a house might rely on a public housing sector with reasonably priced rental units, however, this is mostly not available although people might rent some private space, mostly in overcrowded situations. The customary housing sector mostly cannot provide enough dwellings for low-income families; as a consequence of this, the people have to resort to the informal housing market where the self-help principle is a significant feature. To what extend self-help occurs depend on the available time, knowledge, skills and earnings of the households. Self-help is often connected to poverty and the housing quality can be very low. Contracting out specific parts of a building process to professional builders is an upcoming phenomenon. Moreover, self-help housing is present almost everywhere, informal as well as in informal land developments, except in countries that have shown a strong economic development and where was chosen for large scale and/or industrial solutions such as in Singapore and in Hong Kong and more recently in China. It is estimated that 70 percent of all investments in housing in the majority of the countries of the South was done by households, making ‘progressive housing’ or ‘incremental shelter’ (UN-Habitat, 2005, p.xLi). In Latin-America, less than 30 percent of dwellings are produced by the formal housing market (UN-Habitat, 2005, p. xxxviii).

1.4       The pro’s and con’s of self-help housing

Self-help housing is being practiced by low-income as well as high-income groups. Nonetheless, many poor households construct their dwellings unlawfully on land without titles and without building permits. Where this happens in areas seen as unlawful, there are plural illegalities: the land occupation is illegal and so are the dwellings and the neighborhood. The step by step building practice delivers at first mostly a temporary shelter; in a later phase, the use of durable materials is at stake and ultimately horizontal expansions or even one or two extra floors can be expected. But not all families build at the same pace. The value of the property will increase gradually and the house can become the family’s money box particularly if the family possesses a property title (or another practical right to use the plot for private housing). Even though a house can have a certain market value, the basic value of the house is the protection it offers for the residents and the prospect to start a small business there or to rent out parts of the house in order to gain extra income. A feature of self-help is the freedom that a shelter can offer; if it was built without using loans, the obligation to pay off every month is restricted or even zero, which is the best for poor families.

Self-help housing had its advocates and opponents. Early advocates of self-help such as Crane, Abrams, Mangin and Turner mostly had optimistic views on the families’ power to build the house through self-help. Turner (1967) stressed that the squatter settlement (and self-help) provided the household with a medium of upward mobility and he influenced with his important work the academic debate (as a matter of fact: he initiated the debate) and the commitment of the United Nations, the World Bank, government organizations, and NGOs. Opponents stipulated the difficulties of the very poor finding ways to repay the costs of the plot or/and the house. Ward (1982) stressed that self-help failed to become a noteworthy housing solution in most countries of the South. Burgess (1982) mentioned six constraints of self-help housing and Marcuse (1992) even ten. In due course, it became clear that the creativeness and the power of self-help cannot be over-valuated. On the other hand, public housing programs and strategies to meet the need of low-income groups are lacking or dysfunctioning at many places. Other opponents wrote that the process of learning with self-help would be ineffective and that most families can only master the process when they have almost completed the house (UN-Habitat, 2005, p 23). But, families having some experience with initial self-help housing, have almost certainly better potential to manage contracting out of works to artisans. (See also: Section 2.4 ‘The academic debate on aided self-help housing in the 1980s and 1990s’).

In real life, self-help housing is present: it happens at a large scale and is inevitable for many, despite the described problems and constraints. As a consequence of the worldwide housing demand, the powerful factor of self-help housing should be better attended by governments and housing institutions, which does not mean that self-help is the only alternative for the poor. It is clear that the disabled, single-parent households and elderly people cannot participate unless they get help from others. Good conditions for success are there if people with the same attitude take the initiative and additional help from the government or aid organizations can be obtained.

UN-Habitat (2005, p 166) writes that assisted self-help housing is the most affordable and intelligent way of providing sustainable shelter. As it is based on minimum standards and incorporates a substantive amount of sweat equity it can be cost-reducing. It can be useful because individuals and communities engaged in it acquire precious skills, and it can be practical because it responds to people’s needs and levels of affordability. It can be flexible because dwelling units are often designed to expand over time. This underlines the new attention of UN-Habitat for the significance of assisted self-help housing, which even can be seen as a renaissance of a positive attitude concerning the phenomenon.

1.5       The different levels of self-help housing

Self-help housing can be practiced at different levels. Firstly the level can be determined by the people if having savings and abilities to construct an own house (or having built one). Families able to manage help from family members and friends can realize their construction activities better (managerial ability). Secondly, the ultimate quality level of the house depends on the assistance the households (can) obtain from the government or aid organizations. Table 2 overviews the various levels of self-help housing and estimations of costs. The aid can be ‘basic’, providing a plot –with water and electricity- that is prepared for the construction of a house (with an official land title). This could be called ‘primary assistance for the purchase of a plot’ (level ‘P.1’); but many families cannot buy the plot with their savings, so the next assistance to a family can be: ‘providing a loan with a pay-off arrangement’ (level ‘P.2’). The next level could be the provision of a sewerage system, e.g. a septic-tank through an extra loan (level ‘P.3’). Every extra assistance raises the quality level of the plot. If one can get help with the house construction (levels with an ‘H’) one can think of: assistance related to a construction plan and the gaining of a building permit (level ‘H.1’), then: assistance with the purchase of building materials (level ‘H.2’); assistance with the construction (supervision) (level ‘H.3’), assistance through the deliverance of a core house (level ‘H. 4’), etc. Every higher level of quality means also higher costs. The estimated costs are derived from experiences with very modest housing products in Nicaragua and Peru. Costs can vary from country to country and from region to region; prices of plots are normally higher in metropolitan areas, such as Mexico City. In many cases, low-income families can obtain subsidies or donations and as a consequence of that the costs for the family can be lower than the indicated amounts (see also Bredenoord and Van Lindert, 2010).

1.6       The phases of self-help housing

The interpretations of the research on self-help housing in Lima, Peru (Bredenoord, 2002/2003; Bredenoord and Veldkamp, 2004) reveal a comprehensive practice of self-help housing in this metropolitan area. The self-help housing process in its initial phase is mostly purely self-help, while during a later phase self-management emerges. The following phases of self-help housing were found in Lima and match globally with Turner’s findings. The three phases of self-help housing, as described, are based on the author’s observations and dozens of interviews with families and professionals during 2000-2003 in Villa el Salvador, Huaycán (Ate), Villa Maria el Triunfo, and Nuevo Pachacútec (Ventanilla) in and around Metropolitan Lima, Peru.

1   Initial Phase: first try-out

The first phase is the basic self-help housing, within an urban land development, illegal or legal, with some kind of help from the state or a municipality (on services and infrastructure). When a temporary shelter was realized, the households build the houses bit by bit with help from family members and friends. At the beginning, a house can be very modest.

im000260  im000259  im000803

2      Stabilizing Phase: getting hope

During the second phase, when families have settled and have more or less regular incomes, they might get access to credit from an NGO or the ‘BANMAT’ for the obtaining of building materials, which was possible in Peru in the 1990s. A family can contract a supervisor or a foreman for technical assistance. Families prefer working with people they know, such as relatives. Many families have chosen for a building process without formal credit from banks or NGOs; they prefer saving the money first or are borrowing from family members and friends. Finally, there is a need for access to external finance. The ‘BANMAT’ was established in Peru as the national Building Materials Bank in the 1980s, the bank does not exist anymore, it went bankrupt as consequence of political actions and a strike against the paying off arrangements. Actually, it is converted to a mortgage bank which executes a variety of housing programs initiated by the government. Already in 2009, the BANMAT acts differently from the past (see e.g. Fernandez-Maldonado and Bredenoord, 2010).

im000811  huisventanilla  nuevo-pacacutec-peru

3       Consolidating Phase: feeling secure

During this phase, the basic house is already available and the family can involve professional workers with the expansion of the house or with a first or second story. Specialized support is needed but the family must be able to control the construction costs, while building standards must be controlled by the municipality. The structure of the house must be built durable at all times. This phase does not exclude the participation of a family member’s own labor force in order to lower the costs, but trained artisans are contracted more often. This phase can be flourishing if the households have developed some economic power and obtained know-how with foregoing small building processes.

im000778   100_4414  mexico-2008-laatste-017

The three described phases of self-help expansion can also be seen as different levels of development. Greene and Rojas (2008) distinguish three (different) phases of incremental housing construction: 1) access to land for residential use, 2) the construction of a basic, habitable nucleus, and 3) the incremental improvement of the dwelling. In each of these three phases, there are opportunities for public intervention to create a more efficient and equitable process, each with its own characteristics. Self-help housing can be improved by mutual self-help and governments and aid organizations could support that by giving extra incentives (e.g. concerning the formation of save- and building groups and technical and financial assistance). As a result, self-help housing can be ‘a vehicle of upward social mobility’ and the described phases are expressions of that. In the third phase, families showed to be able to act as small building principles.


Illustration of self-build housing process, and densification over the years in La Paz, Bolivia [Bredenoord and Van Lindert, 2010]

1.7          Conclusion

The people’s struggle for affordable living space is at stake in most countries of the South. The housing shortages in a particular country must be coupled with the housing products and the current income levels. This might lead to a housing typology and the calculation of the number of housing products to be produced for the various population groups. But problems between desire and possibility will appear: if a cheap housing product (e.g. ‘P + H.2’ in Table 2) is being offered to low-income families, many people cannot pay the relatively low costs (in this example US$ 2,500 – 3,500). Nonetheless, these exercises should be done in every country. The prospects for adequate housing for most social target groups are mainly negative in many countries, while the population growth and the pressure on cities will increase. Professional housing institutes with sufficient structural funding, which is e.g. the case with Mexico’s housing institutes INFONAVIT and FOVESSSTE (see Bredenoord and Verkoren, 2010), are mainly not available although institutional housing has been established in some countries, e.g. in South Africa (see Landman and Napier, 2010) and the mixed-finance systems in Chile and Ecuador (see Klaufus, 2010). Another question concerns the provision of rental houses, necessary in big cities. As private investors do normally not invest in modest houses for low-income families, this will be a matter of government attention. This article describes successively: the historical backgrounds of self-help housing (Section 2), the international focus on self-help related issues (Section 3), and finally the future perspectives for aided self-help housing (Section 4).

2             Historical backgrounds of self-help housing

2.1         Early aided self-help housing experiences

Early experiences with aided self-help housing took place particularly in Western countries and were based on the idea that governments might help families to build their own dwellings. These were done for the first time in Sweden in 1904 when the government created a program for self-help with public housing finance (loans to owner-builders). Later, a variety of self-help programs during the 1920s were offered all through Western Europe and the Soviet Union. Only some of these survived such as the housing programs in Stockholm and Vienna (1926). In the following decade, some countries implemented self-help within their policies, with the aim to provide affordable housing for low-income households as was done in France, Germany, Greece and Finland (Harris, 1998). Self-help housing in Western Europe was mostly used in times of economic crisis after the Wars; especially in Germany, there was a significant self-help housing practice (Harms, 1982). The self-help housing in the United States supporting low-income families is still present in rural areas with a mutual self-help housing program (United States Department of Agriculture). Self-help housing was practiced in Canada quite successfully (Schulist and Harris, 2002). This overview reveals that self-help housing was initially, to a certain extent, more a matter of the West (including its visions in the latter days of the colonial period) than a matter of the South. The phenomenon hardly is of any importance in western countries, except for the United States and Canada (Mathey, 1989).

2.2   Aided self-help housing in the 1940s and 1950s 

Aided self-help housing -as meant in this article- in the Americas commenced in 1939, when the Housing Authority of Ponce, Puerto Rico started an early edition of ‘sites and services’, implicating public purchase of land and subdivision of it for individual families, and the giving of some form of aid in the construction of low-income shelter (Abrams, 1964;  Harris, 1998). Aided self-help housing was implemented by other countries too, in order to combat housing problems at minimum costs. After 1945 aided self-help housing was propagated by agencies of the United States, in the first place by Jacob Crane and later by the United Nations and the British colonial office. Crane used the expression ‘aided self-help’ for the first time in 1945, and linked it at first with rural projects and equal to ‘minimum urbanization’. In both cases, housing authorities used public finance to offer varying levels of services, finance and technical assistance to owner-builders. These self-help experiences were followed in the early 1950s by other Caribbean countries (e.g. in Barbados and Jamaica) and by some countries in Latin-American. In 1952, a wide-ranging study by the forerunner of the World Bank recommended aided self-help being: ‘… the principal solution to Jamaica’s housing problems’. Aided self-help housing was above all liberal, having a social component, but mainly seen in contrast to public housing. Understandably so, self-help housing and neighborhood improvement would value the dwelling so much that the people would look after it well and care for the neighborhood and its services. By the late 1940s more than a few schemes, being ‘open developed plots’, sites without building regulations and minimal services, were common in Madras, India, and around 1950 Delhi had laid out about 2,500 plots (Housing of Urban Displaced Persons in Capital, 1950). In a mixture of forms, actually assisted self-help was well-known in India then. Aided self-help housing was practiced in South Africa even earlier; before World War I a site-and-service scheme with plots and services was developed at Pimville in existing Soweto near Johannesburg. The ‘sites and services approach’ was revitalized after World War II in this country. Extensive land invasions and squatting during the 1940s obliged the city of Johannesburg to convert many into ‘controlled site and service camps’ (Harris, 1998). The early experiences show above all a late colonial attitude of the initiators on self-help housing.

2.3   Aided self-help housing in the 1960s and 1970s

Before the 1960s self-help housing was frequently seen as a social problem and an expression of urban poverty. In the 1960s the American anthropologist William Mangin and the British architect John Turner, both working in Peru, drew attention to self-help housing and they described it as a positive phenomenon with respect to social housing, especially in the slums in Peru (Driant, 1991, Fernandez-Maldonado, 2007). Owner-building was widespread all through Latin America but aided self-help was generally not a major part of national policies. The circumstances in Colombia and Peru were different. In Colombia, some form of assisted self-help was realized by the early 1940s, prepared by a mutual organization which sold building materials at cost price (Harris, 1998). Self-help housing in Peru became a main issue since 1956 and quite a lot of self-help housing projects were started. The implementation of the Peruvian ‘housing’ Law 1961 depended on assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank which provided much assistance to Peru. At that time, John Turner was the most productive author on self-help housing issues, and through his work the ‘Peru experiences’ and the ones in some other Latin American countries, became well-known. The most crucial outcome of his work was that slum dwellers, if not being helped by governments or institutions, still would improve gradually low-income neighborhoods, especially on the base of the de facto economic land ownership. The rural–urban invasions of large groups of residents to the barriadas in Peru were at that time seen as constructive social-emancipative actions of poor people. But critics were always present and underlined e.g. the need to avoid political and civilian conflicts around urban invasions. At the moment, illegal land occupancy is not popular anymore in Peru and is even forbidden by law.

As a consequence of the work of Mangin and Turner (see also Bromley, 2003) the World Bank started in the early 1970s to finance urban expansion plans concerning land and shelter provision for low-income households. Loans with low interest rates were offered, and moreover: guaranteed loans, subsidies and plans for standard houses, guides/manuals for construction, etc. In this episode pilots such as sites-and-services schemes were stimulated and the idea was to replicate them later at a large scale. Replication required a cost recovery, but there was eventually only a little success with the paying-off, the beneficiaries were not persuaded to do so and the political will to remove the families with arrears was generally not there. Sooner or later, the replication rates became too limited causing the limited impact of the World Bank investments with self-help. Another difficulty was the lack of municipal commitment with these projects, realized with external staff and finance. Some of the projects in the early 1970s with World Bank finance were executed in Botswana, El Salvador and Senegal, mostly sites-and-services with minimal core houses and infrastructure on ‘greenfield’ sites. Other early World Bank commitments were in Indonesia, Burkina Faso and Zambia, and focused on slum-upgrading as a substitute for demolition followed by new construction. World Bank’s analyses showed that the projects generated a larger investment in housing than was estimated: in Senegal for instance residents invested 8 times as much as the project’s costs and the informal construction business benefitted hereof (UN-Habitat, 2005, pp. 21/22). During the 1970s two well-documented suburban development plans (both initially ‘sites-and-services’) were started and got impulses by governmental investments and urban planning: 1) Villa el Salvador -or ‘VES’- as part of metropolitan Lima, Peru (see e.g. Fernandez-Maldonado and Bredenoord, 2010) and 2) Nezahualcóyotl as part of metropolitan Mexico City (see e.g. Bredenoord and Verkoren, 2010). Mentioned suburban development areas are nowadays integrated parts of a great metropolis and can be seen as more or less consolidated. Similar suburban expansion plans were started in the same decade in Peru as well as in Mexico, and some in other Latin American countries too.

2.4   The academic debate on aided self-help housing in the 1980s and 1990s

The optimistic approach on aided self-help housing changed in the 1980s after many years of practice and academic debates. In the first place, the gaining of land for housing purposes in urban expansion plans was not always easy, compared to the early Peru case of Villa el Salvador (the government was the owner of the desert-like land there and could easily give it away to self-builders; this situation was not available in most other countries). Furthermore, huge pre-investments are required for urban land development, while housing for low-income families is a weak (economic) function. With the book Self-help Housing A Critique (Ward, 1982) a number of key questions related to self-help housing was discussed and a more sensible view on self-help emerged. Until that time self-help housing had become a favorite formula for urban development and many projects were executed. It became clear that self-help housing, with sites-and-services, core housing – and slum upgrading plans, was not the only solution to all housing problems (Mathéy, 1992). Because the providing of houses by the state is not a realistic option in many countries; but the governmental input could be different, such as to provide technical expertise on site, and to purchase land for urban use, by either land banking or land pooling. ‘Land access has to be seen as a major factor in Third World housing’ (Potter and Lloyd-Evans, 1998). The opponents of self-help housing might be right in arguing that the socio-economic state of affairs of many people ‘… may not be exploited twice’, but good alternatives for new strategies were not accessible. A problem of aided self-help housing is that the initial target group is not always fully serviced, since aided self-help housing became more and more exclusive, seen all added qualities in the course of time. In some cases, the families without regular income were passed with the granting of loans and in other cases, the beneficiaries sold the property to other families because of economic reasons. After 1992 it was quiet around self-help housing: researchers found other themes while the international agenda focused on the broader ‘habitat;  and the city-wide approach. In the 1990s the global privatization trends influenced also the visions of governments, and housing was normally seen as ‘private’, a matter of the families. In some countries, public housing policies were completely absent. In general, the international attention for self-help housing declined in and after the 1980s, while the attention for the broadened city approach emerged In Africa the situation was the same, but there are exceptions such as in Egypt and South Africa; while the housing policy in other countries in the continent was diverse. Housing delivery in Egypt is closely linked with the state planning system, initiated decades ago. Forced by the vast urban development of Cairo, a series of new towns was planned outside the central city and within main development corridors of the Greater Cairo Region. These corridors are located outside the fertile delta, and consequently in the desert like areas. This could only be done through strong urban planning, infrastructure development, and governmental housing delivery. The post-apartheid housing delivery system of South Africa encountered a shelter crisis in 1994 and self-help housing gained prominence as a solution. For a large part, and as a consequence of poverty, the government at first started with a sites-and-services’ policy providing plots and small core houses with basic services. Households had to expand and improve the house by themselves (see e.g. Landman and Napier, 2010).

2.5          Conclusion

The aided self-help housing and – more in general – the low-cost shelter provision for the poor, has got very much attention in the global ambiance. The liberal approach concerning self-help housing is often criticized by socialist views of opponents of self-help. In spite of the academic controversy of the 1970s and 1980s, the practice of self-help housing went on, with or without help from governments and aid organizations. In general, the idea emerged that self-help housing ‘was not the only solution to all housing problems’, which of course is realistic. The international agenda –headed by UN-Habitat and the World Bank- shifted from the housing approach towards a city-wide or urban development approach, but the residents depending on low-income housing were sometimes left out in the cold. For example, the ‘habitat approach’ focusing on new themes, such as the Kampong Improvement Programme in Indonesia, did not attend the housing question; and all low-income families built their houses by self-help (see Tunas and Peresthu, 2010). So, Turner’s vision evaluated from a central provision to local enablement (Turner, 1983) and ‘…a recognition of the fact that only small proportions of the rapidly growing low-income populations can be housed by low-income governments’. Meanwhile, the self-help practice, sometimes supported, sometimes neglected, went on and on and in many cases without subsidies and corresponding research.

3          The international focus on self-help housing related issues

3.1       The UN-Habitat and World Bank positions

In the mid 1980s, changes in the thoughts about self-help came up, steering from a housing sector approach towards a broader habitat approach. It was clear that individual sites-and-services and slum upgrading projects could not affect the growing housing need sufficiently. A well operating finance method for housing was needed and new urban land should be part of a city and be managed by municipalities and not by external staff and management, as was done earlier by World Bank interventions. As a consequence of experiences and new visions, the World Bank changed its policy and focused on integrated territorial development with the main stakeholders. In the meantime, the urban debate came up and during some UN conferences new directions were set out for meeting the urban problems. During the first Habitat(-I) conference in Vancouver in 1976 the accent lies on ‘habitat’, but still in a limited sense of housing and living conditions. The second UN meeting was the Earth Summit in 1992 (Rio de Janeiro) that focused mainly on sustainable development. The later Local Agenda 21 determined that local governments should start city-wide consultations, to take up the joint vision of the inhabitants on the city’s future. Habitat-2, the City Summit in Istanbul, 1996, integrated the values of the Local Agenda 21 into the habitat Agenda. This Agenda focuses on enabling strategies, whereby national and local governments should create better circumstances for residents and entrepreneurs, in order to make the local living and production environments better. At that time it was clear that the governments, seen the great number of poor families and the limitations of public finance, should not support housing directly, but leaving actual production to the market, ‘… in which all actors from large formal-sector developers through artisans and individual households, to voluntary community organizations, involve themselves at their most effective level in the production process (UN-Habitat, 2005, p. 25). Afterward, one must say that the private developers and the building industry have not proven to be interested in providing housing for the poor. Voluntary community organizations neither housing NGOs can do that because of the lack of finance. Only (groups of) families, organized and supported well can do that, so assistance and encouragement are necessary. A new insight came up after the 1980s regarding government responsibilities for the making of good conditions for the urban habitat, later called: ‘enabling approach’. Moreover, a new vision on the commitment of local government was set-up, in order to support initiatives from (groups of) households and civil and private sectors. The leading idea was that self-help housing by families and communities should be encouraged by governmental pro-actively. Besides national legislation, the state’s role was focused on land registration, facilitation of municipal governments and this provision of financial incentives. Local governments should be better prepared for urban planning and land provision, and moreover, the search for private initiatives at district level. Many municipalities were not able to execute these new tasks immediately, and because of that, the municipality’s role should be improved. As a consequence, the ‘Urban Management Program’ (1986) was set-up, a joint idea of the United Nations Development Program, UN-Habitat and the World Bank. After three decades of systematizing public urban interventions, it is accepted that development strategies should contain: ‘sustainable urban development’ with urban planning, the participation of residents and entrepreneurs within an indicated area, the striving for strategic alliances, etc. Since 2005, UN-Habitat is looking back again at the advantages of assisted self-building of houses. (UN-Habitat, 2005) (Financing Urban Shelter). Current UN-Habitat’s (2010) arrangements for the 5th session of the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, March 2010, show among other things that there is a need for new approaches for the ‘exploding cities of the South’ demanding a new urban agenda – ‘the right to the city’- and ‘equal access to shelter’.

3.2     The world’s population growth and millennium goal

Around 1950 approximately 730 million people lived in cities (29 percent worldwide). In 2008 there are 3.3 billion urban residents worldwide, a little more than 50 % of the total. UN predictions indicate for the year 2030 that approximately 5 billion people will live in cities, around 60% of the world’s population. The urban growth, particular in and near cities in the countries of the South will continue to grow. The housing demand worldwide is huge and at least millions of houses must be built every year, in the coming decades. According to UN calculations, the number of earthlings will be about 8 billion in 2030 – 2 million more than in 2008-; in addition, urban population will grow to 4.9 billion in 2030 (UNFPA, 2007). The number of residents not having an adequate house, together 2,825 million people by 2030 require housing and urban services. The demand for housing –just to accommodate the increase in the number of households over de next 25 years – is estimated to be 877 million housing units. This means that – with an average 5 persons per household , roughly 30-35 million housing units must be built or improved each year (UN-Habitat, 2005). The number of people in slum areas in the year 2020 will be 1.4 billion people (UNFPA, 2007). The Millennium Goal 7, target 11, takes for granted the improvement of housing and living conditions of at least 100 million slum-dwellers in 2020. But 100 million slum dwellers is only 7 per cent of the calculated number of slum dwellers in the year 2020.

3.3       The world’s cities and its slums

Originally a slum was an existing/old urban area, sometimes adjacent to the inner-city, with all kind of constraints, such as bad housing quality, strong overcrowdings and the lack of adequate services. The current definition of ‘slum’ is different from the past. A ‘slum area’ is a new understanding used by UN-Habitat and mostly they mean squatter settlements in and near the cities. The State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7 reveals how inequity in access to services, housing, land, education, health care and employment, will lead to rising violence, environmental degradation, and underemployment. Because not all slum dwellers are poor and not all the poor live in slums and indicators are not always measured in the same way, the definition of slums is not always clear. The growth of slums in the world was without precedents during the past 15 years. In 1990 the world counted with almost 715 million slum dwellers and the number grew until 912 million in the year 2000. In the year 2007, the world counted with more than 1 million slum dwellers. UN-Habitat estimates that the number of slum dwellers will be 1.4 million in the year 2020. Some slums are less visible than others and more or less integrated within the urban system. Other slums are permanent or even deteriorating. Overcrowding, noise, air pollution, and lack of green spaces and communal meeting places such as parks, are associated with increased stress levels among city residents highly-dense high-rises in Indian and Egyptian cities, for instance, do not appear to have quite an impact on levels of well-being. For low-income residents, living in high-rise apartments is linked with social isolation and lack of access to amenities that aid well-being (UN-Habitat, 2008, p. 128). These observations mean that living qualities are far more complicated than a focus on the house and its direct surroundings. The development of a monitoring instrument for the housing situation of all countries is necessary and UN-Habitat presented five shelter deprivation indicators, connected to the house:

  • lack of durable housing,
  • lack of sufficient living space,
  • lack of access to improved drinking water,
  • lack of access to improved sanitation and
  • lack of secure tenure.

The lack of durable housing is strongly connected to the quality of housing stock. It is estimated that 133 million people in developing countries do not possess durable houses. This number seems to be very low, seen the corresponding number of slum-dwellers and the global housing shortage. The reason is that the definition is inadequate and only related to permanent floor materials. Durable housing is underestimated because durability is primarily based on the presence of individual constructions and not on a location and not complied with building codes. Concerning housing quality, mainly the qualities of floor materials are taken into consideration because information on the materials of roofs and walls were absent. Overcrowding is a manifestation of inequity and can contain also a hidden form of homelessness. In 2003, about 20 percent of the world’s urban population, 401 million people lived in dwellings with a shortage of living space (with approximately 3-4 persons sharing a bedroom). This aspect of housing does not reveal the most crucial elements of overcrowding, namely the number of residents per dwelling and the floor space of an average dwelling. Overcrowding is something to be monitored in a better way and the available floor space of houses and the average house occupancy should be taken into consideration. The other mentioned deprivation factors, (lack of access to improved drinking water, to improved sanitation, and the lack of secure tenure) are of equal importance. Monitoring the overall housing situation should be a vital issue in many countries; however, this must be strongly stimulated while research (new) methods and housing standards must be discussed.

3.4       Land use in urban areas and the issue of the densities

The land use concerning human settlements in rural areas differs from urban land use as described previously; larger plots are more common in rural areas, and the density and land prices are still relatively low. The plots can be 200 – 500 square meters, necessary if the yard is used for growing crops. Families can sell the products of small scale gardening at the market. The use of a yard in a city for growing crops is not common because the plots are mostly too small. The plots in urban expansion plans in Peru are for example 90 square meters in the suburb of Lima, Villa el Salvador, while the plots in Nezahualcóyotl, a vast suburb of Mexico City measure 150 square meters. Seen the need to optimize the urban land use, the dimensions of the plot should be a subject of discussion. If the plot measures e.g. 200 square meters or more, optimum urban land use is becoming beyond range. In the urban context, the optimization of land use only can be found between 80 square meters – 200 square meters. Further densification with plots less than 80-90 square meters might not be current and one might choose for multi-storey apartment buildings, where self-help housing is hardly possible. But self-help activities are still possible if contractors/developers deliver a frame or core house and the residents could finish the apartment in order to diminish the building costs. The optimum plots-size depend on urban factors, linked with e.g. the plot’s location, the sizes, the land prices and costs of making the land accessible for construction (see e.g. Bredenoord and van Lindert, 2010). The idea of the ‘compact city’ could be used as part of  urban and housing policies. Sites-and-services plans might be densified through splitting the plots and/or by building storeys. Seen the shortage of plots and rising prices of urban land, higher urban densities are necessary On plots of 90 square meters it is possible to build 1 or 2 storeys, but the foundation and the construction must be prepared for that, which increases the construction costs. The possibilities to build incrementally op plots smaller than 60 square meters are limited (see e.g. Bredenoord and Verkoren, 2010). Increasing housing densities is mostly difficult because building processes are always individual and some families cannot finish the house within a period of 5 years. This is why the self-help housing is not always suitable in situations where a quick urban development process is foreseen (see Bredenoord, 2002/2003).

3.5    Housing qualities and the need for research

The qualities of houses can differ significantly. This is why a ‘housing differentiation’ as a tool of housing policy should be introduced. As low-income families have dissimilar financial means, it is desirable to describe the ‘housing products’ with the corresponding costs for the residents. Factors of importance are: the costs of the land, the costs of the house (building materials, labor, architect, building permit, etc.) and the subsidies and subsidized loans that could be acquired. In general, every housing segment has its own housing products, which can differ from country to country. The table shows a preliminary housing differentiation for the municipality of León; 47.5 percent of the households are in the segments D and E, Poverty, and Extreme poverty, respectively. The housing products are modest, with costs between US$3,500 and US$5,000. Many poor families cannot afford that, or pay the corresponding monthly costs of the house, while a realistic housing offer is hardly available. This is why self-help housing is still present everywhere in León (and Nicaragua) as a consequence of the bad economic circumstances. Looking at building costs, a difference must be made between direct costs (costs of land and construction costs, minus subsidy) and indirect costs: costs of septic tanks or another sewerage system. The latter is mostly not included in the price of the package but the costs of connecting the house to the public (drinking) water and electricity delivery are. More in general, a point of departure must be that every household has its own economical possibilities and limitations. A preliminary ‘model’ for the determining of housing qualities for the poor should contain the following elements:

  • The possibility of services, such as drinking water, electricity, and sanitation
  • The surface area of the plot between 80 -120 square meters
  • The (core) house that can be small to modest, determining the initial built up living space that can vary from 20 – 60 square meters
  • The subsidy from the state, or donations from others. The subsidy must be equal to every household, once in a lifetime, and will normally be small.
  • The price of the package for the families; this can vary from US$ 1,000 until around US$ 12,000

It is needed to decide for all social target groups the housing quality corresponding with the household’s incomes, self-finance and self-help possibilities, subsidies, and donations. The housing typology is a result of the research to be executed before the housing policy (on the local level) can be established. Monitoring the quality of the housing stock of municipalities and nations will be very necessary, in order to be able to make adequate housing policies at the mentioned levels. Monitoring aspects concern the realistic demand of housing products, the affordability (knowledge about the income situations of households), and the realistic housing offer (house production and housing costs). The quality aspect concerns besides information on housing plots, living space, construction costs, the technical quality of the structures, and the average number of residents per dwelling.

3.6       Conclusion

When self-help housing is in the initial phase, the quality of the houses is often bad and in many cases, one cannot even speak of a house. Many families build their shelter with bad building materials like cardboard, pieces of plastic or rush mats, on land obtained by illegal land occupation. In the case of illegal land occupation one cannot expect that the residents will invest in a durable house, but if the household possesses a plot with an official land title, the circumstances are unlike. An initial shelter can look very miserable, but what counts is the power of the family improving the housing and living situation through the years. The environment of the houses is in many cases a slum area and normally these do not offer sufficient public services, healthy environments, and public security. The official attention for the support of self-help housing fluctuated in the course of time (and seen from perspectives of the international debates on housing and the shift to the habitat approach). No matter what the arguments are/were, the official attention for self-help can differ significantly from country to country. Meanwhile, international attention for the support of self-building is coming back (Un-Habitat, 2005), but self-building methods of individual families or groups still do not have significant positions in most national and municipal policies momentarily.

4          Future perspectives for aided self-help housing

4.1     Aided self-help housing and the search for best practices

In many cases, ordinary people practicing self-help housing do not have the appropriate knowledge of building techniques and other aspects of durability, sometimes with low quality as a consequence. Being ‘earthquake resistance’ is a needed feature in earthquake areas and any investment in a house should contribute to a safe and durable construction. Because self-help housing is the only option for many, the governments might develop (better) strategies for the provision of technical assistance, building control and access to small loans. Technical help can be delivered by NGOs or aid organizations but there is also a task for the government and the education sector; e.g. technical schools might provide technical training and courses, to groups of self-builders. UN-Habitat (UN, 2006/7) states on self-help housing and land development: “Accordingly, sites would be identified and reserved for sustainable shelter development, furnished with essential basic infrastructure and services, and used as a “building platform” for minimal, low-cost housing solutions to be developed according to the principles of assisted self-help housing”. As a consequence, public housing policy of nations should offer support for: a) aided self-help housing and technical support and control, b) housing organized through mutual self-help groups, c) the establishment of housing cooperatives, d) the participation of the private building business with aspects of self-help housing. At local level, municipalities and NGO must be involved with all of this. Moreover, the housing markets in big cities have also a huge rental segment. For example, the very poor in Sub-Sahara Africa are mainly renters. Rental houses in the built-up areas are required, to present housing facilities for temporary workers and families searching for work and housing. Self-help is normally not at stake with rental houses. Consequently, the rental market should be investigated and attended better. In spite of the risks of individual self-help housing, self-help activities are going on far and wide, which makes public commitment necessary, but the government housing policies should not be based on self-help housing alone. In general, each government must have insight in its own housing delivery system and the executable measures to be considered in the particular country. Integrated slum and neighborhood improvement is a certain form of aided self-help habitat. The main goal herewith is to combat poverty by improving basic infrastructure and services, but it did normally not deliver completed shelter units. The ‘kampung programs’ improved the quality of life of Indonesian urban areas at a low cost of investment (World Bank, 1996). Over five and a half million people in Jakarta have been the beneficiaries of the program, making it perhaps the largest urban program in the world (UN-Habitat, 2005). Nonetheless, the program did not support the house-construction for the many low-income families, living in these kampongs, and normally house-construction was mostly self-help (see also Tunas and Peresthu, 2010). The participation of the private sectors in house-construction might be considered too. One can think of the involvement of financial institutes and the building business. Hopeful experiences are to be mentioned e.g. in El Salvador where around 200 building companies are involved in (urban) land development and core houses. For poor families, having adequate plots on which they can construct their homes and improve their lives, is crucial. Providing it requires a new and practical approach (UNFPA, 2007). Making all this feasible is mainly a task for municipal organizations. The search for new land for urban development is necessary, but with limitations. A private developing corporation ARGOZ in El Salvador shaped “progressive social development subdivisions” to poor families, showing that private land developers have a certain potential to confront the housing shortage of the urban poor (World Bank, 2009). Land development by the government with the involvement of private organizations is possible too. A current plan for land development can be found in León, Nicaragua where 6,000 plots are being developed and sold to families for (mutual) self-help housing and housing projects. Main features of this land banking project, is parceling of land and selling of plots to individual families or cooperatives and a cost recovery ‘land exploitation’ within the municipal organization (Bredenoord, 2005).

4.2       Mutual aid concerning self-help housing

Self-help housing in mutual form is even better than the individual one. Self-help housing if combined with mutual power, can give good opportunities such as knowledge transference, more quality through specialization and chiefly by more discipline. Besides that, mutual power leads toward better collaboration with local government and other actors such as NGOs, public utilities, and financial institutes. Mutual self-help housing has good potential, but the members must take time, to know each other well, while leadership is vital. The size of the group –not too small and not too extended- should be subject of future research. Governments could motivate the establishment of small housing cooperatives by giving specific incentives. Well doing local/regional pilot projects with mutual aid are to be found e.g. in Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The housing project of ‘San Esteban’ in San Salvador is a small-scale example of cooperative housing; the members of the housing cooperative built their project with the help of the NGO Fundasal that offered assistance: e.g. training, technical aid and the finding of outside finance. A comparable move ahead was realized in Nicaragua, promoted by the NGO Ceprodel. It is important to search for possibilities for replication of those likely experiences at a large scale and with the use of finance from the country itself.

FUNDASAL’s work in El Salvador

The housing cooperative ‘ACOVICHSS’ built a Housing Project, called San Esteban, in the historic center of San Salvador, El Salvador. The housing cooperative was supported by FUNDASAL, an experienced NGO working for low-income families in El Salvador, and by the Swedish aid organization We Effect (formerly called the Swedish Cooperative Center).  House construction has been promoted by mutual help, which means that the construction’s costs were minimized, through the use of the members’ own labor. Every member/future resident has to contribute with its own hands (a replacement by a family’s member is possible) 24 hours per week for the duration of the construction work; consequently, the building costs could be lowered by 40 percent. FUNDASAL offered training, technical assistance and help with the making of the design and the management and the acquisition of housing finance, that came eventually from aid organizations from western countries. Apart from Fundasal, the municipality of San Salvador promotes the project within the framework of the program “Bringing back the housing functions in the historic center of San Salvador”. Housing finance was offered by: Spanish International Cooperation Agency (AECI), Swedish Cooperation Centre (SCC), MISEREOR (Germany) and Cordaid (the Netherlands).

4.3          Towards the strengthening municipal management

As stated earlier, the municipal role had to be improved and the UN-Urban Management Programme 1986-2006 was executed; this program is taken over by 4 regional networks in Africa, the Near East and North Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean. Other UN programs such as the Cities Alliance are also active. Main municipal tasks are (in general): (a) strategic planning by making Municipal Development Plans, (b) the making of by-laws and regulations regarding land use, (c) the making of sector policy on housing and (d) the involvement of all significant actors. The municipal planning has two levels: (1) the city level with participative budgeting, and (2) the territorial level linking all actors, public and private and including families and self-help groups. In the first place, a municipality can play a crucial role concerning public housing and supporting self-help, by developing an active municipal land policy system. Moreover, a municipality can promote self-help housing by giving technical assistance to the builders, for example by the establishment of a building materials bank and/or municipal building offices in the neighborhoods for the making of drawings and the granting of building permits. Eventually, the municipal task is controlling the buildings in order to secure the safety of the structures and the inhabitants.

Towards Municipal Land Exploitation for social housing

Active municipal land-policy is focused on the purchase and development of land for urban purposes, especially for economic activities and housing for social target groups. Unfortunately, there are mostly no funds available neither for the purchase of land nor for the urban development benefitting social target groups. The lack of municipal development strategies regarding urban land development stimulates the illegal land occupation at the outskirts of cities. In order to initiate municipal land development, a fund for land development is necessary and with this fund the land can be purchased and developed and divided into parcels for the selling to households for the building of houses, and to small entrepreneurs. By selling and not donating the land to the households the fund can be used as a revolving fund. This is the preferable situation, but many families cannot afford the price of the plot and one should choose for pay off arrangements. In fact, one can speak of a municipal land bank for the production of plots for the self-help housing. The payments of the households are necessary in order to maintain Closed Land Exploitation. This system can be realized by a municipality or a public-private development corporation. NGOs with social housing programs could also be active as land-developer. The principle is that the user of the land pays for it, with the consequence that the poorest families mostly cannot benefit from the system; they simply cannot afford the price or the pay-off terms.

4.4       Discussions and conclusions

Seen the world’s housing demand, the production of modest and reasonable priced houses for low-income families and credit for home improvements must increase strongly. Herewith, the future role of assisted self-help housing should be taken into consideration, especially because good urban development with self-help housing can lead towards consolidated neighborhoods, as was the case in several Latin American countries. However, this does not mean that the same will happen in e.g. Sub-Sahara Africa and Asia; each (world) region has its specific economic and cultural features, but the urban growth to be expected in some regions will ask for large-scale housing solutions too. The urban growth to be expected in some countries will be very large, meaning that large-scale housing production is necessary. Without the help of the national government and the private sector – e.g. the construction industry – the solving of the housing question is difficult, which is a reality in very poor countries. One can think of the industrial production of building materials and the introduction of public housing delivering systems; Mexico’s housing delivery system can be an example, knowing that the Mexican level of development is high compared to other nations (Bredenoord and Verkoren, 2010). The feature of aided self-help housing is ‘public’ (regarding the infrastructure and services) as well as ‘private’ (regarding the housing), which underlines the need for a better positioning of self-help housing (by the levels of government). However, there are limitations such as the duration of the self-building processes and the very low incomes of large parts of society. Public housing should include the building of social rental homes too, principally in the larger cities. Allocation of finance will be needed in proportion to the demand in the various segments and the housing products that can be offered. A competence between self-help housing and other forms of public housing must be avoided. It is estimated (UN-Habitat, 2006/2007) that the lack of security of tenure is between 30 and 50 percent of all urban inhabitants is the developing countries. In Peru, the government established COFOPRI for the legalization of (informal) land property which is being executed at a large scale. Other governments can duplicate this significant experience (Fernandez-Maldonado, 2007). Analyses of local and regional markets must determine the segments of the housing market. Some main issues for future discussions and investigations:

  • The role and position of self-help housing as part of social housing.
  • The search for affordable land for urban purposes such as sites-and-services schemes.
  • The stimulation of home improvement programs in urban renewal areas.
  • The stimulation of effective mutual aid connected with self-help housing.
  • The development of a monitor concerning the housing stock and housing markets.
  • The implementation of technical training for self-builders.

Self-help housing still is a phenomenon of great importance in many countries. Households chose mainly for self-help housing because of economic reasons and because other options are completely beyond range. A ‘conventional housing sector’, is a western concept which is not transferable immediately to developing countries, where the self-help principle is the most important characteristic. Once, aided self-help housing was promoted strongly by (some) architects/researchers and international organizations. Some governments implemented sites-and-services schemes successfully, but there was only a little success with the paying off and eventually the replication rates were limited, which limited the impact of the early World Bank self-help projects. Land access and secure tenure are to be seen as main factors limiting urban development plans, in contrast to the early decades of aided self-help housing when the purchase of land for public use was rather easy. Current policies on housing themes tend towards integrated slum improvement, a habitat-wide and a city-wide approach. This means a long-term development and the poor people do not want to wait that long. Housing policies of states must be executed at the local level and there is still too little experience with that, in order to facilitate and stimulate self-help housing effectively. Self-help housing, inclusive its mutual forms, should be better ‘aided’ by (local) governments and housing institutions, so it can become a main tool in the combat against housing shortages and bad housing qualities. It must be stated that self-help housing processes do not always run quickly as a consequence of its individual character and the poverty of the self-builders. Some families are not able to finish a house at all and others do not use optimally the physical (spatial) possibilities of the plot. Observations in Villa el Salvador, Lima, Peru, have shown that an urban densification process, through individual self-help, lasts quite a period, although some families have made good examples. Observations in León Southeast, Nicaragua show that an urban densification process has not even started, although this sites-and-services project was started in 1999; in the neighbourhood ‘Mariana Sansón’ (where the plots for housing were granted in 2003) the number of plots without a house is only around 50 % (Municipality of León, 2007). With these examples one can conclude that quick urbanization processes with the aim to create high-density housing neighborhoods are not reachable, leaving the self-help solutions mainly to suburban locations. Finally, the current land for housing questions should be better monitored; because the access to urban land for low-income families is mostly very difficult. The national governments and the municipalities should develop strategies for the (public) purchase of land for housing and the subdivision of it and the selling of individual plots to families, or a cluster to a small housing cooperative. Public involvement, or public land reserves, seems to be very necessary, but we have seen that a private corporation (in El Salvador) was able to develop land for low-income families too. Replication of the latter model is, however, not found. A municipal land policy model can be developed further with the ‘Closed Land Exploitation’ system (see: Municipal land exploitation for social housing).

img_1768   img_1824  img_1844

Houses on the slopes of the mountains in Medellín, Colombia. All houses were built and improved – trough incremental self-help.


Abrams, C. (1964). Man’s struggle for shelter in an urbanizing world. Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.

Bredenoord, J. (2002/2003). Investigación Autoconstrucción de Vivienda en Lima, 2002, with Foro Ciudades para la Vida, Lima, Perú. (Available: translation in English: Survey self-building of houses in Lima. The Role of assisted self-help housing in three planned barriadas in the peripheral urban areas of the metropolis; Website:

Bredenoord,  J. and L. Veldkamp (2004) Kleinschalig, maar met grote gevolgen, in: Tijdschrift voor de Volkshuisvesting, 2004, No 1. NIROV: The Hague.

Bredenoord, J. (2005). Urban development strategies in León Nicaragua, Amsterdam: Dutch University Press.

Bredenoord, J. and Verkoren, O. (2010) Between Self-Help – and Institutional Housing: a Bird’s eye view of Mexico’s housing production for low and (lower) middle incomes. Habitat International, Special Issue, No 2, 2010.

Bredenoord, J. and P. van Lindert, (2010) Pro-poor housing policies. Rethinking the potential of assisted self-help housing. Habitat International, Special Issue, No 2, 2010.

Bromley, R. (2003). Peru 1957-1977: How time and place influenced John Turner’s ideas on housing policy, in: Habitat International, 27, 271-292.

Burgess, R. (1982). Self-help housing advocacy: a curious form of radicalism, in: Self-help Housing A Critique (Ward, P.), London: Mansell.

CEPRODEL (2006) Hábitat y Empleo Digno con Cooperativas de Vivienda. Informe de Avance Relativo al Préstamo No. USD-2006-03-Ceprodel/León. Nicaragua.

Driant, J.C. (1991). Las barriadas de Lima. Historia e interpretación, Lima, DESCO/IFEA.

De Soto, H. (2000) The mystery of Capital. Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else New York: Basic Books.

Fernandez-Maldonado, A.M. (2007). Fifty years of barriadas in Lima: revisiting Turner and De Soto. ENHR 2007 International Conference Sustainable Urban areas. Delft, University of Technology.

Fernandez-Maldonado, A.M. and Bredenoord, J. (2010) Progressive housing approaches in the current Peruvian policies. Habitat International, Special Issue, No 2, 2010.

Greene, M. and Rojas, E. (2008) Incremental construction: a strategy to facilitate access to housing. Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 20, No 1, April 2008.

Harms, H. (1982) Chapter 9 in Self-help Housing: a Critique (P. Ward, ed), London, Mansell.

Harris, R. (1998). The silence of the experts: Aided self-help housing, 1939-1954, Habitat International, 22, 165-189.

Harris, R. (1999). Slipping through the cracks: The Origins of Aided Self-help Housing, 1918-53, in: Housing Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, 281-309

Harris, R. (2003). A double irony: the originality and influence of John F.C. Turner, Habitat International, Vol. 27, pp. 245-269.

Klaufus, C. (2010) The two ABCs of aided self-help housing in Ecuador. Habitat International, Special Issue, No 2, 2010.

Landman, K. and Napier, M. (2010) Waiting for a house or building your own? Reconsidering state provision, aided and unaided self-help in South Africa, Habitat International Special Issue, No 2, 2010.

Marcuse (1992). Why conventional self-help projects won’t work in: Beyond Self-help housing. London: Mansell.

Mathéy, K. (Ed.), (1992) Beyond self-help housing. London: Mansell.

Municipality of León, (2007) Municipal Housing Policy document León (Nicaragua) 2007-2008. Document of the City-bond León-Utrecht. (Política Municipal de Vivienda en León, Plan de Acción de Vivienda 2008. Etapa de Ejecución). Municipalidades de León y Utrecht: León, Nicaragua.

Nicaragua Government  (2005). Plan Nacional de la Vivienda, Nicaragua 2005-2025

Potter and Lloyd-Evans (1998). The city in the developing word. Harlow: Longman

Schulist, T. and Harris, R. (2002). ‘Build your own home’. State assisted self-help housing in Canada, 1942-1975. Planning Perspectives, Vol. 17, No 4, October 2002, pp. 345-372.

Tunas, D. and  Peresthu, A. (2010) The Self-Help Housing in Indonesia: The only option for the poor? Habitat International, Special Issue, No 2, 2010.

Turner, J. F.C. (1967). Barriers and Channels for Housing in Modernizing Countries, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Washington DC.

Turner, J.F.C. (1983). From Central provision to Local Enablement, New Directions for Housing Policies, in: Habitat International. Vol. 7. No 5/6, pp. 207-210, 1983

USDA. United States Department of Agriculture. Mutual self-help Housing Program. [Online:]

UN Centre for human settlements-Habitat, National trends in housing production practices, Volume 2 / Indonesia, 1993.

UN-Habitat (2005). Financing Urban shelter, Global report on human settlements, London, Earthscan.

UN-Habitat (2006/7). State of the World’s Cities, The Millennium Development Goals and Urban Sustainability, 30 Years of Shaping the Habitat agenda. London. Earthscan.

UNFPA (2007) State of world population 2007, United Nations Population Fund

UN-Habitat (2007). Best Practices on city-to-city cooperation Caso 1: Utrecht (Paises Bajos) y León (Nicaragua) [Online: (The UN Habitat Best Practices and Local Leadership Program] Seville, Spain, Centre for city-to-city co-operation.)

UN-Habitat (2008). State of the World’s cities 2008/2009, Harmonious Cities. London: Earthscan.

UN-Habitat (2010). World Urban Forum, Rio de Janeiro, March 2010 [Online:]

Ward, P. (Ed.) (1982). Self-Help Housing A Critique, Mansell, London

World Bank (2009) [Online:]