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.




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

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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 Philipe Balestra and Prasanna Desai.

The architects have been doing research with (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, Ciudad Bachué

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 changing role of self-help housing (revision 2018). By Jan Bredenoord


The housing situations in developing countries are determined strongly by self-help initiatives. Very many families are busy with self-help housing, mostly because other options are out of reach. Early ‘aided self-help housing projects’ were built-up since the 1950s as sites-and-services schemes combined with (some) additional assistance for self-builders. In some countries housing delivery was even mainly done through self-help, in other countries government housing programs were also available but fluctuating; a regime change could easily reach new social housing targets or destroy them. In the last three decades of the past century, self-help housing was seen as a suitable form of housing if combined with simultaneous controlled urban growth. Such early developments in the 1970s are to be found in Villa el Salvador, South of Lima, Peru. Families were occasionally practicing an advanced form of self-help housing, and contracted out specialized works and became building principals. Self-help housing is still a common practice in many countries, although the level of housing and the phases in the construction processes can differ. In one single street one can find facades of houses with different architecture, building quality, and phases of development. The step-by-step development process of individual self-built or self-managed houses is called incremental housing. In due course, public attention such as integrated land development and neighborhood improvement became more popular within a broadened habitat approach. Also, institutional housing came up in several countries with Mexico as an main example. In national housing plans and policies self-help housing is only slightly addressed, while the focus is on moving towards decent social housing programs for middle- and lower middle-income households. The remaining question is always how to overcome the world’s housing shortage especially for the lowest-income groups. Herewith well-organized large scale solutions might be needed while self-help will remain a basic activity for home renovations. Such an approach is probably needed because the autonomous self-help housing production has shown not to be able to provide enough dwellings. Incremental housing growth is simply taking too much time, while the world’s population growth is speeding up, e.g. in Africa. If mutual aid within a family or group is possible, a self-building process can run easily. Self-building processes can run even easier if households co-operate in groups on buying the needed land and building their own houses.

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Self-help housing related issues

The phenomenon of Self-help housing (or SHH) has been described by a range of authors during the sixties until the nineties and is linked with low-income families having only their own hands and skills for the building of their shelter. Assisted self-help housing as a public housing instrument, got very much attention (see e.g. Harris’ historical overviews, 1998, 1999, 2003). The phrase ‘aided self-help housing’ was often used and the aid or assistance means among other things: the provision of land for housing, urban services, technical assistance, and the option to construct a house incrementally. The household’s power to construct the house with or without assistance occurs 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 difficult to realize. For example: where to find appropriate and enough land to be divided into parcels and to be sold for self-help housing and for social housing projects? Another question is how to improve individual houses and even whole neighborhoods in bad condition and with a lack of services? In many cases there is a need for new urban infrastructures and public transport, and a policy of densification of urban neighborhoods in order to prevent uncontrolled urban sprawl. In the past, assisted self-help housing was more or less the same as sites-and-services. In 2018, self-help is still a very important power in improving the existing housing stock and this will be the case in the future, while sites-and-services schemes (or land-for-housing projects) are necessary as part of urban development. Urban planning and land policy, building control, and the definition of housing products are central issues of municipal planning. In order to develop land-for-housing schemes the municipalities have to co-operate with landowners, project-developers, and other stakeholders. The role of the municipality is becoming more and more a facilitator and coordinator than a housing developer. The new functions might conflict with the task of spatial planning and building control.

Self-help housing is normally linked with informality

While looking at the dilemmas of housing shortages for low-income people, one can find mostly: firstly the need for the betterment of living and housing circumstances in the ‘slums’, and secondly the need for preparing new land-for-housing schemes as a result of the expectancies related to the growth of cities. But realizing a mass public housing system in a country is not easy and will cost time because of the lack of land, public managerial skills, and financial means. The millions not having enough resources for the purchase of a plot or a house should be able to rely on a public housing sector with affordable rental units, however, this is not always available. Many people who migrate to a city rent rooms in homes of family members or friends, or with other private home owners. This leads often to informal and overcrowded situations. As a consequence, many people have to resort to the informal housing market where self-help is substantial. To what extend self-help occurs depend on the available time, skills, and earnings of the households. Self-help is regularly 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. Self-help housing is present almost everywhere, in informal as well as in informal neighborhoods, except in countries that have had a strong economic development and where was chosen for large scale modern solutions such as in Singapore and China. UN-Habitat estimated in 2005 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. In Latin-America, less than 30 percent of dwellings are produced by the formal housing market. The housing situation is different in every world region and in every country.

The pros and cons 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 various illegalities can be found: the land occupation is illegal, the neighborhood is illegal, and so are the dwellings. There is a difference between unlawful and informal housing and neighborhoods. Informal housing and habitat is mostly seen as acceptable. Then it will be tolerated which means that the government will – eventually – co-operate on the improvement of it. The step-by-step building practice delivers initially mostly a temporary shelter. In later phases the use of durable materials can be expected and later horizontal and vertical expansions. 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. The basic value of the house is the protection it offers to the residents and the prospect to start a small business there or to rent out parts of the house in order to gain extra family incomes. A feature of self-help shelter or home is the freedom that it can offer; if it was built without using loans, the obligation to pay off the loan or the mortgage every month is zero, which is the best for the poorest families. In the past decades the possibility of micro-credit for housing are increasing, and this can be profitable for them.

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 – and the commitment of the United Nations, the World Bank, government organizations, and NGOs. Opponents specified the difficulties the very poor met in finding ways to repay the costs of the plot or 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 were often lacking or dysfunctioning. 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). But, families having some experience with initial self-help housing, have almost certainly better potential to manage their budget and to contract out works to construction workers.

Nowadays self-help housing is still present almost everywhere; it happens really on a large scale and is inevitable for many, despite the problems and constraints. Related to the huge housing demand, the power of self-help housing (shortly SHH in the following text) should be incorporated in governmental housing policies, which does not mean that self-help can be 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 interests and attitude in self-help take the initiative, form a building group and obtain help from the government or aid organizations. In the 21st century SHH has changed; there has been made progress in the combat against poverty and the upcoming middle-class is not willing to spend time on self-construction. For the latter, SHH became really self-managed housing.

UN-Habitat (2005) wrote 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 the household’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 SHH which even can be seen as a renaissance of a positive attitude concerning the phenomenon of SHH. Since around the year 2000 SHH is often called incremental housing. The term affordable housing is being used increasingly also, in combination with incremental housing.

Assisted self-help housing and the search for best practices

In many cases, households practicing self-help housing do not have the appropriate knowledge on building techniques and aspects of durability, sometimes causing low quality housing. Being earthquake resistance is a needed feature in earthquake areas and all investments in a house there should contribute to a safe and durable construction. In other regions for example threats of severe storms and cyclones occur, such as in Viet Nam, and there are other or additional requirements for the structures of the homes, their anchorages, and the use of building materials. The government there is busy transferring knowledge on storm-resistance of houses and buildings to the population. In general, SHH is the only option for many, and governments might develop adequate strategies for the provision of technical assistance, building control, and access to loans. This is necessary for new housing solutions as well as for housing renewal and maintenance. Technical help can be delivered by NGOs or other aid organizations but there is also a task for the government and the educational sector such as vocational technical schools which might provide 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”. 

Consequently, national housing policies should offer support for: a) assisted self-help housing, b) housing organized through self-help groups, c) the establishment of housing cooperatives, d) the participation of the construction sector with aspects of self-help housing. At local level, municipalities and NGOs must be involved with all of this. The housing markets in big cities have or need a rental segment too. 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 job seekers and families seeking for housing. Thus, the rental market should be attended better. In spite of the risks of individual SHH, self-help activities are going on far and wide, which makes public commitment necessary. In general, each government must have insight in its own housing delivery system and the necessary measures to be implemented. Integrated slum and neighborhood improvement is a certain form of assisted 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 improvement programs’ upgraded 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. House-construction was normally self-help and seen as the prime responsibility of the households and the community.

The involvement of private sectors in house-construction might be considered too. One can think of the involvement of financial institutes and the building business. Interesting experiences are to be mentioned in El Salvador where around 200 building companies are involved in (urban) land development and core houses. Some private corporations in El Salvador shaped progressive social development subdivisions to poor families, showing that private companies 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, possible even better. One can say that public-private cooperation on social housing will be the norm in the future, but there are many ways to arrange that.

Mutual aid concerning self-help housing

Self-help housing in mutual form is better than the individual one. SHH if combined with mutual power can give good prospects such as knowledge development, more quality through specialization and mainly 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, and to develop democratic leadership. The size of the group –not too small and not too extended- should be subject of research and discussion. 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, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The housing project of ‘San Esteban’ in San Salvador is a small-scale example of inner-city cooperative housing; the members of the housing cooperative built their project with the help of the NGO FUNDASAL that offered technical assistance (see section below). A comparable move ahead was realized in Guatemala, supported by the NGO IDESAC. It is important to search for possibilities for replication of those likely experiences at a larger scale and with the use of finance from the national governments.

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 the Ngo We Effect – formerly called Swedish Cooperative Center. House construction was done by mutual help under technical supervision, which has led to minimizing construction’s costs. Every member/future resident had to contribute with its own hands (a replacement by a family’s member was possible) 24 hours per week for the duration of the construction work. The building costs could be lowered by 40 percent. FUNDASAL offered training, technical assistance with the design, the management, and the acquisition of housing finance. 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 several international aid organizations.

In 2017 the extended project became finalist of World Habitat Award with the title: “How the community rescued the historic center of San Salvador”:

“By 2017, eight more mutual aid housing cooperatives (13 in total) had formed in the historic center. The collective effort of the housing cooperatives and the organizations and networks supporting them helped convince the Salvadorian Government to raise €9,000,000 (US$10,043,820), through an agreement with the Government of Italy. This will provide new homes for a further 325 families (1,300 people). This is an outstanding achievement as it demonstrates a commitment from the Government to securing adequate and affordable housing for inner-city residents, paving the way for more people to claim their right to land and safe, secure housing”.

SanSal Coops 1        San Sal Coops 3        San sal coops 2

Housing oooperative ACOVINAMSE (left and middel).  Housing cooperative ACOVICHSS (right)

Towards strengthening municipal management

A target of the UN-Urban Management Program 1986-2006 was to improve the role of local governments and its organizations. The targets of the program were taken over by four regional networks in Africa, the Near East, North Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean. Other programs such as the Cities Alliance are also functioning in this field and they promote among other things incremental housing. In general, main municipal tasks are: (a) strategic physical planning e.g. by making municipal development plans, (b) the making of by-laws and regulations regarding land use and construction, (c) the making of sector policy on housing, and (d) the involvement of all significant actors urban development. The municipal planning has two levels, first: the city level with participative budgeting, and, second: the territorial level linking all actors, public and private, including families and self-help groups. In the first place, a municipality can play a crucial role concerning public housing and supporting self-help, and by developing an active municipal land policy system. Likewise, a municipality can promote SHH by giving technical assistance to the builders, for example by a building materials bank and/or municipal building offices in the neighborhoods. Eventually, the municipal task is controlling the buildings in order to secure the safety of the structures and the inhabitants. But it’s more important to prevent poor housing quality through the provision of technical assistance in advance.

Land availability for social housing including self-help

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. Active land-policy requires funding and an organization for the acquisition and the development of land for housing for the benefit of social target groups. The lack of strategies on urban land development stimulates illegal land occupation at the peripheries of cities or on abandoned inner-city locations. Municipal land development with a matching fund can be a good solution and with it land can be purchased and divided into parcels for the sale to households, groups, and small entrepreneurs. By selling and not donating the land to households – the latter has happened in the past several times- the fund can be used as a revolving fund. This is preferable but many families cannot pay for the plot and then the municipality might choose for pay-off arrangements. In fact, one can speak of a land bank for the production of plots for self-construction. This method can be realized by a municipality or a public-private development corporation, in with private parties and NGOs can become involved. Another approach for the provision of low-cost housing which targets low-income households is to establish community land trusts, which is comparable to the mentioned fund. Always a start capital is needed. The principle is that the users of the land pays for it, with the consequence that the poorest families only can participate if they are supported by a government party, an aid organization, or their own community.

Final remarks

The production of modest affordable houses for low-income families and credit for home improvements must increase strongly, as consequence of the world’s ongoing growing housing demand. Herewith, the future role of assisted SHH should be taken into consideration, especially because good urban development including self-help leads towards consolidated neighborhoods as was the case in several Latin-American countries. This does not mean that the same will happen in for example Sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia; each World region has its specific economic and cultural features, but the expected urban growth in some regions requires normally large-scale housing production. Without the help of the national government and the private sector – e.g. the construction industry and banks– the solving of the housing question is always difficult. One can think of industrial production of building materials and the use of public housing delivering systems; Mexico’s housing delivery system can be seen as an example, knowing that the Mexican level of development is rather high compared to other developing countries. The feature of assisted self-help housing is public (regarding infrastructure and services) as well as private (regarding housing) which underlines the need for a better positioning of self-help housing. 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, mainly in the larger cities. Allocation of finance will be needed in proportion to the demand in the various the very segments, and seen the needed housing types. 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 was executed on a large scale. 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 land-for-housing schemes.
  • The stimulation of home improvement programs in urban renewal areas.
  • The stimulation of mutual aid connected to self-help housing.
  • The development of a monitoring system for the housing stock and the market.
  • The implementation of technical training for self-builders.

Self-help housing still is a phenomenon of importance in many countries of the global south. Households chose mainly for SHH because of economic reasons and because other options are completely beyond range. Once, assisted self-help housing was promoted strongly by architects, researchers, and international organizations. Some governments implemented sites-and-services schemes successfully; sometimes there was a little success with the paying-off, and sometimes the pay-off system failed which restricted the impact of the early World Bank self-help housing projects in the 1980s. Limited access to land and secure tenure are seen as main factors limiting urban development plans, in contrast to the early decades of assisted SHH 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 while the poor households cannot wait that long. Housing policies of countries are being executed on the local level and there is still too little experience with it in order to facilitate and stimulate SHH as part of local housing policy. SHH inclusive its mutual forms, should be better ‘assisted’ by (local) governments and housing institutions, so it can become an important tool in the combat against housing shortages and bad housing qualities.

Since around 2000, new initiatives for community participation on housing and neighborhood upgrading emerged: such as community-led housing, community-driven housing, community-driven development, community contracting, and assisted self-help projects. Arroyo and Åstrand (2014) redefined the concept of assisted self-help housing (A-SHH) to organized self-help housing (OSHH) as a process that involves the community’s active participation and decision making in planning, design, self-construction, and post-project activities with the technical assistance of a facilitating organization; they state the following:

“Results show that practitioners/organizations from Africa and Asia value positively Organized Self-Help Housing (OSHH) as a method to develop human skills and strengthen community development. Technical assistance to households and communities during the OSHH process contributes in achieving better quality settlements and homes; and helps to improve local construction techniques. Asian CBOs and NGOs have implemented OSHH to slum upgrading and reconstruction after natural disasters. Organized self-help housing has been combined with other support tools such as micro-credit or organized savings, production of construction materials, training and community capacity building. OSHH has the potential for fostering the development of social, technical and financial sustainability in human settlements in developing regions”.

In their international survey they have identified 75 organizations that have implemented different types of OSHH projects in Asia, Africa and in Latin America. In Africa CBOs and NGOs have implemented approaches that include OSHH in combination with other support tools among other things: organized savings, micro-finance, community capacity building, production of construction materials.

It must be said 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 many households have created very good individual houses. Observations in 2018 in León, project Southeast, Nicaragua show that an urban densification target was not implemented. The sites-and-services project that was started in 1998 has produced 4,000 dwellings in the project of 6,000 plots. This means that around 2,000 plots are still not being used for housing, although the plots were already sold to households. This means a slow development in a city with a huge demands for low-cost housing. Housing projects in León for middle-income households have led to unnecessary urban sprawl. With the Peru and Nicaragua cases one can conclude that quick urbanization processes with higher-density housing neighborhoods are not always reachable, leaving the self-help solutions mainly to suburban and rural locations. The mutual self-help projects for urban renewal in the historic center of Montevideo, Uruguay and El Salvador are successful exceptions and demonstrate the possibility to combine mutual self-help to urban targets (density and livability of city centers).

Because the access to urban land for low-income families is mostly difficult, the current land for housing questions should be better addressed. National governments and the municipalities should develop strategies for the (public or public-private) acquisition of land for social housing and the subdivision of it and the sale of individual plots to families, or clusters to housing groups and cooperatives. Public involvement, or public land reserves, still seems to be very necessary, although a cooperation with private parties are necessary too.

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