$300 House Might be a Disaster Solution, Not a Social Solution

Ideas and Issues

N300houseew Orleans I read all of these stories about cheap, modular construction in various designs from assorted materials.  I find them fascinating and quaint.  Mainly, I read them to give me ideas for how to rebuild our fishing camp across Lake Pontchartrain or to plant in the mountains or woods as a retreat somewhere.  It never occurs to me to take them seriously as a social solution to the needs of the poor for decent and affordable housing.  For the most part they are architectural confections for student projects, so what harm can they do:  the world certainly needs more storage sheds.

Colleagues working in Dharavi, the mega-slum in central Mumbai where ACORN International organizes and has several projects, wrote an eviscerating piece today (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/opinion/01srivastava.html?ref=todayspaper)  that somehow found its way onto the op-ed pages of the New York Times about another one of these bright light ideas, this one being promoted by the Harvard Business Review of all places to claim concern for the poor.  Seems the Review launched a competition to build a one-room $300 house that they claimed “could improve the lives of millions of urban poor around the world.”  The arrogance and ignorance of the poor and their living conditions is startling, and Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of the Institute of Urbanology can hardly control their contempt though they do a masterful job at it in their piece, so hats off to them.

“The $300 house could potentially be a success story, if it was understood as a straightforward business proposal instead of a social solution.  Places like refugee camps, where many people need shelter for short period, could use such cheap, well built units.  A market for them could perhaps be created in rural-urban fringes that are less built up.   The $300 house responds to our misconceptions more than to real needs.  A better approach would be to help residents build better, safer homes for themselves.  The $300 house will fail as a social intiative because the dynamic needs, interests and aspirations of millions of people who live in places like Dharavi have been overlooked.  This kind of mistake is all too common in the trendy field of social entrepreneurship.  While businessman and professors applaud the $300 house, the urban poor are silent, busy building a future for themselves.”

The authors were actually kinder than they might have been here while trying to be diplomatic.  The urban poor relocation projects in Delhi that have specialized in slum removal and replanting of the poor to the far outskirts of the city at the outer edge of transportation and livelihoods have been a disaster.  Certainly the space provided is in the 150 meter  floor plan that would be similar to the $300 house, but the results have been disastrous.

Even in disaster relief it is hard not to remember the Andres Duany and New Urbanist schemes for “Katrina Cottages” as not simply temporary housing replacements for trailers, but preferable and permanent housing structures in New Orleans.  Duany is a great architect and planner and no doubt a man of good will, but such a notion was DOA from the start.  Supposedly some have been built and used in Mississippi, and they might end up as storage sheds and mother-in-law cottages on some back lots, but as replacement housing in New Orleans, the signature touches that were supposed to recall the city and its distinctive architecture was charades at best.

Businessmen, developers, and promoters understand how to make a fast buck and that’s easily proven but we shouldn’t be confused when they are hypnotized by the glare of a $424 billion market for affordable homes that they know anything about the poor, care anything about poverty relief, or have any interest in understanding either.