The Indian urban planner Shipra Narang Suri (New Delhi, 47 years old) has been the head of the Urban Practices section of UN-Habitat, the United Nations program for urban settlements, for two years. She attends EL PAÍS in Madrid, after participating in the opening of the 2022 International Union of Architects Forum, which is being held until this Friday and has brought together 200 experts and more than 800 attendees from 120 countries to talk about affordable housing. On the way between the auditorium and the place where the interview takes place, she has time to take a selfie with someone who recognizes her, she points out that she travels to Spain “often” (the organization where she works is based in Nairobi, Kenya), He comments on how hot the weather is and poses in front of the fuselage of an old DC-9 plane that the organizers have brought to celebrate some of the congress events. As she boards, she smiles: “It’s the first time I’ve been interviewed on a plane.”
Ask. UN-Habitat estimates that 1.6 billion people live in inadequate conditions due to a lack of affordable housing. What are the first steps to solve the problem?
Response. Housing affordability is a big issue and a very important part of the right to adequate housing, but it is not the only one. It is related to other characteristics of that right. One of the biggest problems when we talk about affordability is the availability of land. This is between a third and a quarter of the cost of a house, and can be even more. That’s why I think one of the most important aspects is to make land available. This is crucial because the land is often controlled by the market. Planning is also very important. When a city is not well planned, affordability declines, prices rise, and the private sector profits. Finally, there is the importance of governments focusing more on lifting people out of poverty and access to finance. Mortgages should be available at very low rates, especially for first-time homebuyers. If I spend 40% or 50% of my salary on a mortgage, what am I going to eat?
P. And why are legislators failing to provide affordable housing?
R. I think that legislators are not fully understanding the importance of housing and its centrality in building a sustainable environment that includes economic development, environmental development and climate adaptation. They are not understanding that housing can be the centerpiece when facing economic, ecological and social problems. When they understand this, they can begin to develop comprehensive and multidisciplinary policies that give housing the priority it deserves.
P. Real estate is a major industry in advanced economies. Should private companies be involved to offer affordable housing?
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
R. It’s very important. Governments are not going to be able to do this alone. No country, no matter how advanced, has been able to solve the housing problem completely and, of course, no country is going to be able to solve it without the involvement of all parties. The private sector is a key provider of housing and real estate development in all cities and territories. Their motivation is primarily profit, but many real estate companies are recognizing the importance of making profits with social responsibility. The problem they underline is the cost of land. My husband works in the private sector and we often have this conversation. If policies are well designed, if land is offered at the right price and certain conditions are applied, the private sector can be an important provider of affordable housing.
P. Are you referring to strengthening public-private collaboration?
R. And with society. A good collaboration between the public and private sectors can be launched, but without forgetting the rest of the actors. Many times solutions are planned far from the center of the cities and the houses are fine, but if it takes me an hour to get to my job and it costs me 15 euros and I do not earn enough to pay for it, how am I going to spend that money and that time? ? Understanding the needs of society and bringing that reflection to the conversation between the public and private sectors is very relevant.
P. This is a world congress. What does the situation in Spain have to do with that of Mexico, Kenya or other countries?
R. Context is important for solutions, but learning from other experiences is essential to avoid repeating the same mistakes. If you look, for example, at the Scandinavian experience, you may think: “This has nothing to do with me, because their income level is higher, their infrastructure is different and also their legislative structure…”. But if you dig deeper, you can think about what they did right, how they started. They are universal issues. That is what we can learn.
P. His agency estimates that 96,000 houses a day are needed for all the people who need adequate housing by 2030. Is it possible to do this and, moreover, without harming the environment?
R. It is necessary and therefore we have to make it possible. A long time ago, the former Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi said: “Poverty is the biggest polluter”. We can never preserve the quality of the environment without addressing the problems of poverty and the problems of housing quality and affordability. The way to maintain a balance between the built environment and the natural environment is good planning. Informal settlements, unplanned cities, will only lead to even greater damage to the natural environment.
P. In Europe, a certain malaise has emerged in the rural environment, such as the protests of the yellow vests in France. Has urbanization gone too far?
R. I believe that urbanization is an unstoppable and irreversible process because people come to cities in search of work, quality of life, education, health, a future for their children, opportunities… But sustainable and well-planned urbanization can raise the quality of life for all, for people living in urban, peri-urban or rural areas. And we need to stop thinking of urbanization as a dichotomy of rural versus urban. Instead of asking if urbanization has gone too far, we need to ask if it is serving everyone. And if not, what is the problem and how can we fix it.
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