RED Conversations Series – Housing is a human right

Ashish Kothari talks to Anitra Nelson and Fracois Schneider, the editors of “Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities”, which looks for feasible solutions to the current challenges in housing.

Ashish Kothari: Thanks a lot, Anitra and Francois for agreeing to talk to us on this extremely important issue of housing and its place in the degrowth debate. I presume that when you talk of housing you’re not just referring to the structure that we call a house, instead you’re talking about a more complex concept? 

Francois Schneider: Yes, that’s right. We’re not limiting our thinking and explorations merely to the physical space under a roof. In fact, we are reimagining a lot of activities around where we live, how we organize our neighborhoods and feel secure there, and we’re also trying to reshape the discussion around policy. We’re thinking about the varied functions and multiple intersections that define and apply to the concept of housing.

Anitra Nelson: Degrowth housing is also moving in the direction of encouraging greater collective sufficiency of households. So that they provide people with a lot more of their basic needs with direct use. The home is a much richer kind of an environment then what it has become under capitalism – a mere resting place between work.

FS: _ _ _ or, just as an investment!

AK: That is an important point – how housing has become a major pillar of the capitalist economy. I want to explore that further in the context of the global south where we see enormous disparities in terms of housing – inadequate, very poor or no housing, life on the streets for a significant percentage of the population, and on the other end of the spectrum, one of the biggest single family homes in the world, a 27 story high building, for an Indian business tycoon in the heart of Mumbai. So, in your view how should we respond to that disparity? What should be the role of housing in reducing socio-economic inequality?

AN: In my view there are two issues here. Firstly, serious degrowth needs to take place in the global north to tackle overconsumption and conspicuous consumption. So that people who haven’t got enough at the moment can actually have their basic needs met. Even in many of the European countries there are people who are homeless, who are not getting enough to eat. We need to recognize “universal rights” both in the global north as well as the south. So, degrowth expresses itself in a variety of ways – satisfaction of people’s basic needs which might mean some people finally having more is just as important as people degrowing if they are over-consuming.

With increasing economic inequality, homelessness is more evident in European cities.

The other issue is that of understanding the complexity of housing in the global south. In our book we have a couple of chapters which deal with that. One is by an Indian architect, Chitra Vishwanath from Bangalore, who advocates for novel grassroots technological solutions. For instance, where there are new houses being built she suggests that people should dig down and take the earth out to use it to make bricks for that construction. The space that is dug out becomes a basement dwelling space. Vishwanath says that in a lot of places, the earth that is taken out from under the house can be used as bricks for constructing two houses. Obviously, there are places where that would be difficult – the clay is not suitable for bricks or the under layer is rocky. The purpose of Vishwananth’s initiative is to encourage the builders to have more of an artisanal kind of relationship with what they are doing. Currently, mainstream housing labor is terribly de-skilled, conditions for the workers are abysmal, and then there is the issue of an environmentally exploitative process which is enormously resource intensive. All that needs to be challenged.

Another chapter by Wendy Christie, also an architect, talks about Vanuatu, the island chain in the Pacific. In the aftermath of cyclone Pam in 2015, which caused enormous destruction, people noticed that traditional buildings had stood up quite well compared to modern structures. Moreover, given the isolated location of the islands, international aid was quite slow coming in. And, yet, that did not hamper the recovery efforts as all the villagers helped rebuild the perished structures, collectively, using traditional techniques. It was a perfect example of resilience ingrained in traditional societies.

AK: Do you notice any common principles emerging out of the discussions in your book as well as in your research? Can you talk about how those principles could shape the current discourse on housing?

FS: Firstly, we don’t have to wait for dramatic social system change to occur before we can intervene in housing. Moreover, there is no single solution to the diverse range of challenges that we face and it’s important to forge a real coalition between all the actors around this issue. We have to build a story together, a story about a fundamental human right, the right to simple housing. We must recognize that on one hand, there are people who have enormous houses or empty houses or houses which are vacant most of the year and on the other there are people who are homeless. Most people just want to live simply and don’t want to spend a huge amount on housing. If you put the emerging principles together – collective housing, collective sharing of facilities and resources, house sharing, and flat sharing and put all of that in practice, it creates a new societal paradigm to aspire to and also reduces pressure on our limited resources and on land.

AN: All these principles are interlinked and we have structured our book around them with chapters on each one of them. Justice is one of the more important principles because if you address social justice then you actually find that sufficiency is not such a big issue for people to observe and to aspire to. If you’re content with your fair share then you prevent gratuitous competition from overtaking social interactions and you also impede the growth of economic inequality, which can fester in the heart of society. In our book we’ve emphasized case studies in which these particular principles are enacted or practiced in a kind of hopeful way. We think the book is critical for self-reflection in terms of degrowth, its limits and some of the hurdles that are being negotiated with success.

AK: I was wondering if there is a gender perspective, too? How is housing influenced by the gender equation within societies? Does the book deal with that issue?  

AN: Not specifically, but there is a chapter titled “Reconceptualizing Home in a Low Impact Society” by Pernilla Hagbert, a Swedish researcher, which draws out a whole lot of gender issues. She examines socio-cultural aspects of home related practices, norms and representations of “sustainability” in Swedish housing developments. What underlies the chapter is that home is incredibly important to people but is traditionally feminized, that it brings the male back to the household, which is its primary function and relevance. Hagbert, however, questions that notion and affirms that contemporary gender relationships are proactively transforming that outdated concept of home.

FS: I also want to say that we’ve developed a story of transformation of the concept of housing which builds on all the emerging work on that issue, but we don’t claim to have arrived at any new truth.

AN: Our approach in regard to the book has been that different degrowth proponents can take different intellectual positions, and we will continue to listen, argue, challenge each other and work through that process. I suppose one example of how some of that is resolved is simply by observing that diverse interpretations of decentralization or of the nature of cities are appropriate and acceptable given the varied geographical coordinates and cultural backgrounds which impact housing.

AK: I agree with that approach. In my view these are all evolving processes and would hopefully lead to a wise consensus. What do you think?

FS: We believe that these are important stories that build on all the previous thinking on degrowth and housing. For instance, one of the prisms that we’re trying to look through at housing is that of “localism” – the idea of being linked to our local environment but also not being closed off to external relationships and influences. The idea of openness is predicated on the aspiration for equality, so that nobody has to advocate for a gated community to aggressively defend their unusual wealth.

AK: Yes, there are these difficult issues of private property, inheritance etc. on which obviously there is no consensus within social movements, right? Do you come across those challenges too?

Land stewardship instead of property ownership is becoming a more attractive option for people.

AN: I think that there are a lot of people who are certainly quite inclined towards not being property owners and actually prefer being stewards of the land. I find it amazing the extent to which people, at least in theory, agree with that. But, we are all trapped in a society where there are a lot of forces particularly free market fundamentalism, which you have to negotiate constantly as a member of the community.  But, it’s good that this debate has started and hopefully we’ve contributed to it through our book. Various alternative models have emerged over the years, including community trusts and cooperatives where attempts are being made to take land out of the market . This, obviously, is still being done through the mechanism of the state and laws which govern private or collective property. So, at the moment a lot of engagement is needed with those hard structures of capitalism.

AK: Well, Anitra and Francois, thanks a lot. This was a fascinating conversation and I’m sure the issues raised in your book will resonate with a lot of people looking for meaningful alternatives. We wish you all the best for the book!

AN: Thank you!

FS: Thank you!

Anitra Nelson is Associate Professor in the Centre for Urban Research School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Francois Schneider is a degrowth activist focusing on housing and transport issues.

Ashish Kothari is a co-founder of Kalpavriksh.

This interview was transcribed by Shrishtee Bajpai of Kalpavriksh.

The interviews published in the RED Conversation series are not based on an exact transcription of the recorded interviews. They are an approximation based on an interpretation as well as a summation of the original interview. To view the recorded interview, click on the links below:

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