In the light of World Cities Day, we explore a frugal home-grown solution for communities living in urban poverty – a community-led process of building affordable homes that started in the heart of Jhenaidha of south-western Bangladesh.
Chinta Didi just got a new, two-storied house. It costs less than USD 1,500 – and her neighbours built it for her. She has been partially blind since birth, and relies on the little income that her husband earns from working at a welding shop. She was identified by her neighbours as one of the most vulnerable members in their community.
Her previous house was made of tin, like most temporary homes in slums across the country. It would flood in the monsoon, was sweltering hot in the summer and it would freeze during winter. Now she is just one of many happy residents living in brand new houses in Bhennatola, a neighbourhood in Jhenaidah of south-western Bangladesh.
Preparations are underway for the upcoming religious festivities, and Chinta Didi’s new home has a full view of an unfinished mural of goddess Durga across the street. She has been watching the progress throughout the week through her windows, next to which she has hung a framed print of Krishna against the brick wall.
Houses for everyone, made by everyone
Over the last two years, Platform for Community Artisans and Architects, Co.Creation.Architects, and BRAC University’s department of architecture have merged a low-cost housing model and a community-led process to design a model housing solution. The initiative was implemented in Jhenaidah, in collaboration with local municipal authorities, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Community Architects Network, a local NGO, ALIVE, and a city-wide community network of savings groups.
Step 1: A seed fund to start, and savings groups to grow
A seed fund of BDT 2,000,000 from Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, supported by the Asian Coalition for Community Action, was allocated as loans to build 20 houses for families and individuals who are the most disadvantaged. The loans were disbursed among five savings groups through the local community organiser, ALIVE. 52 households in Jhenaidah identified and nominated the families within their community to first build houses for.
“We decided as a community that Chinta Didi deserved a better home,” said Kalpani Rani Kormokar, a community leader.
These households formed five savings group, with a leader elected to supervise, and started repaying USD 6 (BDT 500) every week. The repayments collect into a revolving fund that the community can use to upgrade their facilities in the future.
Step 2: Mapping the dream
The women of the community gathered around to create a map of their neighbourhood, with technical guidance from community architects. They visualised the shape and size of their plots in relation to others, and were able to imagine what their dream homes would look like. Some wanted a flat roof where their children could play, or a second storey, or two rooms for bigger families. The architects designed and finalised two models – a single-storey, and a two-storey house, with variations according to the specific needs of the residents.
Step 3: Building the dream
The designs were brought to life by the members themselves – from sourcing the materials from local markets, to supervising and helping in the construction. Each of the houses cost BDT 100,000 (about USD 1,200) – with cost-cutting features like frameless, pivoted doors and windows, exposed brick walls, roofs with filler slabs. Costs were cut further since the residents were involved in the construction process. For an additional BDT 20,000 (USD 243), they could afford a toilet, and panes for windows and doors.
“Our neighbourhood has completely transformed in the last two years!” reflects Sharifa Begum, a community leader, “You would not believe that this was a slum before.”
She adds, “I am confident that we can build a home for even less than BDT 100,000, now that we know exactly how to do it, and where to find the best materials in bulk.”
And for Chinta Didi and the children?
Chinta Didi is not the only one with a new home. Residents of Chaklapara used their savings to construct a home for one of their oldest members- a man who is 109-years-old, according to his neighbour. In both communities, residents have regained a sense of optimism in transforming their neighbourhoods. They take care of their loved ones and neighbours – even those who cannot partake in the savings groups; friends and neighbours who cannot afford to save, or have no income – the elderly, and those with disabilities.
The children are also doing better in school. They now invite their friends over after lessons – there is now more
space to play in, and the air is cooler inside their new homes in the scorching summer heat. Many residents have used the funds to get electricity for their homes, and for some families, it is the first time that their children can study after dark. Previously, they would not attend school at all, and felt excluded from other students from nicer neighbourhoods.
A small solution to a desperately growing need
The two neighbourhoods in Jhenaidah offer a glimpse into how low-cost housing models and a community-led approach can change how we live in cities. Proper housing for people living in urban poverty is a growing challenge in Bangladesh. 42 million people populate urban areas, and seven out of 10 homes are not permanent.
Half a million people migrate to cities every year, with one in every three ending up in slums- illegal, informal settlements with temporary housing made of materials like tin, bamboo and wood. Fragile, unplanned and dangerous. There is no security over land, and settlements are overcrowded with three to four people sharing a single room. Basic needs like safe water, proper sanitation and sewage disposal facilities, health services and education, are often inaccessible.
Cities are the future
Over half of the global population live in cities right now. By 2050, it is projected to grow to two-thirds. The challenge: How do we urbanise sustainably?
Community engagement is key when it comes to making our cities more liveable. SDG 11 calls to make cities and human settlements more inclusive, resilient, safe and sustainable. To achieve this goal, a long-term, proactive solution is required – one that keeps the community at the heart of the process.
Addressing this challenge will not be easy. Every community has their own unique needs. Community architects and engineers have to work closely with communities, providing technical guidance, and designing housing models specific to their needs. Local authorities, the civil society, and educational institutions must also actively support the process.
According to the architects, Khondaker Hasibul Kabir and Suhailey Farzana, “there is no model house to replicate, but a model process to replicate.”
With the community taking the lead, this process could be a way of re-imagining and building cities everyone can truly call home.