Tuesday, November 07, 2006

India aside: Chawls


During the middle of the 19th century Bombay experienced an economic boom when it took up the slack in the textile industry left by the American Civil War. Coupled with the completion of the Suez Canal, Bombay assumed a primary role in manufacturing and processing cotton and other textiles. The mills were built on the then edge of the city, in the suburbs that originally held the elite’s bungalows. Around the factories, the chawl typology of multi-unit housing arose. Originally intended as single room occupancy units for the men working the shifts, they quickly filled with entire families moving from the uncertain life of the countryside. Chawls comprise several floors of single room units connected by a shared verandah and bathroom. The units are often as little as ten feet wide and fifteen feet deep. The buildings are mostly structural brick covered with decorative concrete, and each unit has a wooden door and window that will be ornamented and painted by the tenant. Bathrooms represent the biggest challenge to living in chawls, since they were intended for a smaller group of male only users. Naturally families and children strain the limited facilities and often as not they are broken in some fashion. Aside from the plumbing, however, the rooms themselves present a better alternative to the unreliable shacks on the street and are often inhabited by city municipal employees. They are seen as the stepping stone to an apartment with bathroom en suite, the gold standard for Bombayites.

There are some who point to chawls as a relatively successful solution to housing the millions of slum dwellers in Bombay (an estimated 60% of the population of 18 million live in shacks with little or no access to sanitation or drinking water). But two major planning obstacles exist that hinder low cost housing supply: the limit on floor-area-ratio (FAR) and rent control. Even while developing into the second densest city in the world, the allowable FAR of two has made it difficult for builders to make cost effective high density housing. Cities with similar populations and densities such as Seoul and Hong Kong allow an FAR of fifteen. Furthermore, after construction is complete, strict rent control laws discourage maintenance and improvements. Most landlords will simply wait until a building is deemed structurally unsafe, and then re-build as something more profitable. These hurdles each represent a different era that has passed. The FAR limit remains from the genteel colonial time, when uniformly low apartment buildings in leafy streets were punctuated by civic gothic towers at the intersections. The hierarchy was admirable, but hardly justifies the conditions of millions of slum dwellers. And rent control is a voter palliative, originally installed for the working poor moving to the city and preyed upon by slumlords. No politician wants to risk making rent control their crusade. These restrictions are exacerbated by corruption that consistently ranks among the worst in the world. The capricious nature of rules enforcement means that smaller, less profitable, and more challenging projects have a lesser chance of completion than blockbuster deals that generate money for the city coffers (and officials’ pockets). Real estate already hemmed in by natural boundaries has the additional burden of laws that make if very difficult to re-create the chawl typology in the current environment. The chawl might be the answer to housing the poor, but there are several political steps that need to be taken before it can do so.