It is striking how policy debates on housing devolve very quickly into what can be called the numbers game. The notion of scarcity shapes the assumptions and the approach to the question of housing. This notion is very useful – developers need it, the state can exploit it and architects and designers love it. Numerous seminars and conferences are organised to address this problem of affordable housing which seems to be aimed at understanding not what housing is or what inhabitants need, but to figure out how to make intractable urban dwellers accept the sort of housing that the state-enabled private enterprise can profitably produce.

Let us indulge for the moment in this numbers game.

Is there a shortage of housing in Mumbai? How does one estimate it? How many houses does the city need to build in the next 10 or 20 years? Just recently, the Maharashtra state housing minister announced that the state government will build 11 lakh houses in Mumbai – 5.5 lakh in the next 5 years. This beats the Maharashtra draft housing policy target of 7.9 lakh houses for Mumbai.

Arbitrary estimate

A rational approach to housing policy would require understanding the nature of existing housing, and ways to address present and future demand. However, both of these housing targets were announced without any comprehensive study of the types, locations, occupancy and availability of existing housing in the city. For house builders, existing housing is irrelevant. What is important is what can be exploited, what can be pulled down, and how much can be built.

To estimate Mumbai’s current housing shortage, we could adopt the methodology used by the Kundu Committee set up by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in 2009 to estimate the housing shortage in India. According to the committee, the housing shortage must be computed as a sum of:

(1) the excess of households (or families) over the existing housing stock (available units);

(2) the number of households residing in obsolescent or non-serviceable units termed “unacceptable dwelling units” and,

(3) those households residing in overcrowded or congested housing understood as “unacceptable physical and social conditions.”

According to the 2011 census, Mumbai has 26,65,481 households (or 12.44 million persons), including homeless households. Existing housing stock in the city consists of housing for residential or mixed use (26,56,920 units) and vacant houses (4,79,842 units). Total housing stock, therefore, amounts to 31,36,762 units. The census reports that out of 26 lakh families, 8,561 households are homeless. Based on this we can compute step (1) above: (total households in the city including homeless) – (existing housing stock). This comes to -462,720 units.

The census reports that of all the housing units, 37,995 units are dilapidated and 22,889 units are non-serviceable. This means that 60,884 units in the city can be considered “unacceptable” stock, defined by (2) above.

Finally, the census reports that 2,04,337 or 7.7% households in the city have no exclusive room of their own. In addition, 2,06,123 or 7.7% married couples do not have a room of their own. This is what the Kundu Committee terms “unacceptable physical or social conditions” due to overcrowding and congestion. Also, 4,10,460 families live in such conditions, and therefore require new housing, as defined by (3) above.

Unaffordable housing

Adding (1), (2) and (3), we can compute the total current housing shortage for Mumbai, which is precisely 63 housing units. This is the current (2011) shortage. Obviously, this has little to do with the quantity and kind of residential space, or how it is distributed. All housing that is built in the city beyond this number can be considered for the future needs of the city, either due to natural growth of its population or due to migration.

To estimate future demand, we could then use the population projection presented in Mumbai’s draft Development Plan, which estimated a population of 13,949,712 persons in 2034. The projection also suggests that average household sizes will reduce from 4.8 to 4.0 persons in 2034. This gives us 8,21,947 additional households, or a demand for 8,22,010 houses (adding the 63 units calculated above) by 2034. But what sort of houses are these? This is where the numbers game becomes most interesting.

The Kundu Committee concluded that 95% of the new housing demand (nationwide) is for Economically Weaker Sections and Low Income Groups with house sizes ranging from 269 to 600 square feet. Even our quick calculation above shows that almost all, if not most of, the new housing demand is for the urban poor. But despite these realities, the draft Maharashtra Housing Policy envisions only 56.8% units for the Economically Weaker Sections and Low Income Groups in Mumbai. It plans 29.2% Middle Income Group and 13.9% High Income Group houses. Already, as business reports indicate, tens of thousands of such flats lie unsold as they are unaffordable for most buyers. Indiscriminate construction of houses will worsen, not reduce the problem it attempts to address, and what follows explains why this is so.

Public to private property

Housing policy is focused almost entirely on production of floor area and number of units disregarding the highly differentiated nature of housing conditions and needs in the city. As a consequence, they are based on development potential of urban land, and it is not surprising that despite the city having 4.79 lakh vacant houses, it has become customary to announce more house building.

And where are these houses to be built? Almost all these units are to be built on lands currently occupied by self-built settlements or slums, cessed properties (residential buildings constructed before 1960) Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority layouts, and older public housing layouts. These happen to be neighborhoods with some of the highest residential densities in the city. And this is the only affordable housing that the city has successfully produced for a majority of its inhabitants. It is this existing affordable housing, almost entirely on public land, that the draft policy plans to replace, by rehabilitating existing dwellers into high-rise rehabilitation blocks.

Land released in the process will be used to build houses for Middle Income and High Income Groups. Thousands of “ineligible” dwellers will be excluded. Thousands of new speculative vacant houses will be built. The city may not produce accessible homes to all its dwellers, but it will definitely convert the remaining public land into private property. This then is the true purpose of the building spree: creation of private property markets (often with state coercion) in urban land and housing.

City for the rich

Another purpose is to optimise the development potential of land. This is assessed not on the basis of how intensively land is used or how many people it serves, but its market value. Therefore, a squatter settlement that provides homes and work to a thousand families may be assessed as “inefficient and sub-optimal” but the same strip with a hundred luxury condominiums makes its use “efficient and optimal.” Based on this logic, the only way affordable housing can be created is by finding land that is of low commercial value that is often away from the city, or to build with insane densities (dividing up the cost of land between many families).

Inevitably, the poor have a right to the city only insofar as they agree to remain hidden, packed close together or far away from it. It is this logic that determines who can live where and how – as the Situationist Raoul Vanegiem once remarked, “you don’t live somewhere in the city, you live somewhere in the hierarchy.”

Take for instance the proposed redevelopment of the Bombay Development Department chawls. Built in the early 1920s for working people, 15,238 families live on 35 hectares in Worli, Naigaon, and MN Joshi Marg. With a 435 households a hectare, this is already very high-density housing. But according to recommendations of the public-private think-tank Mumbai Transformation Support Unit, due to the low rents and high land values of the locality “the current use of land cannot be termed efficient and optimum.” The state government plans to redevelop these with incentive Floor Space Index to build additional apartments. Obviously, no great concern for the existing dwellers animates the redevelopment scheme. At 4 FSI, what is at stake is more than 8 lakh square meters of residential area that will be produced for sale. Public land used optimally, after all, yields massive private gain.

Instead, if housing was understood by the city as a public good, a logical approach would be to protect and improve all the existing affordable housing in the city. Self-built housing would be regulated and upgraded, rent control laws would be modernised and strengthened, public housing would be improved and expanded, privately provided housing would be better regulated, and vacant and luxury housing would be progressively taxed. But since it is imagined as a commodity, public largesse will have to be bestowed on private enterprise to keep them interested to produce unaffordable houses on the one hand, and warehouses on the other.

Hussain Indorewala is an urban researcher with the Collective for Spatial Alternatives and an assistant professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidynidhi Institute of Architecture in Mumbai.