In both India and South Africa, affordable housing was life-changing for the poor – sort of

A 2007 housing protest in Cape Town, South Africa. Image: Getty.

South Africa is known around the world for its significant housing programme, and India has made substantial efforts to develop its cities. Providing free or affordable housing brings obvious benefits to residents who have lived in desperately poor conditions with no water, electricity or sanitation, in precarious informal structures.

But research in these two contexts has found that the new housing has brought unanticipated difficulties for poor urban residents – and women in particular – alongside the gains. Moving into new housing can put women at greater risk from domestic violence, compromise their privacy and jeopardise opportunities to earn an income.

Both South Africa and India have a patchy record of providing affordable housing to the poor, as well as a chequered history of unequal access to land and housing for women compared with men. In South Africa, Apartheid laws meant black women were not entitled to own land or housing until 1994.

In the post-Apartheid era, the government has worked hard to redress these inequities. A national housing programme, introduced in 1994, aimed to provide “free” housing to any eligible poor South African (though residents still have to pay for rates and services). Often these are located on the edges of cities where land is cheaper.

Affordable housing in South Africa, 2014. Image: Paula Meth/author provided.

To date, more than 4m housing opportunities have been created, and 56 per cent of this housing has gone to women, rising to 70 per cent in some areas – a crucial step for advancing gender equality.

In India, a person’s caste, class, religion and gender directly shapes their access to land and housing. This is particularly acute for poor women. For cultural reasons, many women do not own property, nor do they commonly benefit from joint ownership. They often do not inherit property.

A national programme implemented in 2005 to improve urban areas has aimed to provide infrastructure and basic services for the poor. In some contexts, former slum housing has been upgraded with formal brick or concrete built houses or flats. Elsewhere, the poor have been relocated to new housing, often on the edges of cities.

The Indian policy was not specifically designed with gendered issues in mind: instead, new houses were built for “the married unit”. But in parts of India, allocation has been through women-run community organisations, which has enhanced consideration of women’s needs.

A life-changing move

In both countries, the changes in living conditions are remarkable, from very poor quality construction to solidly built flats or houses. Research shows that for many recipients of housing, the improvements in quality of life are significant. They can enhance a person’s sense of self-worth, and offer protection from rain, sun, animals and flooding. They can extend privacy through separated internal rooms. Houses are often cleaner and healthier. Having doors, locks, walls and roofs enhance security, and the buildings commonly have electricity, running water and sanitation.

Images of informal and formal housing in India, 2014. Image: Paula Meth/author provided.

But improvements in housing also present real problems, for women especially. Thicker walls and greater privacy mean women are less able to call out for help, since sound travels less easily. New ways of living are more private and separate, and this makes neighbours less inclined to intervene in domestic matters. In India and South Africa, where sexual and domestic violence levels are so high, this is a real problem.

The South African housing provision privileges those with dependants, often women. Providing women with legal ownership of new housing has caused unease among unmarried, single or separated men. They feel their positions of authority are undermined, and they worry about not benefiting from the housing programme.

What’s more, politicians and state employees including social workers and police agree that if a dispute over property arises, the needs of women and children should dominate. Men’s anxiety can result in heightened episodes of violence against women and children. For some households, acquiring a “proper” house leads to the household fracturing. These tensions are common in contexts of poverty: new assets generate hostility because resources are so scarce.

A loss of privacy

In India, costs of building mean some new homes have only one bedroom. Large extended families are compelled to share these modest spaces because of wider housing shortages. In effect, this can mean sleeping arrangements are more cramped than in former slum houses, which often contained multiple poor quality sleeping spaces.

In the new houses, grandparents and teenage children share rooms, and adult couples have little to no privacy. This loss of privacy impacted the women I spoke to, as part of our research: they lamented their inability to conduct normal adult relations and reported their husbands seeking lovers elsewhere. The shortage and type of housing produces new tensions between husband and wife.

New housing often reduces residents’ abilities to earn an income from or at their home. This impacts women especially, whose livelihoods can depend on work they can do from the home, such as selling food or small items. A change to apartment blocks reduces the potential for retailing to passing customers, and new rules or norms associated with formal housing can prevent informal economic activities occurring.

What’s more, smaller structures can limit opportunities for renting out spare rooms to tenants. And when the poor are moved out to housing on the edge of the city (common in both countries) it creates significant new constraints for travelling to work and for services. Women report new vulnerabilities associated with a lack of safe transport, lack of street lighting and long travel times.

Giving the urban poor access to formal housing can undeniably change their lives for the better. But the unanticipated challenges faced by women living in new housing in South Africa and India show how vital it is for such programmes to consider the impacts of this move on every member of society.

The Conversation

Paula Meth, Reader, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.