A Mumbai problem: Many vacant houses, many homelessUpdated: Mar 22, 2018 10:39 IST
This must be the biggest conundrum in Mumbai – lakhs of unsold or unoccupied high-end apartments and millions of poorer citizens living in squalid and dehumanised housing. Yet, affordable or inclusionary housing remains a pipe dream in the city that should have perfected a few models by now.
With unfailing regularity, international property consultants produce reports that offer an insight into how deep the problem runs. There are now 1.09 lakh unsold apartments in Mumbai, most in the upper-middle class segments, according to a recent report. Despite discounts and freebies offered by builders and relentless seductive advertising promising unimaginably utopian lives to buyers, the number of unsold apartments has hit its highest mark.
Add to this inventory the lakhs of unoccupied apartments across the city. Most of these, it would be fair to estimate, would be in gated enclaves with exotic – often misspelt – names bought as “investment homes” or second house and so on. Together, these unsold and unoccupied apartments represent the worst side of the city’s housing policies and its skewed market.
At the other end, the numbers of Mumbaiites living in squalid slums, informal or decrepit houses, living without a roof over their heads, or migrants sharing a bed by the hour in a single room remain a blot on the city. Slum dwellers comprised nearly 50-53% of the city’s population in the last decade; the number has marginally declined since slums were redeveloped. But as resettled slum-dwellers say, their quality of life did not vastly improve whereas the cost of living increased. Many sold their flats and went to other slums.
The 2011 Census Survey showed that Mumbai had the maximum slum population of any metropolitan city in India, nearly three times that of Delhi. This has been variously exploited by agencies, real estate lobby and politicians who targeted migrants as “outsiders”. People flock to Mumbai because, above all, it offers work or jobs giving them a chance to improve their lives.
In a jobs-driven city, affordable or inclusionary housing should have been the de facto government policy. A clear government policy should have set the template. Instead, as the city expanded, the housing sector was left to the wisdom of builders, market principles, and monetisation of land. These favoured the profit-first approach, the anti-thesis of what low-cost or affordable housing required.
Mumbai has had mass affordable housing projects in its history. The chawls for textile mill workers, though not the most benevolent of all, gave the working class a low-cost housing option; chawls or semi-apartments built by the Bombay Improvement Trust and Bombay Development Department in the 20th century as “sanitary dwellings for the poor” in prime areas are examples of planned low-cost housing with government intervention.
But when affordability and nature of housing was decided by profits, it was skewed in favour of the high-profits segment. Affordable housing was reduced to a phrase in government documents; successive chief ministers promised it but it meant little on the ground. Now when affordable housing is back in public conversations, it is discussed for its economic potential – capital investment, millions of jobs generated, direct and indirect impact on other sectors, GDP and so on – but key points are still ignored.
Why, for example, can all slum land in Mumbai not be reserved for affordable housing? Despite the slum sprawl, slums occupy less than 10% of the city’s land mass. Why is Floor Space Index (FSI) the only parameter by which construction and housing viability is determined? Why can there not be a mandatory and strictly-applied policy that builders undertaking commercial construction must also construct a certain percentage of it as affordable housing to be sold by a state agency? The possibilities are many.
Affordable or inclusionary housing should be the default for housing policy in Mumbai. But it will require an audacious chief minister and a bold departure from the existing cosy-for-all paradigm. Till that happens, the contradiction of vacant unsold apartment and un-housed people will persist.