25 July, 2009

Turner's 3 Laws and Housing Microfinance

“THE MOST COMMON OBJECTION to changes in public policy which would increase a user’s control of housing at the expense of centralized institutions is that standards would be lowered as a result. The standards the objectors have in mind, however, are not something that can be achieved with available resources, but, rather, represent the objector’s own notion of what housing ought to be.”
- John Turner, Freedom to Build

John F. C. Turner is one of the founding pillars of what has come to be known as the support (or enablement) paradigm of housing. Based on extensive experience and research, Turner introduced a whole new philosophy of housing in his books Freedom to Build and Housing By People: Towards autonomy in building environments. What made Turner’s approach radical was that he was able to view and describe housing from the point of view of the dweller, rather than that of the policy maker, housing expert or program designer. When seen from the point of view of the low-income earning dweller, housing decisions that seemed completely uninformed or illogical from the perspective of the social elite make perfect sense in the context of the household’s livelihood strategy and framework. Although his writing is now over 30 years old and predates the emergence of microfinance, Turner’s thought has significant relevance to housing microfinance for households around the poverty line.

In his introduction to Housing by People: Towards autonomy in building environments, Colin Ward presented what he described as Turner’s three laws of housing, with which he summarized the essence of Turner’s writing and thought. [2] I find these “three laws” to be both true and relevant in housing microfinance design. The following is a paraphrase of Turner’s laws:

Turner’s First Law: When dwellers control their housing process, it is better for them and the housing environment.

Turner’s Second Law: The important thing about a house is what it does in the life of the dwellers rather than what it physically is.

Turner’s Third Law: Dwellers can tolerate or accept a problem with their housing much more readily if it was a result of their own action or choice as opposed to that of another.

Traditional housing programs tend to focus on the provision of “low cost houses.” (Low cost often appears to be in relation to the income of the program designers and funders rather than to the actual affordability for people below or near the poverty line.) In such programs, there is a focus on the features of the house being provided. Critical housing choices of design, location, costs and delivery are made by the program designers. Although there is sometimes “consultation” with some representatives of the target group, the ultimate housing choice that is made by the individual participant households often revolves around whether or not to participate on the provider's terms. This type of housing program stems from what that designers believe housing ought to be.

In developing housing microfinance product and services, microfinance institutions can also be tempted to focus on the features of the house as the product. It is difficult to develop a focus on the low-cost house into effective housing microfinance for several reasons:

1. Cost: The focus on the house as a product (built to a certain standard) usually leads to a house that is too expensive for households with low incomes to afford. This can result in their inability to pay for the services or the need for heavy subsidy. Either of these will make it nearly impossible for a housing microfinance intervention to achieve and sustain service at scale, if it does not collapse altogether.

2. Demand: It is not uncommon for a provider to develop a housing product that it sincerely believes low income households need and will appreciate only to be surprised that demand for the product is not nearly as great as expected. When the product does not make sense from the client’s point of view, they will simply not use it and demand will be low. A housing microfinance program must meet effective demand if it is to grow and prosper as well as serve a social good. To do so, it must understand and approach housing for the position of the dweller that is going to pay for the services. What the outcome of housing microfinance loan means to the dweller is infinitely more important than what it means to the institution.

3. Customer Satisfaction: Problems  with a housing unit that was prescribed and delivered through a program or institution are not unlike malpractice for the medical field. If someone controls the process of building his or her own house, a crack in the wall can be easily tolerated or fixed. If an institution controlled the process, the same crack in the wall becomes a constant source of aggravation for the client and can negatively impact the relationship between the dweller and the institution.

Dweller control of the housing process is more likely to result in a house that fits with the household’s livelihood strategy, making it more likely to be sustainable at the household level. Housing microfinance can allow dweller control of the housing process and suit the individual household needs and desires. We often, however, start to impose upon clients the needs and desires of our institution in relation to their housing. In doing so, we run the risk of violating Turner’s three laws and creating a housing microfinance intervention that will fail to have significant impact. Although effective microfinance institutions tend to be market oriented and client responsive, they must still resist the temptation to have housing microfinance conform to what they believe housing ought to be instead of what it can be when control of the housing activity is left to the dwellers within the context of their own livelihoods, needs and wants.

[1] Turner, J. & Fichter, R. eds. (1972). Freedom to Build. NY: MacMillan, 148.
[2] Turner, J. (1976). Housing by People: Towards autonomy in building environments. NY: Marian Boyars, 5-6.

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