Infrastructure: Sri Lanka should rethink housing for urbanizing population

colombo sri lanka infrastructure urban city

Sep 23, 2016 (LBO) – Sustainable city development will need to entail alternative housing for urban poor as they are service providers for city dwellers, industrial hub and the ports while also looking at affordability for the middle income earner, a senior official said.

“A paradigm shift is required. We need to rethink key areas of housing policy and be engaged and be guided by a set of common core principles,” Nayana Mawilmada, head of investments, Western Region Megapolis Planning Project said.

“We need to uplift the under-privileged and middle class and ensure integration rather than segregation across communities.”

The Colombo city alone has over 50,000 families living in under-served settlements, slums and shanties, and they should be prioritized in decision making.

Mawilmada was speaking at the LBR LBO Infrastructure Summit 2016 themed “Realizing The Transformative Power of The Western Region Development: Opportunities and Challenges.”

The summit brought together 45 leading speakers from the public and private sector as well as academia, both local and foreign, in front of a packed audience at the Cinnamon Grand Oak Room.

Rapid urbanization creates challenges of ensuring that development is efficiently organized and its rewards equitably distributed, a recent World Bank report titled ‘Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia’ said.

Data shows that that there is a decline in the number of urban residents living below the poverty line; between 2002 and 2013, the share of the urban population living below the national poverty line has decreased from 7.9 percent to 2.1 percent.

The migration to cities increases demand for housing, infrastructure development, retail and commercial spaces. This is putting increased strain on local governments to create more housing units to keep up with the growing demand for quality, yet affordable accommodation.

“Sri Lanka needs to realize the full potential of the people living in ‘underserved’ settlements and capitalize the land assets that people own to improve their living conditions, social mobility and economic status while optimizing the use of valuable land for capital formation and economic growth,” Lalith Lankatilleke, senior advisor, UN-Habitat said.

“People in need should be at the center of decision making and action with the state to play its obligatory role of safe guarding rights and supporting people and the market.”

The market should respond to this new opportunity for investment, he added.

One-size fits all approach

Several state run housing programs under way such as the Urban Regeneration Program for Colombo City (URPCC) run by Urban Development Authority, and the Accelerated Program for Middle Income Housing (APMIH) run principally by National Housing Development Authority.

However, Mawilmada said several of these programs are in conflict and compete for scarce resources, creating market confusion as well.

“The current URPCC model is a major program in which we have substantial sunk cost and commitment,” he said.

“The problem with the current model – A one-size-fits-all approach to urban low income housing has failed in many countries.”

There have been notable exceptions, but can we succeed in Sri Lanka? he asks.

At present under URPCC, 5,000 housing units are completed and another 13,000 are under construction. Phase I projects are 450 square feet in dimension while Phase II projects are 550 square feet.

The outstanding commitment for the project is 40 billion rupees.

Joint approach to implementation

When looking at finance, Mawilmada says the best model should look at maximum housing and social empowerment with minimal financial exposure from the government.

“We need to mobilize private capital wherever possible through concerted and transparent incentives and use government finance only where market cannot fill gap,”

“The priority will be to re-house the vulnerable and those on major infrastructure reservations first.”

Sri Lanka needs to look at joint approach to implementation, rather than an inter-institution competition and avoid conflicting mandates while rallying institutions around a consolidated urban housing program, Mawilmada says.

“A rush to build is perhaps not the best option. A careful approach is needed. It must be done delicately, in a thoughtful, socially responsible, market driven, and sustainable manner.”

How we house our people will define the fabric of our society in the coming decades, he added.