Making Real Estates Work for Accessible Housing

Access to safe and adequate housing is one of the most basic needs of all citizens. According to the United Nations (UN) Committee on other Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), housing can be considered adequate when it meets the elements of legal security of tenure; availability of services such as safe drinking water, sanitation, among others; and, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution also guarantees the ‘Right to Shelter’ to all Indian citizens. However, with rapid urbanization and widening economic disparities, the availability of housing that meets the aforementioned requirement has become a challenge for the city residents.

Adequate housing is significantly linked to an individual’s integration into the economic, social, and cultural fabric of the city. In the perspective of supply-side constraints across Indian cities in various affordable housing sub-markets, there has been widespread spontaneous growth of housing stock which is substandard, congested and often lacks the basic amenities. The non-functional land markets and the resultant challenges of land assembly have raised the land prices - the land price to income ratio in Indian cities is amongst the highest globally. In this perspective and the realization that urban sprawls are inefficient in the Indian context, the focus in the recent past has been to promote intensive use of land and thereby housing is being offered increasingly in high-rise condominiums. Constructions without proper compliance with universal design guidelines are not uncommon. These issues in conjunction with the already existing challenges in the real estate market have only compounded to make the housing market unapproachable and inaccessible for persons with disabilities.

Multi-storeyed buildings without appropriately designed ramps and lifts, doors, windows, and fixtures are non-compliant with the universal design standards. Tiny rooms with not enough manoeuvring space for wheelchair users is an example of the plethora of barriers faced daily by persons with disabilities in an average dwelling in India. Participants of a public consultation conducted by the Building, Accessible, Safe and Inclusive Indian Cities (BASIIC) programme of the National Institute of Urban Affair (NIUA) also expressed their grievances over inaccessible housing complexes where residents with disabilities had difficulties accessing their own washroom facilities, or, living independently alone because of inaccessible shelves in the kitchen and washrooms, lifts having barriers, or homeowner unwilling to make changes to the place, etc. One of the participants also shared how she was denied rentals multiple times because of her disability and the stigma that having a tenant with disabilities will only be an added baggage. These may be attributed to ineffective compliance and regulatory mechanisms, and non-adherence to universal design guidelines in the state-building bye-laws which lead to the creation of inaccessible housing stock. The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016 and Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 have made provisions against housing discrimination - to live within a community, and get equal access. Although these legal provisions provide the framework to promote an enabling environment for PwDs, there is still the need for coherent policies and focused interventions that specifically address the housing needs of PwDs. While policies and guidelines are a good starting point, these need to be complemented with efforts to disseminate knowledge among various stakeholders in the housing sector. This is where augmenting the capacities of planners and architects, sensitising the housing developers, RWAs, and society managers for the creation and delivery of an accessible housing environment is of utmost importance.

The real estate market is a potential medium that can be harnessed for the delivery of accessible housing for persons with disabilities. However, the market for accessible housing is still largely underexplored, fragmented, and underfunded because of which consumers are faced with limited choices in their housing options. As such, the challenge is to determine the means and methods to integrate the real estate market into the system of providing affordable and accessible housing for PwDs, including the government initiatives (both centre and state). Moreover, there is a mismatch between demand and supply across Indian housing market segments. There is a high unmet demand in the low-income housing market segment while there is an over-supply of high-end housing. Persons with disabilities, in general, have disproportionately low access to economic opportunities and have lower income as compared to mainstream society. Therefore, this exponential increase in house rentals and the paucity of accessible housing also creates the risk of institutionalisation and homelessness for people from the low-income group. To address this, programmes and policies related to housing by different ministries and governments which generally have been implemented in silos need to be executed in continuity and interconnectedness. Governmental schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana- Urban (PMAY-U), National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM), and Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), etc. can be leveraged to augment the delivery of accessible public housing. The private sector can also be looped into this endeavour through the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes. Stringent monitoring mechanisms should be applied to control the exploitation of tenants and homebuyers. Proper implementation of the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act of 2016, the Model Tenancy Act, 2021 should be strictly followed for the same. Additionally, a law that mandates developers to deliver accessible houses that are affordable should be in place.

Looking at the business model, housing like any other product requires a robust capital financing system and incentivisation model to attract the players for the delivery of inclusive development, which is one crucial aspect to bridge this gap in the housing market operations. Further, reverse mortgage schemes for the elderly can be expanded to cover persons with disabilities. This could give them the option of generating an income flow from their real assets without being dispossessed. Similarly, a shift is required for developers to view the need for accessible housing not as an altruistic case but as a value proposition. Provision of insurance link mechanism for PwDs by banks or through national and sub-national funds, ease of financial access for the development of houses with features of universal design and assistive devices could also contribute to this paradigm shift and encourage developers to view accessible housing as a niche market.

From the end-user perspective, property owners and caregivers can also be encouraged to make progressive changes by providing incentives such as appeals for tax abatement, subsidies in public goods and services and residential mortgage securities. Developers and house owners should be given the assurance that making houses more accessible would not indicate a non-profit making endeavour against the investment, but also simultaneously, this should not translate to hike the cost of accommodation for PwDs.

The Census of India 2011 shows that 11 million urban housing units are vacant. This has been attributed to the lack of basic infrastructures, place of accommodation being located far away from the workplace, etc. Large cities like Gurgaon and Bangalore have large stocks of vacant dwellings which can be transformed into accessible housing stock through simplified development control regulations, land-use regulations and relaxed zoning regulations. Developers can be given the flexibility to retrofit, repurpose and explore newer methods for inclusive housing development. The land-use system in the master plans should be extended towards the adaptive reuse of land space that promotes the interoperability of resources leading to demand-based accessible rental housing facilities to be included both in mixed and residential land use. Developers should also be encouraged to exchange knowledge on what worked and what didn’t. This would substantially reduce the chances of duplication of work that easily could have been replicated.

It is essential that welfare schemes are formulated that especially caters to providing accessible housing or provide support schemes to make owning houses by PwDs a possible reality. To meet the growing and changing demands/needs of the vulnerable population, constant reforms and reassessment of planning norms and regulations also need to be periodically carried out. This effort of providing accessible housing should also expand to building a complete, self-sustaining and enabling neighbourhood. The necessary facilities such as markets, dispensaries, medical stores, community areas should be made available within 500- 800 meters walking distance through accessible routes. The government missions in India, for example, the Smart Cities Mission and the Accessible India Campaign also offer opportunities to promote inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in the urban spaces and activities. Compliance with the guidelines and bye-laws, and handholding of the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) through various stages of project development, and developing sensitivity and capacities of the architects, planners and developers can also help in the provision of a neighbourhood that is complete and accessible. The BASIIC programme is one such programme, that is actively assisting cities and developers in providing technical assistance, capacity development and trying to eliminate the attitudinal barriers towards persons with disabilities. A key step towards such a goal is the creation of free knowledge that not only reduces stigma but educates the masses to make better and informed choices.

This blog is a rendition of a lucid and informative lecture hosted by BASIIC and delivered by Mr Harpreet Singh Arora. If you like the content here please feel free to watch the full lecture here


Veronica Quikiumaliu Wijunamai