What’s the Real Cause of the World’s Housing Problem?

An example of urban poverty in this slum in Jakarta, Indonesia
An example of urban poverty in this slum in Jakarta, Indonesia

Over a billion people in the world lack decent housing even though there are dozens of low cost housing methods that could eliminate this problem. Possibilities include building with earthbags, adobe, cob, pallets, bamboo and other locally available materials. These affordable, sustainable housing options are described on our blog in good detail. Additionally, the Internet has thousands of websites, blogs, online journals and forums with even more information about these building methods. There are thousands of low income housing groups working on this cause. And, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of information on how to build affordable housing, and yet the lack of decent housing persists. So what’s going on? What’s the real problem here?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I venture to say the main problem stems from social and political issues. This includes failure of government to direct resources to the right place. The money spent on the wars in the Middle East, for instance, could have funded millions of simple houses.

Many of the world’s poor are already living in a nightmarish world. The houses in the photo above may not have clean water, toilets or land rights. Sewage may flow through the canal. The neighborhood may be near a landfill and polluting factories. Basically, the sort of place no one should have to live.

As you can see it’s a complex problem. I would love to hear your opinions on how to improve things.

For a better understanding of poverty see Poverty Facts and Statistics
“The poorer the country, the more likely it is that debt repayments are being extracted directly from people who neither contracted the loans nor received any of the money.” Source 25

Image source: Wiki

5 thoughts on “What’s the Real Cause of the World’s Housing Problem?”

  1. I disagree that the picture above represents housing that is wildly unsatisfactory, if you consider what most in those same countries are using.
    Places like this are common in some countries because of most people being below the law, too poor to get the attention of regulators, police or those who might have a stronger claim to the land they are built on.
    For sure these places where people can eat, sleep, defecate, and store their stuff in relative safety do not meet official building code standards of the countries they are located in. But they do serve the most immediate purposes of those who live there.
    When you search housing for the poor we see solutions as to materials used (earth, confined block, waddle and daub, shipping container, etc) and people who propose these things are shocked that a superior building is not universally accepted. This is because they see the house, and not the people. Intelligence is spread pretty evenly across the globe, it is an error to assume that slum dwellers do not have access to modern technology or are somehow not educated in life skills. THEY ARE.
    There is a distinct advantage to being below the law, at least for a while. Permanent structures are attractive assets to government officials to tax. If you do not own the land or if ownership of land is complicated to establish, only a fool would invest in improving it if now that it is worth more the person with the most pull in the courts will take the time and effort to prove up his claim.
    Thus the key to ending unsafe housing is not to build with deep footings and durable materials but instead to end corruption in government, give regulators efficient means to address squatter problems quickly and diversify business interests across the country so that the only jobs are in cities without land for shelter.

  2. Love the clean clothes on the line thoughts too.

    It is sad that the education system puts more emphasis on higher more expensive education rather than on the basics of survival. Only 1 or 2 out of each graduating class will succeed in high paying jobs… the rest need to know how to build a home, hunt & fish, craft, repair their own broken toys, and prepare for the regular lower paying jobs.

    Take away the RED TAPE that it takes in order to build a home too. (including all the fees, permits, penalties). Even Class K folk have to shell out a pretty penny in order to finalize their dream of a roof over their heads.

  3. My very firm opinion is that the World’s Housing problem is caused by a rather large variety of factors. Most long term systemic problems tend to have lots of causes. Therefore, I’m very skeptical of any attempt to blame such a large problem on one easy to express cause or any solution on any quick answer.

    That does NOT mean I think the problem cannot be drastically reduced with thoughtful strategic hard work by a variety of people. In fact, I’m very optimistic.

    Here are some of the factors that I believe contribute to the World’s Housing Problems. I am listing them in no particular order.



    Commercialization, Industrialization, and Urban Migration of Rural cultures.

    Poor “standard” education, especially among the poor. (Literacy, Math, Science, etc)

    Poor “tradesman” education, especially among the poor. (Learning a marketable/career skill)

    Poor “empowerment” education, especially among the poor. (Teaching fundamental life skills that enable a person to care for themselves without dependence on the government, aid organizations, or corporations.)

    Corruption (both governmental and corporate)



    Religious persecution.

    Class warfare/exploitation.

    and probably a lot more factors I have not listed have played and continue to play a major role in the World’s Housing Problem.

    Take the shanty town pictured from Jakarta in this blog post from as an example.

    Most people will look at that photo and see poverty. Shacks falling apart. Trash in the river. People without hope and nowhere to turn. Many people will look at that photo and actually convince their own brain that they can smell the stench emanating from that neighborhood when it’s just a digital photo displayed on their computer.

    Seriously. Look at the photo and smell your computer screen. I bet many people convince themselves they can actually smell the stench.

    I look at that photo, and I too see those heartbreaking things. I also see much more.

    I see amazing ingenuity. Those structures clearly are far from ideal. However, I also see people fighting hard using whatever resources they can afford to build some semblance of an existence. It’s far from perfect, but I see people that are desperate and utilizing every scrap of an idea to piece together a life, fighting day to day to survive. I see many people banding together forming a community. An imperfect community. A community probably full of crime, disease, and countless other hardships, but a community with groups of individuals choosing to live together and trying to make the best of a bad situation as best they know how to do.

    I see that photo, and I instinctively know that there are children living there. Children that probably play together and laugh more often than I could in similar circumstances. Children always seem to find a way to laugh and play even during hardship. That’s what children do. It’s part of being human I guess.

    I see the resiliency in people that have had the worst the world has to offer dropped on their heads, and they refuse to give up. They take the refuse of the world and build a shanty. They fight on through the misery, the crime, the disease, the stench, and other challenges that are too grim for me to fully imagine.

    In spite of all of that, look closely at the photo. Look around and you’ll see that many “houses” have clean laundry hanging out to dry!! Look at it!!

    Somebody is fighting back the best they can and trying to put clean clothes on their family in spite of the chaos and hardship surrounding them. I admire that kind of courage and effort. It cannot be easy, but someone is trying to be clean in the center of uncleanliness. Somebody has decided that filth may surround them, but the clothes on their family will be clean. THAT PROVES TO ME THAT SOME OF THESE PEOPLE ARE FIGHTING BACK.

    I admire that strength of will.

    Any massive problem such as this requires multiple solutions.

    It’s not enough to have housing designs that are cheap.

    It’s not enough to have a non-corrupt government.

    It’s not enough to have well meaning aid organizations.

    It’s not enough to feed people.

    I don’t have all the answers, but I suggest that all of the best answers will apply the time honored metaphor.

    “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day.
    Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.

    The best answers will teach those people who are struggling for quality shelter to build a better life for themselves.

    The best answers will teach parents how to teach their children to build their own quality home someday with a way to feed themselves and the grandchildren, and how to teach the grandchildren to do the same. And the great-grandchildren. And so on.

    It’s not enough to have great looking designs for structures.
    People must adapt them to their own local cultures and customs and build them for themselves. They must be able to do it without government handouts. Without charity.

    The governments and charities need to be building some kind of educational system to teach the poor how to live well without assistance. Short term handouts mostly make the problems worse.

    It’s not a magic answer, it’s not a complete solution, but in my opinion, EDUCATION is the most productive intervention.

    One example.

    Teach poor family how to build their own home that will survive an earthquake and a tsunami, and teach them how to plant a permanent food forest. Then teach them how to teach their children. Teach them how to teach their neighbors.

    If the people know how to build a safe healthy house on their own, building codes become pointless. If the people know how to grow their own food, the impact of poverty is drastically reduced.

    Suddenly the need for a financial income may not be all that important to living.
    Suddenly the person that builds his own home and grows his own food is living richly, and teaching his children and neighbors how to do it for themselves is not revealing a competitive trade secret.
    Suddenly, the very definition of what poverty is needs to be changed.

    Suddenly the definition of poverty becomes “someone who is not allowed to take care of themselves.”

    For what it’s worth, that’s my opinion.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.