Low-income housing or social housing for is a fundamental part of any urban city. Houses or apartments can be fairly small but, for a family that can afford nothing more, it is all the luxury they need. Unlike slums, social housing is backed by the government and is supposed to offer humane living conditions with utilities and services.  However, with limited finances, cities are forced to either compromise on the location of the housing, unit size or high costs. Here, we look at some of the most prominent social housing schemes – both successful and underpar – and find that it’s not how much governments spend, but how they spend it, that differentiates the projects.


An informal settlement in Brazil (Wikipedia)

An informal settlement in Brazil.

With a staggering 5.2 million in housing shortage at the time, the Brazilian Federal Government launched the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (“My House, My life”) social housing project in March 2009 and dubbed it “the largest housing program” in the country. The government propagated it as a new solution for millions of families in the country, facilitating housing credits for four different types of houses. To implement the project, the government placed a BRL 34 billion (USD $19.5 billion) cost on the project, which aimed to build one million units.

In order to qualify for the program, citizens needed to not own any homes or have benefited from any previous governmental housing program. Citizens also needed to fit the income criteria placed by the government for the program. However, in 2011, two years after announcing the project, the government came under fire after failing to deliver any homes to citizens blaming high cost of land and infrastructure.  Despite criticism, the government expanded its plans and promised to deliver 2.4 million homes.

So how well is it doing now? According to the program’s official website, the volume of investments in the project has reached BRL 294.49 billion (USD $169 billion) with around 4.21 million units contracted and 2.63 million units delivered.

The figures that have been published are questionable and in some homes, quality standards were compromised, according to The Guardian, which added that the demand on the units was low due to the location of the houses and the poor access to services.


Cairo Slums

Cairo Slums

Egypt has been suffering from a growing number of slums and informal settlements over the last three decades. Informal settlements make up to 40% of the country’s urban area. During the 1990s, the government made several attempts to solve the problem but has failed time after time.

“After first ignoring informal areas and then adopting (but never implementing) a policy of removing them, the Egyptian government began in the 1980s to develop strategies responding to the reality of their growth,” an official report issued by the American University in Cairo says. “From time to time, officials have announced plans to tear down slums (or informal areas altogether). This practically meant forcibly removing residents to distant and half-built new cities lacking essential amenities where they are expected to make a new life cut off from sources of income or livelihood.”

With rapid urbanization, high-end residential units stood empty as those moving into the country’s capital Cairo couldn’t afford them and the number of slums grew to 1,300 neighborhoods. The problem deepened and within one year, between June 2012 and June 2013, records have shown that around 392 residential buildings collapsed, killing 192 people and making over 800 families homeless.

In fiscal year 2014/2015, however, the government introduced a new social housing program to eradicate slums and built new residential units for those less fortunate with an EGP 10 billion (USD $140 million) investment. The Egyptian government pointed out that it will finance the project from the state budget.

As it ended up, one of main financing sources was from the citizens themselves. Five hundred million Egyptian pounds were allocated to developing one informal area, named Al Deweqa, from a government owned fund named Tahya Misr, which collects donations from Egyptians. The country’s Minister of Supply Khaled Hanafy announced that his ministry will cooperate with the Ministry of International Cooperation to secure USD $1 billion loans and grants from international organizations and banks. The project is still a work in progress.


In 2010, natural disasters took southern Chile’s homes away; now, a “half-home” trend is taking the country by storm in an innovative housing solution lead by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. With unexceptional access to finance or low land prices, Chileans were led to innovate in order to recover from their housing dilemma.

The project originally started when Aravena was commissioned to design houses for informal neighborhoods in the city of Iquique in 2004, building 93 low-income houses. According to Aravena, a middle class family lives adequately in 80-square-meter houses but due to the lack of finances and high land prices families are forced to live in half of that area.

“The more complex the problem [housing crisis], the more need for simplicity,” Aravena says, highlighting that innovation in solving the problem needed to become key in the design as the prices of land were high. Residents refused to compromise on the location of the building, the architect pointed out. To solve this equation, the Pritzker prize-winning architect proposed the idea of “half of a good house.”

Basically, the architect would talk to residents about now their basic and necessary needs then build them half a house to serve those needs. The architect would build the part of the house residents could not finish on their own. Meanwhile, with fixed income, residents could complete the other half at their own pace.

So why is this model successful? Well, the low-incomes houses were converted into middle class units after the whole house, not just the first half, was completed. With families keeping their networks and their jobs, the construction of the other half of the house was started within a couple of weeks.

“You provide a frame and from then on families take over,” Aravena adds, arguing that unless people are used in construction, the housing crises in cities will not be solved.