Pushing Past Policy- Valerie Stahl’s Summer Intern Experience

My photo from my program's December 2010 trip to the Darb al Ahmar district in Cairo- A successful example of urban regeneration by The Aga Khan Foundation

As a graduate student at Sciences Po in Paris about to enter my second year of tackling the task of “governing the large metropolis,” I tend to take a very governance-based, policy-minded outlook to my research, writing, and general observations regarding urban issues. Until this summer, the term affordable housing has been on my radar almost entirely in terms of government-provided options, and the extent of my knowledge has been somewhat limited to developed world cities.

Interning at Smart Cities Advisors has lent me a window to the world of everything from smart forms of private investment in developing world cities to the basics of how a start-up functions. Beyond that, it has also provided me with a set of skills and insights that I will take with me back to my studies in Paris as well into my professional career.

  • P is not only for Public (or PPP, for that matter)– There is more to affordable housing than providing it through purely public and even public-private means. A small yet growing list of for-profit companies are developing low-cost housing solutions in emerging markets, such as Janaadhar and VBHC in India, and Aengus Property Holdings and Premium Properties in South Africa. This is something to bear in mind and even translate to other traditionally public services as the social entrepreneurial field grows and yields high-impact, financially sustainable solutions to social issues.

  • Urbanists of the world, unite! In the same vein, there are countless urban-minded organizations out there, you just have to look for them. It is important to consider the added value of partnership among like-minded organizations. Luckily, online platforms consolidating such work- such as Urban Gateway and Smart Cities’ very own upcoming knowledge-sharing platform- are emerging as fast as the markets they are targeting. 

  • Affordable housing can be costly- It’s important to be mindful of what it actually means for housing to be affordable for low and middle-income populations. The World Bank values the housing shortage in India anywhere between 20-70 million units and estimates the average per capita income falling at about $3,280 per year (World Development Indicators, 2011). At that rate, in spite of high need, even a $300 House can be a difficult purchase for individuals focused on sustaining their basic livelihoods, often through informal means. This forces us to consider not only different modes and models for affordable housing, but also innovative financing options and consulting services for accessing capital within underserved communities.

  • Quantifying can yield quality- Through working a bit on our monitoring and evaluation system, perusing M & E systems like the Global Impact Investing Rating System, and reading up on notes from Lenora’s trip to SOCAP, I now see how critical-and at times complex- it is to establish a gauge and general standards for measuring the on-the-ground impact of triple-bottom line principles across social ventures.

  • Remaining concise is key- In terms of the purely technical writing skills I’ve developed, it’s important to keep summaries short, sweet and to the point. Though at times (again, coming from graduate school) it has been an iterative process for me. I’ll leave it at that.

Perhaps most of all, interning at Smart Cities Advisors has reiterated the importance of not just home building, but community building, particularly when profit is involved. Whether it is considering the social and economic factors of slum relocation or seeking out alternatives to gentrification in urban regeneration, as Rioonwatch.org discusses here, it is imperative to start providing a framework for inclusive building practices in low and middle-income communities. Additionally, just how all politics is local, housing solutions should be as well. Ultimately we must strive to reconcile inclusive, sustainable building with profitable outcomes for developers. The market exists in many developing world cities, largely untapped and ready to be tackled by people like us. So let’s unite, urbanists!

Another big thanks to Lenora for all your, patience, insight, helpful guidance, graciousness, and music/restaurant recommendations!

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