Third COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus discuss housing inequities revealed by the pandemic

Third COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus discuss housing inequities revealed by the pandemic

Nairobi, 7 May 2020 

A webinar held on the topic of housing gathered over 80 participants in a lively debate with expert as part of the COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus Series session organized by the World Urban Campaign with Habitat for Humanity and Compass Housing Services, the two lead partners of the event.

Jane Katz, Director of International Affairs and Programs at Habitat for Humanity set the tone of the session by stating that “COVID-19 has shattered the reality for more than 1.6 billion people in need to adequate housing and millions of others not expecting to ‘shelter in places’’. Unforeseen impacts are tremendous for families living in inadequate conditions, deprived from livelihood, food, education, medical services, access to transit, increasing domestic violence, and evictions”. People living in inadequate settlements and slums face poorly constructed homes, lack of services and overcrowded conditions.

David Adamson, Development Manager at Compass Housing Services, reminded participants that historically, inadequate housing is strongly correlated with poor health. For instance, homelessness in the developed world means a huge drop in life expectancy for people with associated co-morbidity through lower mental and physical health. Inadequate housing in least developed countries is related to poor indoor air quality and temperature control, water borne diseases, parasite and malarial prevalence. In the current COVID-19 crisis, vulnerability has increased for poorly homed families and the homeless have become the most fragile, considered as potential vectors of the disease. This has prompted an instant response from some governments that have provided accommodations to people without homes.

Another important vulnerable group was brought to the debate through Katherine Kline from the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. She described how

governments have to deal with a growing ageing population that have been invisible in many countries since the beginning of the pandemic. Many people who are living under institutional care, more often by choice as they age, are victim of neglect and abuse, living in overcrowded nursing homes and senior residences lacking protective gears and staffed with underpaid workers. ‘However, we have little data on the conditions on these institutions’ she said. This is an area of knowledge that we miss and that needs to improve. She also drew the attention of participants to those living in refugee camps and prisons which are other forms of institutional ‘homes’ where conditions are inadequate. 

Lorena Zarate, President of the Habitat International Coalition also reminded participants that the COVID-19 pandemic is a new crisis amplifying the pre-existing inequalities in terms of housing. ‘This COVID-19 crisis is a human right crisis’ she said. ‘In the last three decades, housing has been increasingly treated as a commodity in most contexts’. Since 2008, homelessness has consistently increased and the housing crisis has intensified. The current pandemic reveals the limitations of current housing policies.  Alternative models need to be explored starting with auto-construction, cooperative and other collaborative models.

On the way forward, Giulia Lavagna, Housing Expert at UN-Habitat outlined the immediate short-term actions that should focus on containing the spread of infection, as well as the longer term interventions that call for a shift towards a human right-based approach to housing. Policies need to be revisited to address shortages through inclusive housing development and alternative models to increase the social housing stock. It is also essential to recognise housing provision as a shared responsibility of different actors. The private sector is a key provider of housing and should be part of the response to provide sustained affordable housing solutions for all.

Participants agreed that an effective response to the pandemic will rely on ensuring adequate, affordable, accessible and stable housing during and after the crisis, including household and community-based WASH initiatives. Currently, many civil society organizations are advocating for moratorium on forced evictions, freezing rents, delaying mortgage payments and micro loans. Also, many have requested governments to declare construction and housing services as essential in order to continue during the crisis, support household-driven home improvements and community-based housing production and neighborhood physical improvement. One essential action is also to convene key public and private sector stakeholders on the recovery of housing markets and future affordability, as well as future investments in adequate housing as a driver of health outcomes and economic recovery.

Ultimately, during the recovery from the pandemic, all stakeholders need to establish clear strategies towards building a more secure urban future by putting housing at the center of policies. In particular, they need to ensure access to adequate, affordable housing, promote the right to secure tenure and an equitable access to land for shelter, foster resilient and responsive communities for planning and implementation.

A total of nine Urban Thinkers Campuses on COVID-19 will be held online in May to discuss current actions on the ground in different contexts, analyze good practices and solutions, extract lessons from the crisis and make recommendations for building resilience. For more information and to register go to

Article by Christine Auclair, UN-Habitat

Photo Credits: Bangladesh, Dhaka, BRAC, Duaripara community, ©UN-Habitat-Kirsten Milhahn