To build resilient cities, we must treat substandard housing as a life-or-death emergency

Author(s) Triveño Luis, Urban Development Specialist, World Bank Group
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The scene is as familiar as it is tragic: A devastating hurricane or earthquake strikes a populated area in a poor country, inflicting a high number of casualties, overwhelming the resources and capacity of rescue teams and hospital emergency rooms. First responders must resort to “triage” – the medical strategy of maximizing the efficient use of existing resources to save lives, while minimizing the number of deaths. 

But if governments could apply triage to substandard housing, medical triage would be a much less frequent occurrence – because in the developing world, it is mainly housing that kills people, not disasters.

Worldwide, most injuries and deaths from natural disasters are a result of substandard housing. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, one-third of the population – 200 million people – lives in informal settlements, which are densely packed with deadly housing units. In 2010, when the 7.0-magnitude Haiti earthquake killed 260,000 people, 70% of damages were related to housing. Similarly, it’s estimated that if an 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit Peru, 80% of the economic losses would be to housing.

But the story in rich countries is different. In the past 10 years, high-income countries experienced 47% of disasters worldwide, but accounted for only 7% of fatalities.

This is a problem with a known solution: Resilient cities require resilient housing. At the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, 5,000 practitioners and policymakers from academia, civil society, and the private sector have met to discuss just how we can boost the resilience of urban areas.

To reduce the impacts of disasters on the poorest and most vulnerable, and build their resilience, it is essential that governments must turn their attention to substandard housing, and launch programs to prevent housing from causing unnecessary injuries, deaths, and economic misery.

Housing funds are already scarce, which is why we propose taking a page from medical manuals by adopting a triage strategy for housing risk reduction – along the lines of what was originally proposed in Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country, consisting of three steps:

First, identify housing where risk cannot be reduced and where intervention will certainly save lives.

Houses located in high-risk areas, such as on a fault or in landslide areas, must be declared uninhabitable and the residents resettled. Peru recently learned this lesson in the most painful way when landslides and floods destroyed homes in areas where risk could not have been mitigated, killing many, and impacting over one million people.

Second, identify housing with structural risks that can be repaired.

Like emergency responders’ expertise in knowing which victims need immediate care, housing engineers can eyeball a row of informal housing and know in a few minutes which units have structural problems. For example, a wood house in the U.S. or Japan may not be bolted down, not have enough plywood in critical areas, and have a brick chimney likely to collapse on the house in an earthquake. Addressing these three risks alone can make once-deadly structure safe enough that even insurance companies will offer coverage.

Finally, identify the housing units that are moderate to high structural risk.

The good news is that the large majority of substandard housing units in the developing world are found in areas where risk can be mitigated. These homes have been built with safe materials and respectable construction methods. Using housing triage – which has low up-front costs – to identify and retrofit these houses can save lives.

However, triage alone will not make cities more resilient. Even the best-intentioned government housing policy, equipped with this cost-effective triage policy, needs the support of engineering, construction, and insurance. Any resilient housing policy will have to include:

  1. Low-cost, and eventually DIY, housing retrofitting solutions;
  2. Improved subsidies for housing retrofitting;
  3. Incentives for homeowners willing to invest in improving the physical security of their homes; and
  4. Affordable loans and insurance products to make houses safer and keep them that way.

Every year, homeowners are investing up to 30 times more in home improvements than governments spend on housing programs. And yet, money spent on retrofitting housing is an investment that will bring major political, social, and economic returns.

Governments, with the support of the World Bank, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), and partners like Save the Children are already investing in retrofitting the schools where children spend only one-third of their time. Why not invest on making the structures safer where children spend two-thirds of their time?

Insurance companies, too, could earn substantial profits by offering products aimed at homeowners who have achieved an acceptable standard of structural safety.

Structural housing retrofitting is a win-win proposition for everyone involved.

This post was co-authored with Peter Yanev, Senior Technical Consultant, Natural Hazards Management, at the World Bank.

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Luis Triveño is an Urban Development Specialist at the World Bank. He has led and executed social, urban and rural development reform projects in over 25 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Between 2012 and 2015, he was Chief Executive Officer of Proexpansion, a think-tank and reform-oriented organization based in Lima, Peru. Between 2005 and 2012, he served as Research Economist, Chief Economist, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Executive Officer of Hernando de Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

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