Maniraj, a paper vendor on Velachery Main Road, had a tough time last year when he had to vacate his house. Until then he was paying Rs. 1,200 for a 350 sq.ft dwelling unit near Velachery Lake. The landlord raised the rent to Rs.6,000 and Maniraj and his family of four could not afford it. After great difficulty, he found a 200-sq.ft tenement in one of the labyrinthine lanes. “I now pay Rs. 4,500 per month, which includes electricity charges. This is more than what I spend on food every month,” he lamented.

The condition of my colleague is better, but not much toz rejoice. Two years ago, after a long search, she bought an apartment 20 km away from the city. Anything closer was pricy. As a result, she spends three hours every day to commute between home and office.

With apartments inside the city priced between Rs.10, 000 to 15, 000 per sq. ft, and rentals spiraling, it looks only the gentry can live within the city. The middle class must scurry to the suburbs and the poor must slip into the crevices in between.

The mounting complaint is why does Chennai not produce affordable housing?

The government authorities shrug it off and say “it is a market phenomenon.” On the other hand, private players feel that they cannot solve social problems. “It cannot be defined,” the skeptics argue.

Shifting blame and leaving people in the lurch cannot continue. Providing affordable housing is an obligation of the state and it has to find ways to solve it.

Is affordability difficult to define?

After a careful study, the government of India has defined affordability as follows: for lower income group, apartment should not exceed four times the household gross annual income. For the middle-income group, the prices should not exceed five times the gross annual income.

Similarly, the rent should not exceed 30 per cent of the monthly salary for the lower income group. For the middle income, it should not exceed 40 per cent.

In other words, for a middle-income family, which earns Rs. 30,000 a month, any apartment costing more than Rs.18 lakh is unaffordable. At current market prices, this income can only fetch an apartment that is less than 450 sq. ft. The city does not offer many such small-sized apartments.

The condition of the poor is worse. To many who earn about Rs.10, 000 a month, apartments priced more than Rs. 5 lakh is unaffordable, and there is no housing project in the city that takes care of this group.

What is the solution?

Multiple strategies are required. Existing efforts such as reserving 10 per cent of the developed land for affordable housing have not delivered. Apart from reviewing them, new and innovative approaches are needed.

One model that is worth looking at is the concept of Community Land Trust (CLT). In CLTs, a not-for-profit organisation builds houses on subsidized land and gives them at a price much below the prevailing market rate. The condition is that when the buyer resells the apartment, the price has to be below the market rate prevailing then. This ensures that the subsidies are passed on to the subsequent buyers and the prices are kept at affordable levels for a longer period.

This model can be tweaked to suit local conditions. The State government instead of mindlessly monetising its land, can sell or allocate them to cooperatives at subsidised prices to build affordable housing on CLT model.

Successful adoption of this model in many cities across the world should convince skeptics. For example, in Cooper Square land trust project in Manhattan, the rentals are below 30 per cent of the tenant’s monthly income, while in the surrounding area people spend 50 per cent of their salary on rent.

Cities committed to the welfare of its citizens have done better in addressing the housing problem. Chennai has not done enough and it should.