Finding Solutions to Make Housing More Affordable

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GRC 2023 Global Essay Competition Top 30

By Duc Dung Nguyen

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.2 The agenda outlined the Sustainable Development Goals, one of which was called: “Sustainable Cities and Communities”. The goal is split into multiple targets, one of which is to create affordable housing for all people in the world.2 This is one of the most important targets, since without affordable housing, people either have to live far away from their workplace, meaning long commutes, or be in substandard housing, which can lead to health issues. However, as of now, this aim is still very much distant from reality. As such, for this goal to be achieved, governments and businesses need to work out a solution to achieve this goal.

It is undeniable that cities are the way of the future. The urban population has outnumbered that of the rural since 2008 and it is estimated that two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050. 1. Additionally, the number of urban residents is growing at a rate of about 73 million per year.1 The demand for housing is growing every day; however, many cities are struggling to keep up with this rise in demand. As a result, the number of people dealing with inadequate housing conditions has risen. Around 330 million households either lived in substandard conditions or were forced to spend the majority of their income on housing in 2014. By 2025, that figure is expected to rise to 440 million. Without money to live in proper houses, people are forced to seek out “slums", residential areas where infrastructure is deteriorated and living conditions are poor. For some 100 million people in the world, choices are even more limited, and living on the street is their only option. These statistics underscore the scale of the problem that faces many administrations around the world.

Tackling the affordable housing problem requires intensive efforts from governments around the world. Governments play a key role in this problem since they can shape the real estate landscape by providing incentives, tax cuts, and mortgages to those who need to buy houses. Because of this, governments need to be proactive in the housing business. Another way governments can provide affordable housing is by converting abandoned buildings into apartments that can be used to relieve the pressure of the housing shortage, as was the case with the Harvest Commons in Chicago, USA, where the former Union Park Hotel was converted into 89 single-room occupancy units to accommodate the most vulnerable residents.  This effort managed to give people safe, cheap houses while also preserving its historic structure. This strategy of adapting vacant properties into livable apartments can be implemented in many places since vacant properties are commonplace. For example, in the US, there are 5 abandoned properties for each homeless person. However, this strategy has a couple of drawbacks. First, converting buildings into housing can meet resistance from local residents. They don't want their area to get more traffic, dense or noisy, so they often oppose to these projects. This phenomenon is called “NIMBY", or “not in my back yard". Another challenge for this solution is zoning regulations, which can prevent these projects from getting off the ground in the first place. Administrations would need to reevaluate their zoning law and ensure these projects are compliant with zoning areas.

Besides converting abandoned properties into livable units, governments can also look into alleviating poor living conditions in a short time and open up opportunities for people to live in safe and permanent homes. Many housing programs often put all their focus on building new units that can meet minimum standards for every household. However, this aim can be unrealistic, given budgetary constraints. Additionally, to fulfill minimum standards, these projects often get forced into unfavorable locations, where residents have to live far away from their workplaces. Another pitfall could be that people with little income will be crowded into substandard houses or informal settlements - residential areas where people cannot afford security due to their illegal status- since new housing meeting standards would be too expensive. Because of this, another approach for local administrations is to ensure the proper maintenance of the current housing and invest in infrastructure around the informal settlements so that it could improve the conditions in the short term.

Although the affordable housing problem is difficult to solve, it is not an impossible one. With efforts from both the government and the private sector, the housing affordability gap can be narrowed and residents able to find a place to live. If administrations can implement effective policies, they can take a large step forward toward providing housing for all households.


1. “Sustainable cities and human settlements | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” n.d. Sustainable Development. Accessed December 8, 2023. 2015.

2.“Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” Sustainable Development Goals.

3. Mckinsey Global Institute. 2014. “A blueprint for addressing the global affordable housing challenge.” McKinsey & Company, October, 2014.

4. Office of Policy Development and Research. n.d. “Chicago, Illinois: Historic Green Rehabilitation at Harvest Commons | HUD USER.” HUD User. Accessed December 5, 2023.

5. “Sustainable cities and human settlements | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” n.d. Sustainable Development. Accessed December 8, 2023.

6.      6. Erickson, Amanda, Kriston Capps, and Sarah Holder. 2012. “Why Can't We Just Convert Vacant Buildings Into Housing for the Homeless?”

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