How to solve the affordable housing conundrum

Smart entrepreneurs are best placed to solve the affordable housing crisis. But they need the government’s support

Indrajit Gupta

[By mastersenaiper under Creative Commons]

It remains a peculiar conundrum. India needs 5 million affordable homes every year. And, the supply is not even 500,000 homes a year.

Given the sheer unmet demand, India presents the largest, multi-billion affordable housing opportunity in the world. You would assume that there ought to be a stampede of big developers, established corporate houses, and some of the country’s canniest entrepreneurs to grab the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Yet surprisingly, the landscape is littered with failed attempts—and a visible lack of ambition. So what’s prevented India’s mega corporate houses, the Tata group and the Mahindra Group, or former banker-turned-entrepreneur Jaithirth Rao’s Value and Budget Housing Corporation (VBHC) from coming up with the goods? And, with 78 million homeless Indians, why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand Housing for All plan unlikely to even come close to achieving its stated goal by 2022?

Based on my conversations with various stakeholders, it appears that the affordable housing opportunity has proven to be one more of the many “wicked problems” that afflict India. At least three countries—China, Mexico, and Thailand—have attempted to solve the problem of affordable housing at scale. In India, till date, while there have been a few courageous attempts, there is still no large-scale business model in place.

Here are the many hypotheses on the state of play:

One, most of the large developers are focused on building fancy gated enclaves for the rich and the upper middle class, and couldn’t be bothered with the modest 15% rate of return that low-cost housing provides.

Two, India has many micro-markets in real estate. Even within a locality, customer preferences could vary widely. Evolving a standardised product can prove to be a disaster.

Gauging the exact nature of the demand has proven to be tricky.

Three, managing the marketing and sales effort in a low-margin, high-volume sector, without any automation, makes it doubly challenging.

Four, it hasn’t helped that the tenor of government policy has, for most part, been misdirected. For instance, offering subsidies to low-income consumers simply makes no sense. After all, the problem isn’t around demand generation, but about ensuring that the supply side is fixed.

Five, there are 20,000-odd local, unknown entrepreneurs, who operate on the fringes of the affordable housing market, catering to this demand for low-cost housing. Collectively, they account for almost 90% of the supply of affordable homes a year. They have two of the three key success factors required for this business: The frugal mindset and an ability to manage the local environment. What they don’t have is the ability to source pools of low-cost capital and a strong governance framework.

While large conglomerates such as Tata Housing or even Mahindra don’t have capital constraints, they seem to lack the frugal mindset needed to succeed. That’s not entirely surprising. I remember a conversation with the redoubtable Dr CK Prahalad, where he narrated just how difficult it was for him to work with the Indian Hotels team to design and build Ginger, their budget hotel brand. He blamed it on the overhang of being luxury hotel owners.

By all accounts, selling dream homes to lower middle class Indians has proven to be a steep learning curve for Indian conglomerates. Industry insiders say that many of the early projects—whether it was Tata Housing’s affordable housing project in Bhoisar, on the outskirts of Mumbai, or Mahindra Lifespace Developers’ project in Chennai—turned out to be damp squib. Mistakes range from offering a standard product across different markets, using smart, English speaking sales people attired in ties, without enough empathy for this segment of the market, and not fully understanding the impact of inevitable delays in approval on the economics of the business.

Sujay Kalele, the former chief executive of Pune-based developer Kolte-Patil, says their early attempts to build low-income housing, cheek-by-jowl with middle and high-income housing in their township projects turned out to be a disaster. Meeting the aspirations of the new owners of the low-income housing wasn’t easy. They would keep comparing their amenities with that of the middle class housing and upper income housing projects, says Kalele. The troubles didn’t end there. Once when water supply to the complex was disrupted, the residents ended up staging a dharna outside the home of the founder and chairman in Pune, oblivious of the fact that it wasn’t the responsibility of the developer to provide regular water supply.

Kalele agrees that in the last five-six years, the market has shown signs of maturing. But as this news report about realty consultant Anarock’s recent report shows, given the sheer unfavourable economics in the ‘less than Rs 20 lakh’ segment, private players seem to have less focus on this sub-segment.

So what can India do to solve this challenge? Should it continue waiting for Big Business to step up and fill the void? Should it funnel more low-cost capital by making affordable housing a part of the priority-sector loans? Should it encourage market-based solutions to emerge, where new platforms seek to serve the small, unbranded real estate entrepreneurs and help them scale?

Of this, the last bit is perhaps the most interesting. I recently met Rajesh Krishnan, the Wharton-educated banker-turned-founder of Brickeagle, which calls itself an affordable housing champion. Their attempt is two-fold. One, to cherry-pick the smart local real estate entrepreneurs and provide them with access to low-cost capital, sourced from impact investors, and the attendant transparency and governance standards. And two, stitch together a supporting ecosystem of service providers in the low-cost housing value chain, by investing and incubating in firms in areas such as low-cost construction technology, interior design, sales back office, etc. that help the portfolio firms handle the inherent scale and complexity.

Brickeagle’s attempt to build its own ecosystem for affordable housing is commendable. But in the end, unless the government approval process is streamlined, incessant delays can play havoc with margins. There is need for greater transparency and governance in public-private partnerships so that it helps avoid the same mistakes that have recently come to the surface in Mexico many years later, thanks partly to a major The Los Angeles Times investigation. There, starting way back in 2001, the government had embarked on an equally ambitious housing-for-all agenda—but eventually lost the script, resulting in social and financial catastrophe.

India needs to urgently solve its affordable housing crisis. And, its smart entrepreneurs are best placed to solve it, if the government supports them, instead of engaging with big builders, who are focussed entirely on premium housing.

(A shorter version of this column was first published in Business Standard.)

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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