Analyzing the Housing Deficit

Analyzing the Housing Deficit

By Carlos Arenas

It is not only self-evident, but very well known that there is a huge housing deficit in Nicaragua1. Exactly how big is that deficit? Unfortunately, that is not a simple question, considering that another challenge of the housing deficit is the lack of reliable studies on housing conditions in Nicaragua.

A widespread calculation of the housing deficit in Nicaragua estimated those numbers in between 400,000 and 500,000 units. Those numbers are quoted extensively, but in the end it is not clear who made that calculation in the first place, and how. The release of the data of the 2005 Census, in October of 2006, is a good opportunity to try to make a more reliable calculation, or at least to start a discussion on how the housing deficit could be calculated. Measuring the housing deficit in Nicaragua is not an academic curiosity, but a fundamental issue that is closely related to social policy issues.
It is important to keep in mind that there has been some criticism in Nicaragua about the findings in the 2005 Census made by the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC). The main complaint is that the Census found less people than was previously projected by INEC. It could be true that the Census undercounted the Nicaraguan population. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, the Census is still our best and most reliable source of data on many issues related to population and housing in Nicaragua.

My own criticism of the Census data on housing has to do with its accuracy in the way each type of shelter is classified by INEC. For instance, the 2005 Census divides shelters in seven different types: house2, quinta3, apartment, room in a cuarteria4, rancho or choza5, improvised dwelling6, and a shop used as shelter. However, even if the different types are accurately defined, the process of classifying a shelter in one of those categories is totally subjective. In fact, the Census questionnaire asked the person collecting the data to mark “by observing” what type of shelter it was. Shelters are not classified afterward based on the data collected regarding the different elements of the shelter. As a result, the 2005 Census found that there are three main types of shelters, totaling 98.6%. According to the Census there are 914,313 houses (93% of total shelters), 32,523 ranchos or chozas (3.3%), and 22,298 improvised dwellings (2.3%).
If we use those findings to calculate the housing deficit in Nicaragua, the wrong conclusion could be that everything below the category of house, such as rancho or choza, are the only shelters that should be replaced. Under this criteria only 54,821 shelters will be considered as inadequate.

How can we measure the housing deficit?
To better calculate the housing deficit in Nicaragua I propose using the following two main indicators: 1) the number of families who live in another’s family’s shelter and 2) the conditions of the shelter. Under these two basic criteria, we could make a conservative estimate showing that in Nicaragua at least 315,817 units, equivalent to 32% of the total are in need of replacement. Additionally, there are at least 191,581 shelters that should be improved. Let me elaborate on these two criteria.

1) Number of families who live in another family’s shelter. According to the 2005 Census, there are at least 62,609 families sharing their small space with other families, meaning that at least 313,045 people, or 6.1% of the population living under such conditions.

2) Conditions of the shelter: To properly calculate how many shelters are in need of replacement or improvement it is necessary to take into account the quality of materials in walls, roof and floor in any given shelter.

a. Shelters in need of replacement: I propose to group four types of shelters which should be replaced by a new unit, as they are graded as dilapidated or unsound: 1) shelters with recycled materials used as walls; 2) shelters with bamboo or palm fronds used as walls; 3) shelters with zinc used as walls; 4) shelters which use wood as the predominant material in their walls, but at the same time have dirt floor (see above photo).

A common element of these four shelter types is that their structure is very precarious and cannot be counted on to maintain structural integrity. Under this criteria, around 253,208 shelters, or 26% of the shelters in Nicaragua should be replaced by a new one (Table No. 1). There are three departments where more than half of their shelters are in very poor conditions. Those departments are Rio San Juan (54.4%), RAAS (53.7%) and Jinotega (50.5%). Additionally, there are four other departments over the average: RAAN (42.5%), Matagalpa (38.7%), Boaco (36.6%) and Chontales (32.7%).

b. Shelters that need to be improved: In addition to the shelters which are very precarious and require replacement, there are a significant number of shelters with walls constructed with solid materials, but that still need to be improved to be consider an adequate house. One of the most common deficiencies is the lack of an adequate floor. In fact, there are at least 191,581 houses built with solid materials that have a dirt floor.

What has been done to reduce the housing deficit?
Housing is one of the most complex social issues to deal with. It seems to me that it is not only a problem of lack of resources, but also expertise and knowledge of the field. A very com-mon mistake in planning a housing policy in developing countries is not taking into account the financial and institutional capacity needed to attack the housing deficit. Considering that the housing deficit in Nicaragua is huge, politicians tend to promise to build very high numbers of housing units, but without any previous analysis of funding resources and institutional capacity. During the 2001 presidential campaign, Enrique Bolaños promised to build 150,000 houses. During his five years in office only a total of 11,480 houses were built or improved with state funds, an average of 2,300 houses per year7.

Daniel Ortega has promised to build 200,000 new houses during his five year term, meaning that he will have to build 40,000 new houses every year, or 37,700 more than the annual average under the Bolaños Government. Obviously, it is an extremely ambitious goal, but Ortega has a lot of expectations in Venezuela and Iran’s support in building these new houses. The amount of the resources provided by these political allies is not clear yet, but even if we assume that funding will not be a constraint, the implementation of a massive housing program is not only an issue of funding but especially of institutional capacity. During our last study tour in January 2007, WCCN’s delegation met with the new authorities in charge of the governmental housing agency INVUR-FOSOVI. We learned from them that they do not have previous experience on housing issues.

One should not feel discouraged by the size of the task and the challenges. It is important to realize that every contribution that helps to improve housing conditions in Nicaragua, regardless of the scale, is meaningful. It is time to deliver the promise made by the state to the Nicaraguan people in their Constitution. The right to adequate housing has been formally recognized in the Nicaraguan Constitution for twenty years. Indeed, Article 64 of the Constitution of 1987 states: “Nicaraguans have the right to dignified housing, spacious and safe, which guarantees the privacy of the family”. It is time to make this happen for all Nicaraguans.

1 In this article I understand “housing deficit” as the number of shelters which do not have adequate conditions to be habitable, plus the number of housing units that need to be build to shelter all families who currently lack one and, as a result, share a shelter with another household in over crowded conditions.
2 INEC defines a house as “a place of habitation which is of solid construction, built for permanent inhabitation.”
3 INEC defines a “quinta”, as “a place of habitation which is of solid construction, built for permanent inhabitation and generally located on the outskirts of a city or in a rural area.”
4 “Cuarteria” is not defined by INEC, but it is commonly known in Nicaragua as a house divided by rooms, where a different family lives in each room.
5 INEC defines “rancho” or “choza”, as “any place of habitation built of rustic materials of little durability and generally having a roof of palm fronds, straw, etc.”
6 INEC defines “improvised dwelling”, as “a place of habitation constructed with waste materials such as cardboard, pieces of tin-plate, plastics and assorted pieces of wood, etc. This category includes: mobile homes, boats, caravans, etc.”
7 The exact numbers were 643 houses in 2003; 4,402 in 2004; 4,298 in 2003 and 2,137 until September 2006. INVUR-FOSOVI website.