Give me shelter: the global housing crisis

The UN estimates 1.6 billion people are not adequately housed and 96,000 new homes a day need to be built. RICS President Tina Paillet FRICS discusses how members can help to ease the situation


  • Tina Paillet FRICS

30 May 2024

Tina Paillet stood outside brick building

Photography by Michael Leckie

A place to live is one of the most basic human needs. Yet, across the world, it’s a need that isn’t being met for some people - too many people.

According to the UN, around 1.6 billion people – a fifth of humanity – don’t have access to adequate housing and basic services. By 2030, it could be 3 billion people. The crisis has many causes but a primary reason is the imbalance of supply and demand which means that, over the past 10 years, house prices have grown faster than incomes in most OECD countries. The affordability issue has resulted in increased evictions and homelessness on every continent. Addressing the shortage means, the UN says, building some 96,000 homes worldwide each day.

In the face of this challenge, what can our profession do?

Some say part of the answer lies in working to bring existing homes back into use. The OECD estimates that there are 42 million empty homes in the world. In the US, 11.1% of homes are empty, the equivalent of ten years of supply, while by the same measure, Canada has 8.7% or six years’ supply tied up in empty houses. In comparison, the UK has, according to some surveys, less than 1% of its housing stock empty - although that’s still more homes than there are in Manchester.

Even if we were to bring empty properties back into use, we would still need to build more homes. However, respondents to the RICS Construction Monitor regularly cite labour and materials shortages as a constraint on development. Increasing demand for both of these without addressing their supply simply ensures the cost of housing increases.

As a profession we need to start by addressing the shortage of surveyors, but as part of the wider industry we need to look at other skill deficits too. Another possibility could be to embrace new construction techniques. Mvule Gardens in Kilifi, Kenya is one of the world’s largest developments of 3D printed buildings, and it also pioneered a line of soil-stabilised bricks, made locally by relatively unskilled workers. It’s an example of a product that addresses both material and labour issues.

While such construction innovation helps achieve affordability, it needs to be supported by financial innovation. At Mvule, the project included collaborations with credit cooperatives and local banks to ensure accessible finance for buyers. The result is that the homes are affordable for even low-income families.

We may also need to innovate when it comes to the types of homes we build. Many middle-class households find themselves in a situation where they are too well off to be eligible for social housing yet not wealthy enough to buy. This means that they are subject to the full force of open market rents, which in some cases can consume more than 50% of an average income.

To address this, a new class of “intermediate” housing has been created in France. Developments are supported through tax breaks but rental costs are fixed at least 10% below the open market rate. The scheme has worked well and is being extended to more cities. In some cases, schemes also offer priority to key workers in the public sector.

Another approach is to simplify regulation. Austin, Texas, has spent the last decade loosening planning restrictions to tackle the city’s housing costs. The most recent decision, in May, was to reduce the minimum plot size for a single house. The city had already voted to allow duplex and triplex developments where previously it only permitted single-family homes, part of efforts to increase the density of housing. The effect of this and other changes is now being felt by residents, with rents reducing 13% in the last year.

It’s clear that, worldwide, a lot of thought and effort is going into tackling affordability. Our profession, with its involvement across planning, construction and real estate, has the potential to lead this work. Housing affordability is a global challenge; as a global professional group, we should be the ones sharing innovation and best practice across countries and continents, persuading governments of the need for better regulation, and driving uptake of new ideas and techniques.


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