Evolution of Housing in Sri Lanka

Shelter is a fundamental human right and housing is a people process and also process of building the human civilization. From prehistoric era, humans looked for shelter to protect against inclement weather conditions such as sun light, rain and wind and also to shield against animals. They were at the beginning under a tree, in a cave or a hollow of a tree and started building housing associated with agricultural practices and its production process. With the gradual development of agriculture along water ways, this process evolved itself into human settlements.

Though any evidence on the habitants of ordinary people could not be found in archeological findings of historical Sri Lanka, the massive constructions of stupendous stupas and dagabas, palaces of kings and ruins of towns as well as tanks are a mute testimony that ancient Sinhalese were a great nation that had mastered the art of construction and human settlement planning. Their construction methods were in harmony with natural environment and their housing was closely tied to their simplistic lifestyle. In the ancient village, the house was an outcome of a collective effort of the family and in the feudal society it was a reflection of one social strata of the society.


State intervention in housing

The housing process of Sri Lanka which remained very mush as a responsibility and the activity of the individual family started undergoing changing with challenges and problems of colonization induced market economy, urbanization, and changes in economic environment. The Housing and Town improvement ordinance introduced by colonial rulers in 1915 with the intention of guiding urban local authorities to regulate and plan the building carried out development activities can be termed as the first state intervention in housing.

During the era of state council introduced under the Donoughmore Constitution in 1931, the massive irrigation schemes and colonization schemes established to counter the problems precipitated by population growth can be considered as the beginning of government interventions in housing and settlement development.

Factors such as the sharp increase in building material prices and the urban housing rentals in Second World War period resulted in direct intervention of the government in the housing sector. The Rent Restriction Ordinance passed in 1942 was the first step in this direction. Through the Town and Country Planning Ordinance introduced in 1946 and the Special Areas (Colombo) Development Ordinance in 1947, programs for redevelopment of slum areas and housing schemes were launched by local government authorities with grants provided by the government.

Housing in Independent Sri Lanka

The recommendations of the first housing sub-committee in post independent Sri Lanka appointed in 1952 resulted in a gradual increase in the state intervention in the housing development sector. Until then the intervention of the government in the housing sector was confined to just rental housing acts and the government having understood the impact of this act on the process of erecting new houses, made its presence by encouraging the business community, cooperatives and building construction societies to take up residential constructions and also established a Housing Loan Fund and to grant loans for private housing and formed institutions such as the Housing Loan Board to manage the affairs of the fund. This created an interest in the private sector to construct houses for upper middle class and other similar groups and the government too adopted a policy committing itself more to address the housing requirements of the working class.

On the recommendations of the above subcommittee, the establishment of a separate ministry for the subject of housing in 1953 and the establishment of the National Housing Department under the National Housing Act No. 37 of 1954 with the objective of optimally using basic factors of housing such as the capital, land, labour and raw materials through the private sector for national level housing development with the support of the local government authorities and the people and the appointment of a Commissioner for national housing to execute this task at the national level are important landmarks of government interventions in the housing sector of Sri Lanka.

Subsequently amendments too were brought to the Rent Restriction Act and a National Housing Fund was established and its administration was handed over to the Commissioner for National Housing. With the objective of expanding the Housing Loan Board, wider powers were vested with the Commissioner for National Housing and the task of expanding the housing loan fund inclusive of overseeing the construction societies, cooperative societies and other institutions linked to housing and issuance of loans for individuals too was assigned to him.

The Report on Rural and Urban Housing Requirements

The recommendations of the committee appointed in 1961 by the then government to inquire into and report on the rural and urban housing requirements of Sri Lanka seem have to laid the basic foundation for far reaching changes in the housing sector in the decade of 60s and thereafter. Acquisition of lands for housing schemes and construction of houses in such schemes was among the powers vested with the Commissioner for National Housing and during that period the government was directly involved in the construction of houses for low income groups with the support of the construction agencies of the government. The State Engineering Corporation established in 1962 played a prominent role in this process.

The era which commenced from 1970 was exceptional in the housing sector for several reasons. During this period the leftist leaning government of the time adopted a progressive housing policy giving priority to house ownership and introduced several radical pieces of legislation to ensure this right. Of them the Rent Act No. 7 of 1972 and the Ceiling on Housing Property Law of 1973 which limited the housing ownership were the most prominent. With the passage of the Ceiling on Housing Property Law, a large number of houses in urban areas became the property of the government and subsequently their ownership was transferred to the residents.

Ensuring the rights of tenants

Concurrent to the legislation on ownership of houses, two other important Acts introduced during this period to promote multi-story (flats) housing schemes were the common amenities board Act No 10 of 1973 and the Apartment Ownership Act No. 11 of 1973. For the first time, the Common Amenities Board was established to maintain condominium property.

During this period, the fulfilling of the housing requirements of the people by constructing more and more houses was considered as a major priority of the government and a number of aided self-help housing schemes too were launched. The establishment of the Building Materials Corporation to ensure easy access to building materials at affordable prices also took place during this era.

With the imposing of restrictions on state funding for the housing sector, the more visible presence of the private sector was a salient feature of the housing sector after the decade of 70s. Another development that was witnessed in the later part of the 70s, was the introduction of more legislations pertaining to the housing and related research and training institutions including the National Housing Development Authority Act, Urban Development Authority Act, Housing Rent Amendment Act, and Housing Development Finance Act.

Private Sector Contribution within the Open Economy

The National Housing Development Authority established in 1979 with the aim of implementing housing development as a national program have launched rural housing schemes targeting low income communities and as well as large scale housing schemes with the support of the local and foreign private sector construction entities. Though opportunities had been made available for the community participation in construction processes in selfhelp housing schemes, such communities have only been deemed as the beneficiaries of the projects.

However the Urban Development Authority established in 1978, focusing on emerging trends in the housing sector, introduced policies to upgrade slums and shanties with the participation of households, launched demonstration projects in the aftermath of the first United Nation‟s World Habitat Conference (Habitat I) held in Vancuver-Canada in 1976 adding a new dimension and experience to the housing sector.

At the same time, the Urban Development Authority played an important role by commencing specific urban development and housing projects including urban development planning, development regulation and management. with the failure to meet the rising demand for houses during this period and as a result of the widening gap between supply and demand, a situation has come into being where only the socially influential are able to enjoy housing benefits provided with the direct intervention of the government.

Enabling role of Government in Housing

In early 80s, the government appointed a Task Force to conduct an in-depth study of this situation and to make recommendations. This Task Force identified several basic problems in the government initiated housing program and the prominent among them were the massive relief package that had to be provided due to the high price of a unit and high standard of building standards and the lack of sustainability in the housing programs. Solutions not being found to the housing problems of the target group though there had been an increase in the public administration and management expenditure and not paying sufficient attention to the interests of individuals and communities to build their own houses and settlements too have been identified as issues that need to be addressed.

As a result, a trend where people built 6 houses when the government erected just one increased and the recommendation of the above committee on this development was that the future development policies of the government should move towards that role of enabler who assists people in building their houses. The government abandoning the role of a provider of houses and functioning as a guide, covering a greater number of families through housing programs as well as moving towards housing solutions affordable to beneficiaries and showing interest in covering expenses and in particular encouraging the efforts made to develop housing by the individuals and communities jointly have been recommended as basic components of state housing policies.

Accordingly the transformation of the government‟s role towards an assistant and guide from that of a supplier of houses took place with the beginning of the decade of 1980. With this policy shift, a keen interest was shown in providing community based alternative housing solutions while introducing participatory development methods to fulfill housing requirements through joint approaches and in strengthening grass root level people‟s processes of housing. As a result of the government limiting its financial contribution plus the increase in the demand for housing, the contribution of the community made a greater impact on the participatory local housing development and the process of constructing one‟s own house according to one‟s own ideas and with the collective effort of one‟s family using the initial capital, technical advice and guidance provided by the government became popular in rural areas where there the need for housing is greater. A salient feature of this process was the utilization of this participatory housing development experiences in implementing national programs for the eradication of poverty introduced by the government during the tail end of the decade of 80.

Public and Private Sector Partnership

Subsequently, it evolved into fulfilling housing development responsibility through further collaboration between the public and private sectors and it appears that the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on housing and urban development appointed by the government in 1996 have been a major contributory factor in this regard. The guidelines and operational methodologies which had been recommended under six major areas of operations, i.e. urban development, physical planning, environment human settlement development, water and infrastructure facility development have been used as the basic foundation of today‟s urban development, housing and settlement development.

What had been basically outlined here as guidelines of housing and human settlement development were that the government should continue to play the role of a support, guide and regulate in housing development. However, attention has been paid on the need of the direct government intervention for the housing requirement of affected communities in getting valuable lands of underserved settlements released for urban development purposes and the sustainable housing and human settlement development as declared in the second Habitat conference held in Istanbul in 1996.

Another specialty seen in the housing sector during this period was encouraging the private sector to cater to the housing demand of upper and middle class income groups while the government directly intervening to introduce alternative housing development methodologies and allocate funds in fulfilling the housing needs of the people of special income categories such as urban shanty dwellers, estate workers, fishermen etc. by respective subject ministries. The Colombo Metropolitan Region Structure Plan of 1998, the Colombo city structure plan of 1999 as well as regional structure plans as well as REEL programme, Rental Housing Ownership Amendment Act of 1999, National Housing Development Authority Act of 1999, National Physical Plan of 2001, Rent Amendment Act of 2002 Apartment Ownership Amendment act of 2003, Common Amenities Board Amendment act of 2003 and the Urban Settlement Development Authority Act of 2008 have played as a bulwark towards this end. Though such legislations were introduced, it appears that there had not been much attention on estate and other sectors.

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