During the 5th LAC Forum on Housing and Habitat, Build Change’s Manuela Pinilla sat down with Diego Aulestia, Chief of the Human Settlements Unit at the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL) about data, housing policy, and the regional trends in housing resilience.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Manuela Pinilla: We are continuing our Resilient Housing Across the Americas” web series. I am reporting from the Fifth Regional Housing and Habitat Forum for Latin America and the Caribbean. I am here with Diego Aulestia, the head of the Human Settlements Department of the Economic Commission Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as CEPAL. Thank you very much, Diego, for joining us.
Diego Aulestia: No, thank you for inviting me.
MP: The first question I would like to ask you is: how is CEPAL dealing with the region’s housing ecosystem, and what are its priorities and objectives?
DA: As a specialized agency of the United Nations that supports the region’s development, CEPAL has three objectives: to facilitate the exchange of experiences between countries at all levels, including the public and private sectors; to identify trends; and, most importantly, to help produce statistics.
We accomplish this in various ways and, of course, through research and public policy support. In this context, housing and habitat development are fundamental elements of sustainable development.
Indeed, we consider the work of the Department of Human Settlements and CEPAL’s housing initiatives essential to bridging gaps. We recognize housing not only as a human right but also for its spin-off benefits and opportunities. For example, we study the economic impact of building and improving housing, its role in social inclusion, the creation of land for housing, and financing aspects. All of these multi-faceted elements feed into our technical assistance to national and local governments and our research.
MP: Excellent. We recognize that the housing problem in our region can be deconstructed into two complementary parts: the quantitative deficit (the households that need housing), and many of them have inadequate housing.
In this context, how does CEPAL see the problem of existing houses needing improvement, which do not have adequate sanitation, are not climate resilient, and are prone to disasters?
DA: For this problem, focusing on the existing urban fabric is essential. Improving urban conditions and habitats is critical. It is not just about addressing quantitative or qualitative deficits but also the overall deficit of a city.
When we talk about housing characteristics, location is critical. A house may be structurally sound, but if it is located far from economic opportunities, recreational facilities, or essential services, especially for female-headed households, it may not meet the basic needs of its residents. Our focus is on the city that is already built.
We have identified elements you should consider: First is the desolation of our inner cities; in Latin America and the Caribbean, many cities face progressive depopulation of central areas. These areas often have good public services and infrastructure, but they are being abandoned for a variety of reasons. Working on these properties with a focus on a circular economy approach that considers the importance of reusing existing buildings is paramount.
CEPAL is currently analyzing the housing vacancy rate. The figures in Latin America are worrying. Apart from the data from some countries that triggered a public debate a few years ago, there are many unoccupied houses. Many of these could be made available with minimal investment.
Addressing these problems requires multi-faceted approaches. While public policy is essential, it is not just about government intervention. It is about guiding and incentivizing private sector participation, including builders, realtors, and financing.
MP: Indeed, more than relying on public investment will be needed to solve the long-standing problem. In my last question, I want to focus on opportunities. Given the gaps in our regional public policy and market systems, what opportunities do you see to address the challenges of existing inadequate housing and urban improvement? because as you said, the housing is not alone, it is part of an environment…
DA: The opportunities are immense when it comes to coordinating public policy that is needed. Most housing investments are made by households – individuals, not corporations. Housing is the most essential asset for many families. So there are significant opportunities for economic activation.
For example, we conducted a study in Ecuador on using wood from private farms in social housing. Our financial modeling showed that this could create 25,000 jobs and significantly increase gross domestic product (GDP).
We need more attention, better coordination, and inter-institutionality in public policy. Governance is critical, involving various stakeholders at the local and national levels. These include manufacturers of building materials, financiers, and, most importantly, land reclamation. Where is the land for new housing? One advantage of improving what we have is that we can create new housing, increasing supply.
MP: Outstanding. Thank you, Diego, for joining us. It was a pleasure.