Global Advocacy for Local Housing Solutions: A Conversation with Cerin Kizhakkethottam, UN-Habitat

Build Change’s Director of Global Advocacy Monica Schroeder spoke with Cerin Kizhakkethottam, Program Management Officer at UN-Habitat about the legal enabling frameworks for Latin America and the role of global advocacy initiatives in driving climate resilient housing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Monica Schroeder: Well, thank you for joining us today for Resilient Housing Across the Americas, I’m Monica Schroeder, I’m  Build Change’s Director of Global Advocacy. And I’m here with Cerin Kizhakkethottam I think I messed that [pronunciation] up, but… …You should  correct me in a moment… from UN-Habitat and I’m thrilled to have her today here for this conversation. 

So Cerin, I wanted to start out just by asking a bit about some of UN-Habitat’s initiatives and  priorities, especially around housing. Could you tell us a little bit about that? 

Cerin Kizhakkethottam: Oh, yeah. Thank you very much for having me, And it’s a great opportunity to also share knowledge, receive a lot of knowledge and being part of that web series is really cool. 

UN-Habitat recently had its second session of the UN-Habitat Assembly, where we have approved two very major resolutions for the housing and climate resilience sector. 

And one is the…I want to read it out correctly, Affordable Housing for All, and then the other one is Enhancing the Inter-linkage between Urbanization and Climate Change Resilience. And both of them are  actually going quite hand-in-hand. So the Affordable Housing for All, that looks at promoting or recalling that we actually have the housing right in the Universal Declaration 1948, it’s been promoted as a human right, but since then it has not been well taken up as a human right. And so it’s recalling that actually adequate housing is a human right. 

So, UN-Habitat has been given a reestablished mandate by the member states to really refocus on that housing and resilience sector again. And I found that really encouraging and the times where we have a housing deficit of 1.6 billion of inadequate housing for 1.6 billion people, and I have to say that renewed human rights for adequate housing gives us also kind of direction for a mandate to create a platform, and that platform looks currently at collecting consolidating compiling housing data so that we have actually enough evidence and information to understand the gaps and actually enough evidence and information to do responsive action to what is actually needed. 

Because I think when we consider housing is like a crisis, it always sounds like it just  happened a few years ago, but if you look into the history, it’s actually a systemic failure over the past 30 years not recognizing urbanization trends, not recognizing demands, not recognizing maybe also the way demographics change that we move from houses with a lot of people in them to  houses in the majority with only two people on them, so there’s a lot that has changed in the past, which is of course difficult to always adapt into, like housing policy swiftly and not all legal means are as flexible to react to such urbanization, housing trends. But yeah, so I’m really looking forward to kind of pick up that mandate within UN-Habitat and kind of  transform it then into like the new reality that we just have to face. 

MS: That’s so interesting. And I think something that, you know, Latin America in particular is advanced in, I think compared to the rest of the world is that in so many of the countries in Latin America, adequate or decent housing is recognized as a constitutional right, which is missing from a lot of the legal frameworks of a lot of the other countries, especially, you know, the countries where we’re working. And so I think that that’s an important mandate to bring up and to elevate to a global level…very interesting. 

So with this global mandate that you have, how do you balance some of the priorities of localization, of inclusion of vulnerable populations alongside this global advocacy agenda, this global implementation need? 

CK: It is super difficult because yes, there are so many crises at the same time and you want to respond to all of them, while you have really limited resources or, you know, capacities and so on. But on the other side, because those crises are actually interconnected and they kind of all cross through cities, you need to go with a  systemic approach for multiple crises. 

So in terms of  prioritization, I think it is a matter of combining different issues and finding solutions as systemic for multiple reasons or for multiple causes. So if I think, for example, of the housing deficit, but then also on the other side, IPCC mentioned in their last report, the the Working Group II report under the Sixth Assessment cycle that we have 3.3 to 3.6 billion people highly vulnerable to climate change. And then we have, based on different data, 1 billion people living in informal settlements. 

So if I overlap those different vulnerabilities, you quickly realize that actually where I need to prioritize any action is where the vulnerabilities are the highest – is it housing vulnerabilities? Is it  climate vulnerabilities, or any other social crisis, all urban pressure issues that are causing certain vulnerabilities? And if that is my focus, then the reprioritization helps or is it kind of like  redirects where we can focus our limited capacity or limited resources.

One of the flagship programs that UN-Habitat raised under that kind of model is RISE UP, that’s Resilience Settlements for the Urban Poor and it’s basically an effort to redirect large scale investment where the vulnerability is the highest. So for RISE UP, for example, we’ve been able to have established over  the last five years a portfolio fund of 110 million USD from different vertical funds. And with those hundred and 110 million USD for projects globally, we are focusing always interventions based on vulnerability, multilayered vulnerability assessments 

So we understand, then, where there are hotspots of vulnerability because they are  multilayered vulnerabilities of climate, of housing, of urban issues, but also biodiversity degradation and that gives me an idea where I can actually prioritize my efforts. And so it gives an idea of where I can prioritize interventions and hopefully we’re starting with  the ones that are most vulnerable, helps alter cities to become actually less social, more stable place for all, something that starts from the  bottom to be stabilized and then safe. 

And… When I’m listening here to… The title is it’s Climate Change and Social Crisis, And I asked like, what are your social crises? Especially in the region? And a lot of it has to do with like violence and conflict and the feeling of that the social contract between  citizens and governments is kind of broken. This is a bit of a  trust that is broken. We don’t know where this  trajectory is going to in the future. And I think if you start with the  ones that are the most vulnerable and you break that cycle of multigenerational poverty because you give back where, you know, people have suffered the most, where they have to put their own savings on the lines to be resilient to those climate impacts, or other impacts that are faced. If you start with them, I think you can kind of restabilize that trust again. So that’s where I think RISE UP is one of those angles or flagships  that helps us to prioritize. 

MS: So yeah, that’s very helpful. And so we’re here at the LAC Forum on Housing, and I’m curious to know because your role is global, you know, you’re  covering all different regions. What are some of the key lessons that you think are applicable from Latin America that can be taken to a global context when, you know,  we’re talking about housing and climate and in  particular, I know you’re preparing for COP 28. So how is this discussion, this agenda shaping some of the priorities leading up to that?

CK: Yeah, really good question because I feel like I’m still digesting all of the things  that I’ve learned here, and it’s just been such an amazing conference and forum. There have been so many different things that I really loved hearing about from policy interventions, seeing the 15 minutes or 30 minutes, a proximity city concept in life or in practice where you know the  complex and mix of planning, is something that we want for cities to be more inclusive than we have like we’ve heard of, like housing subsidy schemes that are linked with mortgage systems where, you know, you can bring in affordability into the whole housing market. There were really nice, innovative ideas of like how to, for example, reduce the embodied carbon emission in the future infrastructure. 

MS: We actually have a report forthcoming on that. 

CK: Ah! Please share. 

MS: I will. 

CK: Thank you. And I’m excited about all these ideas and I think they need to go on scale, or to scale and, you know, taking some of those ideas here and basically finding out where are they applicable most and the other regions that I work and as you said, I work globally, but my role is to actually connect the different knowledge and and the different innovations and so that we actually can see what is easy to replicate because you create maybe you have the same climate vulnerability or what is contextually easy to scale up because you have like an idea that was already used in one or the other way, but now there’s a new innovation to it. 

So I really look forward to kind of use that – what I’ve learned here  and see, like when the portfolio for climate adaptation, resilience or mitigation, can we reuse it in a way, but also  definitely the network and partnership that is established here is something you can really take into the global level because here people are all very excited about the initiatives like SURGe: The Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation has been launched during COP 27, and we had in a time of I think it was three or four months, we had 180 signatories to that SURGe initiative. And it’s just shows is such a demand that we really need to think of solutions multidisciplinary, multisectoral and multilevel governance and can’t just do it alone, know people here think alike and that’s just the beauty of it, to  connect people that think alike and kind of want to be part of the movement and take that into COP 28 hopefully. 

MS: Oh wonderful! Thank you so much for joining us. What a fascinating conversation. I hope we keep it going. And a special thank you to UHPH for being partners in this series. And until next time.

We understand…where there are hotspots of vulnerability because they are multilayered vulnerabilities of climate, of housing, of urban issues, but also biodiversity degradation and that gives me an idea where I can actually prioritize my efforts.

Read about UN-Habitat’s work in their recent publication, Strategy Paper on Nature-based Solutions to Build Climate Resilience in Informal Areas for more information on their work on climate and housing.

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