“I am going to break into one of those big empty Auroville houses and occupy it.” Ana from Brazil , till recently a swimming instructor in Auroville's swimming pool, La Piscine, is angry. She is one of the many newcomers to Auroville who have no house.
She and her seven year-old daughter are renting now, but they have to leave the place when the guest season begins. “I'm gonna make a big riot in Auroville,” she warns.
There is a serious housing problem in Auroville. Of the 130 newcomers in Auroville, 60 are on a waiting list for a house. The 30 newcomer houses are all full, often with Aurovilians. They are stuck there, because construction seems to be at a complete standstill in Auroville. Ana wants a house, not rooms in a guesthouse, for she wants to be able to receive friends and schoolmates of daughter Jara. Others are facing the same problem. Newcomer Julie from France is one of them. She and her three year-old son Arie also have to vacate soon. “At the moment there are houses available in the villages around Auroville that nobody dares to rent, for it could be a reason for the Entry Group to revoke your newcomer status. What if the Housing Service rents these places and we rent from them? At least for some newcomers the problem can be solved.”
Joseba from the Housing Service is sceptical. “I think that this idea can bring more problems than benefits. It is mentioned in the Housing Policy that people must live in Auroville. And also the visa that has been granted is only for living in Auroville. Relaxing these rules might cause an influx of people from the villages who only want to join Auroville for economic reasons. It will be more difficult to check on the behaviour of the newcomers.”
Do it yourself
The present acute housing problem was on the agenda at a meeting held recently at Auroville's Centre for Scientific Research. A group of fifty, mostly newcomers, Aurovilians, no longer want to wait for the planners in the Town Hall. They have started a co-operative to build low-cost houses themselves, making use of compressed earth blocks. According to Satprem, the executive of the Auroville Earth Institute, it is possible to start building in a few months, once the bricks are ready. Several newcomers have already stopped the work they were doing in Auroville, to make compressed earth blocks instead.
Newcomers and Aurovilians preparing mud bricks for house
construction at the Auroville Earth Institute
“The houses will be twinned or grouped in four, with one or two floors,” explains Satprem. The building costs are estimated at 5.1 lakhs rupees (about € 9,300) for a family house of 95 square metres, excluding infrastructure. The smaller houses will be cheaper. According to Satprem the first 8 houses can be ready before the 40th birthday of Auroville on February 28th, 2008.
“It is likely that there are more people than the 60 on the list who are in need of a house in Auroville,” says Joseba, “but we have no reliable data. All attempts to get the figures have been unsuccessful. People move but do not tell us, or they are still on a waiting list, but already live somewhere else.” Joseba admits that there are empty houses in Auroville that could be used, but many refuse to give information about these or have a vague story about why the house is not occupied. The present Housing Policy has never been implemented. People should tell the Housing Service that their house is empty when they are away for more than six months. The Housing Service will then find somebody to live in that house. But many Aurovilians, who can be away for five years and remain listed, want to control ‘their' house themselves. “Perhaps the topic could be brought to a general meeting. We could also ask via the News and Notes, members of each community to give names of neighbours who leave their houses empty for months or years.”
Why is there a housing problem in Auroville? It turns out the architects, planners and developers have differences in their approach. One approach focuses on developing plans, but the plans are never implemented. The other is more pragmatic, and wants an organic growth for Auroville. Whenever the two orientations cannot reach an agreement, they study more. ‘Paralysis from analysis' is the result. It also reflects the present state of Auroville's collective being and its residents' inability to find a creative and harmonious solutions.
But there are other reasons why the building of new houses have come to a complete standstill. And that is the Aurovilians themselves. Most communities do not want more houses. The residents are comfortable in their apartments or houses. They don't want a spacious environment to turn into the higher density of a city.
There are eight planned extensions of existing communities have not yet begun. And apart from the cooperative project, four new projects are on the drawing table [see box]. There seems to be no valid reason why most of these could not start immediately.
Of these projects, Maitreye is most likely to happen. The plan involves apartments for 250 – 280 people. The first phase of the project is due to start next January, when the masons can begin work. Five models of houses have been designed for Maitreye. The team that is responsible for the design and planning want to keep the costs as low as possible. But to avoid creating a ghetto, they offer more options than the cheapest one. A family house of 100 square metres will be available in the price range of 6 to 10 lakh rupees (about € 11,000-18,000), depending on the finish. An apartment for a single resident (40 sq.m) can be obtained from 3.5 lakh rupees (about € 7,000).
The new Housing Task Force
Now a Housing Task Force has been formed, consisting of members of L'Avenir d'Auroville, the Housing group, a few Auroville Architects, the FAMC and some others. The Task Force meets regularly and tries to speed up the tempo of building. The Satprem group could probably get a plot nearby Vikas and Creativity. Lalit from L'Avenir d'Auroville shows a blueprint: “The Housing Task Force aim to prepare a layout plan for the entire sector 2 of the Residential Zone, which is to house approximately 3500 residents. We have most of the land and better possibilities of connecting to the existing water infrastructure in that area. A detailed development plan is to be prepared for the area between Prayatna and Sailam and guidelines and parameters are to be given for new housing schemes. The 32 houses from Satprem's group can be part of that development.” Once ready, such a development plan could meet the housing demand for years to come.
Another challenge for the Housing Task Force is to think of other means of financing houses, as not everybody has the money that is needed. Sauro from the Task Force explains: “Basically we would like to associate the housing development with a kind of financial pooling that could involve housing projects for up to 300 persons. Based on the experience from abroad of cooperative housing, the idea is to create a common fund for grant contributions from Auroville, some external loans and contributions from house builders. It is a revolving fund. It should have the advantage of providing a personalized scheme to each applicant. It can include deferring the investment and the expenses for the house over a certain number of years or receiving a partial subsidy etc. However it will take some time to prepare a working proposal for such a scheme.”
But many house-seekers need immediate solutions. That is why a group of desperate newcomers asked Aurovilians for help. Invite a newcomer to your house, was the request. Only one Aurovilian offered a room.
Guest-houses to help
Could the many guest-houses in Auroville help out and take a few newcomers for a year or two? For there are 300 registered guest-rooms in Auroville with more than 500 beds. Joseba thinks this might be an option. “The Housing Service has already started talks with the Auroville guest-houses. They will be asked to accommodate fewer guests in the coming season and instead offer rooms or units to newcomers in need. A group of guesthouses have shown interest in this proposal and want to co-operate. We are discussing the conditions and we have requested that the maximum charge should not exceed 5000 rupees per month.”
Recently L'Avenir d'Auroville, the FAMC and the Housing Service issued a public declaration proposing to build 200 – 250 houses each year. There is goodwill, but can this unblock the situation? Lalit is hopeful: “If all the involved people and groups cooperate with a larger vision and actively focus on meeting the housing demand, there is a good possibility that we can create far more accommodation in the years to come.