Opinion: Using Bhutan’s housing system to help people get on the property ladder

Have you heard of Bhutan? It’s a kingdom and country in the Himalayas, in between China and India. The country is famed for measuring its national growth using the Index of Happiness instead of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

It’s also a country with one of the most interesting housing system I have encountered through my extensive travels. And of which many elements can be adopted by Western Governments to help out-priced people enter the housing market.

Most of the Bhutanese detached homes look structurally identical. Each has two internal levels to accommodate multi-generational families; a third external level in the roof where crops are stored; and religious motifs painted on the colourful exterior walls. Refer to the image above.

Bhutanese houses are designed to replicate the square shape of a ‘mandala‘, which is a Buddhist symbol of the universe.

Using homes to foster self-sufficiency

Many Bhutanese families live in comfortable homes. If not, the Government can provide a large detached house, along with a plot of land. A condition of this offer is that these families must learn how to grow and harvest crops on the land – instead of paying rent – so they become self-sufficient.

Farmer co-operative markets, set up by the Government, take place in local communities or by major roads so that families can sell their self-grown produce, and make a small income, without having to bear long distance travelling expenses.

Agriculture is also a mandatory subject in school curriculums.

School leavers are incentivised to return to the countryside through programs which offer their families new and subsidised agricultural machinery equipment, along with higher quality seeds for cultivating.

In many countries, people often migrate to the cities to search for employment. Not only does this create a labour shortage in regional areas, housing in the cities become more expensive and competitive due to over demand.

Bhutan versus the West: Which housing system is better?

If a Bhutanese family sublets the government provided house, or makes a majority of their income from non-agricultural activities, then they risk losing their home.

The ethics of ‘forcing’ under-privileged families into agricultural work in exchange for ‘social housing’ is arguably questionable. Yet, at the same time, families have the choice of whether to accept this offer.

Which housing system is better or worst? Becoming self-sufficient off your land like the people in Bhutan? Or paying subsidised rent in an over-crowded housing estate which may be located in an unsafe urban area as is common practice in the West?

Additionally, who is to say that encouraging a population to become self-sufficient is any less priceless than the billions of dollars spent on mortgage repayments, which primarily benefit banks and governments?

Helping more people become home owners

There is now a common fear of being out-priced from the housing market, especially among the younger generation. People need to believe that housing is an attainable aspiration – and it should be.

There are two key elements of the Bhutanese housing system which Western Governments can adopt, in modified versions, to address housing shortages and affordability, and alleviate the fear.

Fore mostly, governments need to spread out employment opportunities beyond cities, and into regional communities. This gives people more attractive destinations to live and work, instead of competing for housing in a handful of cities.

For example, in countries like Australia, the housing market has become so inflated because most people believe the better jobs – thus, better quality of life – can only be found in the coastal cities, despite the fact that the country is about the size of Western Europe.

More employment opportunities to regional communities will bring in developers and investors who will construct many new homes for people to live in.

Next, many Western Governments need to adopt social housing models which foster self-sufficiency as opposed to making people feel trapped into an endless rent cycle.

Bhutan uses agriculture as a way to help its people become self-sufficient, but self-sufficiency can take form in many ways. For example: providing literary, language and training classes to improve employability; arranging job interviews with local employers, etc.

Though it makes sense to develop housing policies by assessing the needs and customs of own societies, we still need to review ideologies from other cultures to become more innovative when addressing housing issues.

So, how what are your thoughts on this topic? Have you come across other interesting housing systems?

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