Are Mumbai’s floor area regulations restricting its development? Some lessons from New York City.

Mumbai is undergoing a crisis in optimal allocation of its restricted land resources to improve the health, safety, and quality of life of its 12 million residents. In a paper titled “Mumbai FAR/FSI Conundrum, The perfect storm: the four factors restricting the construction of new floor space in Mumbai”, Alain Bertaud examines the existing housing challenge, and evaluates the adequacy of its policies, regulatory tools and institutional framework to address an increasing disparity in the availability of housing opportunities. (http://alain-bertaud.com/AB_Files/AB_Mumbai_FSI_Conundrum_Revised_sept_2011.pdf)

In 2009, each resident of Mumbai consumed only 48.4 square feet of residential floor area on an average, in sharp contrast to Shanghai which had a factor of 366 square feet for each of its resident in 2010. Mumbai’s 6.6 million inhabitants living in the slums, account for 55 percent of its total population, and bear the maximum burden of this constrained habitable space.

In an effort to control the growth of Mumbai in terms of population density, it has been the practice of the municipal and state authorities to limit development. As evidenced today, the assumption that constraining supply of developable land would discourage growth was misinformed and has only exacerbated the problem of insufficient housing.

Primarily, four factors contribute to the limitations in supply of housing in Mumbai.

Unfavourable Topography

The first factor is Mumbai’s exceptional topography characterized by a narrow peninsula. Almost 66 percent of geographic area within 15.5 miles of Mumbai’s city center is covered with fresh water or sea. Limitations in its geography constrain physical expansion beyond the peninsula, and in turn impact development.

Myopic Land Use Policy

The second factor is Mumbai’s land use policy, which is founded on the principle to control growth by restricting floor space index (FSI). Currently, Mumbai has a blanket FSI of 1.33 in the city and 1.0 FSI in its suburbs with some exceptions. A review of land use practices of other major island metropolises, such as New York, Singapore, Seoul, indicates that their FSI tends to be high around central business districts, and decreases as the distance from CBD increases. With the growth of these cities and improvements in infrastructure and technology, FSI was increased over time to successfully accommodate the needs of its residents and address emerging development patterns. In comparison, land use policies in Mumbai have trended towards lowering FSI. A consequence of this has been difficulty in redevelopment of dilapidating housing stock, which would yield negative profit because of loss of developable floor area.

Government intervention in the land development market has seen limited success. Tools such as trading of development rights (TDR), which allow redistribution of unused FSI across different geographic areas, have been marred by inefficient implementation practices. The municipality in an effort to build its financial assets for infrastructure improvements, facilitated spot zoning changes by allowing a property to purchase TDR for development instead of an area wide strategy. This exercise of municipality’s monopoly power distorted the market in favor of the wealthy, and allocated land in way that tended to be a zero-sum game against the low-income population.

Muddled Property Rights

The third factor is around the muddled property rights regulated by the central and state legislations. The Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act of 1976, although repealed by the Central government in 1999, was maintained by the Government of Maharashtra until 2007. Another misguided legislation in the form of rent control, which is still active, weighs down the private rental market. In addition to creating a contract imbalance in favor of the renters, the legislation has made the redevelopment or sale of rent-controlled buildings unattractive in the private market. Government intervention to rebuild dilapidated rent-controlled buildings through Bombay Building Repairs by increasing FSI attests to the fact that the current regulatory practice to limit FSI in private market is nonviable.

Inadequate Infrastructure

The fourth factor is the underdeveloped primary infrastructure. Mumbai lacks adequate road and public transportation system. The existing rail system is overburdened and often divides neighborhoods caused by an expansive at-grade network. Absence of regional connectors via ring roads, rail, or bus system, creates limitation on physical expansion of the city especially into its upcoming suburbs of Navi Mumbai and Thane.

Lower FSI across the city has only resulted in making developable area scarcer, and disproportionately inflicted the lower income households into smaller living spaces. Mumbai has the opportunity to build on the success stories of other metropolitan cities and re-evaluate its urban policy strategies. It is imperative to debunk the rationale that the interests of the public and private developer cannot be aligned.

 Some Lessons from New York City

Minimum Housing Unit Standards

The most basic feature to ascertain design of a safe and comfortable space is the standard for minimum housing unit size. New York City’s Housing Maintenance Code regulates the minimum area, dimension, and occupancy of the living area in a housing unit. (http://www.housingnyc.com/html/resources/hmc/hmc.html) According to the regulations, a minimum 150 square feet of floor area must be provided as living area, and a minimum of 80 square feet of living area must be allocated per occupant of the housing unit. Regulations such as this ensure that private development meets a minimum standard without discriminating between populations groups for profitability and compromising on the quality of space.

Strategic Floor Area Distribution

In view of the geographical constraints, the available land mass should be used more intensively, efficiently, and opportunities to expand outwards enhanced. With a goal of doubling the existing amount of residential floor area per resident in ten years, the land use policy should consider increasing FSI. Evaluating amount of additional floor area needed for the existing and projected population of the city, identifying geographic areas where densities can be increased, and exploring mechanism for equitably assigning residential areas across income groups could be the guiding steps. A comprehensive strategy that considers area-wide FSI increase compared to the current practice of spot zoning would create a sustainable market-based solution. Creating transparencies in the process of FSI allocation would also build trust and legitimacy among the stakeholders.

As an example, in New York City, floor area ratios (FAR) that establish the amount of development area on a property are determined on a set of principles, which include proximity to central business district, accessibility to public transit, and neighborhood context. The floor area ratio in New York City ranges from 3-12 FAR in core areas and in central business districts to 0.5 to 3 FAR in low-density predominantly single-family residential neighborhoods.

Investments in Infrastructure

Investments in infrastructure improvements should be aligned with the phasing of FSI increase in different areas of the city. Municipality could transfer some burden related to financing infrastructure to the private sector by charging development impact fees.

Such a change need not be at the expense of the historical context of the city. Legislations could protect historic buildings. Additional development could be allowed on existing buildings, which are structurally stable to maintain the current streetscape and neighborhood context.

Opportunities exist for correcting the current direction of land use policies to improve the housing condition of low-income households, leverage FSI to improve basic infrastructure across the city equitably, and bring Mumbai on par with the urban development standards of global cities.

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  1. More on Mumbai Floor Area Regulations | PlaNYourCity - September 19, 2012

    […] The post from September 2nd on Mumbai’s floor area regulations which was largely based on Alain Bertaud’s  (AB) report very succinctly identified major issues that limit supply of housing in Mumbai. A contrasting viewpoint was recently presented by Shirish B. Patel in a national daily newspaper in India. This post complements the earlier post and aims to elaborate on the urban planning issues of Mumbai. […]

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