Urban sheltering: evidence on rental subsidies and hosting

January 17, 2017
Aaron Opdyke, Phoebe Tabo, and Amy Javernick-Will
Existing housing in Tacloban’s ‘no-dwell zone’

Shelter is more than just four walls and a roof. Ask a family what a shelter provides and their first responses likely won’t be protection from the elements. Instead, you will generally hear about its value in supporting their storefront and livelihood or its function as a social gathering place. While we typically think about shelter as a physical asset, to families, it’s really an economic and social asset.

If we reframe what shelter means to families, we can start to better understand how to provide shelter assistance that can support those using it. Following a disaster, there is a range of options available to deliver shelter assistance. Core shelters, materials, and technical assistance are a few of the commonly used modalities. Two less frequently used options, rental subsidies and hosting support, are often overlooked and largely misunderstood.

Unlike other shelter approaches, rental subsidies and hosting support seek to use, and potentially upgrade, the existing housing stock of a community. These approaches have been used successfully to shelter refugees fleeing conflict as well as in select natural disasters, such as following the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Setchell 2012).

Despite growing best practices on managing hosting support (Vitale and D’Urzo 2012) and rental subsidies (Créac’h 2014), there is little documentation of what becomes of beneficiaries of rental subsidies and hosting support. Do these families transition to more permanent shelter or do they return to vulnerable locations and poor living conditions? Further, what factors impact the success of these modalities?

The Philippine context and Haiyan

Despite past evaluations that noted the missed opportunity for more rental and hosting support in Haiti (Grünewald and Binder 2010), rental subsidies and hosting support represented only a small part of shelter assistance following the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. While the Shelter Cluster tracked temporary shelters, repairs and retrofits, core shelters, and permanent shelters after Haiyan, neither rental subsidies nor hosting support were included in organisational reporting – a byproduct of their limited presence.

In the aftermath of  Haiyan, 7% of households across affected regions were hosting families (REACH 2014). In Eastern Samar province, where the typhoon first made landfall, 30% of households were being hosted (without support). Further, hosting rates were two times higher in urban areas than in rural areas. So was this another missed opportunity?

We looked at two communities where rental subsidies and hosting assistance were provided by two different organisations to investigate the impact of these modalities. Both communities lived in dense urban areas in Tacloban City. Rental subsidies constituted 13% and 18% of total shelter assistance in the communities, respectively, and hosting constituted 11% and 9% of total shelter assistance, respectively. Following the third anniversary of the typhoon we conducted interviews with beneficiaries of both types of assistance, as well as organisation staff, to gain insights into how the shelter assistance had helped or hindered recovery.

Lessons from the field

While the two communities studied were different – one was located in a government designated ‘no-dwell’ zone and the other was not – there were common themes that emerged in contract flexibility, occupancy, and location.

Contract flexibility

The length of rental and hosting assistance had a significant impact on the continued sheltering of families in safe homes. One program required 2-year fixed contracts, the other provided assistance on a monthly basis, typically for 6 to 12 months. The majority of beneficiaries receiving 2-year fixed contracts had abandoned the units before the end of the first year.

As recovery progressed, families needed greater flexibility in their shelter – this was particularly important given the large percent of families being relocated within Tacloban City. Households frequently expressed that 6 to 12 month contracts, for both rental and hosting support, were more effective in meeting their needs.

Occupancy and family ties

Continued occupancy was also affected by whether the property owner was a family member. All of the beneficiaries living in family owned units were still living in the supported shelter at 3 years. This support commonly laid the foundation to evolve into permanent housing arrangements.

In contrast to hosting, rental subsidies were typically issued to those with land tenure conflicts, with the most complex of these being the designated ‘no-dwell’ coastal zones. Those receiving rental assistance weren’t required to rent from family and often were forced into properties outside of their original community. Significantly lower rates of continued occupancy were observed for these households.

Localised economies and social networks

The vast majority of renters and hosted families that returned to unsafe shelter were driven by an inability to assimilate into new economic markets and social networks, even when the location was a few neighborhoods away. In many cases, households forfeited an entire year of pre-paid, safe shelter to return for economic opportunities.

Despite some shortcomings, both modalities were largely successful at achieving safe, short-term sheltering in a complex, urban context. A strength of both rental subsidies and hosting support was the ability of households to leverage organisation assistance. In the case of rental subsidies, families were commonly able to negotiate rental rates down by 25-50%, a product of supporting shelter within familiar markets and social ties. The excess rental savings were put toward livelihood opportunities, educational and medical expenses, and household items.

Recommendations for practice

While urban centers, such as Tacloban City, were the media focus of the Haiyan response, 80% of households within 50 km of the storm path were in rural areas (REACH 2014). The faster recovery speeds observed in rural regions were poorly aligned with rental subsidies and hosting support, explaining the absence of these modalities. Despite the suitability of these approaches in urban contexts, few organisations sought to support these shelter activities.

Shelter support often ignored the role of former sharing agreements and the rental market. Household savings of 25-50% on rental subsidy and hosting cash-transfer programs demonstrate remarkable success of these approaches. Further, these modalities have provided greater mobility for households that face uncertain resettlement by government programs.

Our findings point to two recommendations for organisations seeking to use rental subsidies or hosting: 1) create flexible, 6-12 month contracts that can be renegotiated and 2) leverage family ties whenever possible in selecting units. Organisation staff reflected that month-to-month contracts would be ideal, but require significant staffing resources that may not always be available. It is also important to recognise the hyper-localised nature of economic and social ties when selecting rental subsidies or hosting support as shelter modalities. Used effectively, rental units and hosting provide safe shelter for short periods and can provide valuable upgrades to local housing stock.

Aaron Opdyke (@aaronopdyke) is a PhD Candidate and USAID/OFDA Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Fellow in the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado Boulder. Phoebe Tabo is a Health Project Assistant for the Philippine Red Cross. Amy Javernick-Will (@amyjwill) is an Associate Professor and the Associate Director of Graduate Education and Research for the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado Boulder.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1434791 and the United States Agency for International Development Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance and Habitat for Humanity International under Award No. Award No. AID-OFDA-G-16-00048. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, or Habitat for Humanity International.


Créac’h, Y.-K. (2014). “Evaluating Cash-for-Rent Subsidies.” Shelter Projects 2013-2014, J. Fowler and J. Kennedy, eds., 101–102.

Grünewald, F., and Binder, A. (2010). Inter-Agency Real-Time Evaluation in Haiti: 3 Months After the Earthquake. Urgence Réhabilitation Développement and Global Public Policy Institute.

REACH. (2014). Shelter and WASH Response Monitoring Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013 Final Report. Philippines Shelter Cluster and WASH Cluster.

Setchell, C. (2012). “Hosting Support: An overlooked humanitarian shelter solution.” Monthly Developments, 30(12), 17–18.

Vitale, A., and D’Urzo. (2012). Assisting Host Families and Communities after Crisis and Natural Disaster: A Step-by-Step Guide. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


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