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A clock and a key

Sangeeth Ram’s work in affordable housing is inspired by his childhood experience in India.

– Real estate projects are measured in months and years, not minutes and seconds. But for Sangeeth Ram, a partner in our Middle East office, the ticking clock is a reminder of the urgent need to provide affordable housing at scale in every region in the world.

Every day, thousands of families migrate to different cities in search of a better life. Many struggle to find secure or affordable homes. By 2025, one in three people living in cities globally could lack an affordable home. The clock is indeed ticking.

A clock

Sangeeth understands the urgency at a personal level. Growing up in southern India, his family moved to three cities and five homes before he was 10 years old. His parents, worried that the constant moving would disrupt Sangeeth's education, decided to take a risk. His father and mother worked for a state bank and managed to secure a loan from their employer—rare in the late 1980s in India—to buy a small plot of land on the far outskirts of the city and build a modest two-story house. There were only two other homes in the vicinity and one kilometer to get to the main road—"It was a desolate place," Sangeeth recalls.

But the family home was a springboard. Despite a long two-bus journey to get there, Sangeeth completed his education at a well-respected local public school. When he decided to pursue his education in the US, but still required money for expenses, his parents were able to take out a loan, using the house as collateral. Besides security, the house gave Sangeeth's family the confidence and ability to take risks. It gave them an identity.

A key

After graduating from MIT in 2006, Sangeeth joined McKinsey. In 2009, a real-estate project centered on housing and city development took him to the Middle East. Suddenly, he could connect the dots: "Having this family home, I could see how it changed my life. Wouldn't it be amazing if McKinsey gave me a broad canvas to shape the thinking on affordable housing?"

Affordable housing is now at the core of Sangeeth's professional practice, working with governments and private-sector developers globally. Wherever he travels, he makes a point of visiting housing projects and speaking to the people who live there. "How it touches individuals is the best part about being involved in this," he says. "When you go and see the impact, it's an unbelievable thing."

Yet the challenge is enormous. Today, more than 330 million families globally lack secure or affordable housing. This not only limits individual opportunities but also puts a brake on economic development. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report, Tackling the world's affordable housing challenge, coauthored by Sangeeth, aims to act as a catalyst for change by providing a fact-based framework for action. It offers ways to help build vibrant communities that enable opportunities for upward mobility. Increasingly, land is moving to the center of housing policy; in some cases, it is not about building new homes, but delivering better housing-related outcomes in existing communities.

And yes, the key Sangeeth pulls from his pocket really is the key to his childhood home (pictured below). When he thought of sharing his family's story, he asked his parents to ship it to him. Although his family doesn't live there anymore, he's been back to the area over the years. A canopy of trees now shades the house, one of 25 homes in a neighborhood absorbed by the growing city.

A clock and a key