Housing problem must be president’s top priority, say Cairo residents

Years of bad planning and rapid population growth have led to a serious shortage of accommodation, a problem exacerbated by rising food prices and a poor economy.
Said Nagib and his family gather in the living room of their tiny apartment in Cairo. Economically struggling Egypt is experiencing a serious housing crisis. David Degner / The National
Said Nagib and his family gather in the living room of their tiny apartment in Cairo. Economically struggling Egypt is experiencing a serious housing crisis. David Degner / The National

CAIRO // Said Nagib clutches his neck in a choking gesture to describe what it takes to provide a home for his family. A typical day starts at 8am at his first job as an accountant at Cairo University. By 3pm, he is weaving his motorcycle through the capital’s heavy traffic to a second job serving tea at the downtown offices of a company that makes docymentary films.

Mr Nagib, 47, usually returns home after midnight to a wife and three children who are already fast asleep in the cramped quarters of their flat.

“I’m killing myself to pay for this place,” he said, sitting in the two-bedroom home that costs him about US$77 (Dh283) a month to rent – about half the income from his two jobs.

“I hardly see my wife and kids because my life is work, work, work.”

Mr Nagib’s exhausting routine is not uncommon in a country with a long-standing housing crisis. The lack of affordable homes was one of the factors that fuelled the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

Analysts say the problem has only become worse since, as a weakening currency and falling tourism revenue and foreign investment contributed to a spike in food prices and unemployment, leaving ordinary Egyptians with even less money for accommodation.

For many of them, the housing problem should be a priority for the winner of the presidential election that began on Monday, expected to be won by the former armed forces chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

“We need a president who can save us from this nightmare,” said Mr Nagib, who holds a diploma in business administration and dreams of owning his own home.

The building he lives in, located in the Saft Al Leban slum near Cairo University, is one of thousands in the city built without proper permits. For decades, these illegal bulidings have been hastily erected across to compensate for an acute shortage of affordable accommodation. Nearly half a million people live in impromptu shanty homes in Cairo’s City of the Dead, an ancient Necropolis.

Unregulated construction has continued apace amid the turmoil that followed the 2011 uprising.

Officials say nearly half a million of these buildings have been thrown up across the country over the past three years, catering to the 50 per cent of Egypt’s population of 84 million who live below or just above the poverty line.

According to a 2011 report by the Chicago-based property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, the country had a shortfall of 1.5 million affordable homes, a category it defines as being aimed at people who earn about $280 or less a month.

Some estimates put total yearly demand for new residential units at half a million. The government has attempted with little success to address this by building large and massively expensive cities in the desert, away from the banks of the Nile where more than 95 per cent of the country’s population live.

“The housing issue is not a new issue, but it really has reached a disaster point,” said Samir Radwan, who was appointed finance minister by Mubarak towards the end of the 2011 uprising. He was also a senior economist at the International Labour Organisation.

He and others said the crisis has stemmed largely from years of bad planning and rapid population growth. While the country’s birth rate had slowed because of family-planning efforts during the Mubarak era, a year after the 2011 uprising it hit a two-decade high, according to government data.

Officials have blamed the increase in 2012 – to 32 births per 1,000 people, or 2.6 million in total – on administrative disorganisation from the political unrest and disinterest in family planning by Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president elected in 2012 but deposed by the military after one year in power.

“There is a very alarming trend of the last three years in the increase in the population growth in Egypt, and there’s almost a total absence of urban planning and, therefore, you see the spread of those rudimentary housing areas springing [up] around the big city,” said Mr Radwan.

Stepping in to address the housing shortage, Arabtec Holding, Dubai’s largest construction firm, announced in March a $40 billion deal with Egypt’s military-installed government to build a million homes at 13 locations across the country. The homes would cater to those on middle and lower incomes.

The government said the project, one of the largest property ventures ever in the region, would also create a million jobs.

Although few concrete details of the plan have been released, Aymen Sami, who heads Jones Lang LaSalle’s Cairo office, expressed cautious optimism about the project’s impact on the housing crisis.

“I’m sure it will help, although I don’t think it will fully address the problem,” he said.

He warned that policymakers and developers should avoid the mistakes of previous government-led projects launched over the past three decades in areas outside urban centres. These failed to attract low-income residents in part because of a lack of affordable transportation and acceptable infrastructure.

In a number of those places, developers eventually turned what was intended to be housing for lower-income people into gated communities for the wealthy.

“What is needed for addressing the low-income housing gap? You need something that’s sustainable and you need to understand their lifestyle, focusing from the bottom up, not the top the down,” said Mr Sami.

“You’re not talking about a cheap plot of land in the desert without amenities.”

Moving to a far-flung city is something that Walid Tamam, 34, said that he and most other Egyptians would rather avoid. “We prefer living near the Nile and with our families,” said the journalist, who writes on cultural issues.

At their flat in Saft El Leban, Mr Nagib’s wife, Maha, who stays at home to raise their children, said she would like her husband to spend more time with the family.

“But he even works on the weekends,” she said.

Mr Nagib agreed.

“Of course I would rather come home at a normal hour and raise my children and help them with school,” he said.

“But this is Egypt. You can’t even dream of living a normal life here.”


Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM


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