A house of one’s own

April 24, 2017


FEW would disagree that under the present dispensation, the poor have little hope for a brighter future. Our planners, economists and policymakers admit the existence of a huge backlog in low-cost housing, the demand for which grows incrementally by approximately 400,000 units every year. Notwithstanding the usual rhetoric and political sloganeering, serious and concerted efforts to address the issue are non-existent.

Is it not surprising that in a country of 200 million, there is no long-term housing programme? During the last two decades, not a single major government housing scheme has been launched in any major city of this country. Taking Karachi as an example, after the Malir Housing Scheme (which itself remains undeveloped and unoccupied) no scheme has been launched. At the government level, social housing and accessibility to affordable land for the urban poor are topics that are treated with apathy instead of enthusiasm.

From this, one may conclude that despite the pressing needs of the rapidly increasing urban population, housing for the poor is not a priority for the government. Rather than shortage of money or resources, the problem is a lack of political will. After all, when huge amounts of money are being spent on infrastructure development, eg motorways, flyovers, underpasses, electricity generation, gas exploration, and new industrial zones, it defies reason that resources are insufficient for provision of shelter to the poor.

Unfortunately, the indifference of the policymakers is exacerbated by the absence of cohesive demand for housing from the low-income and shelter-less segment of the population, which stems perhaps from their lack of organisation and under-representation in elected bodies which remain dominated by feudals, industrialists, traders and big businessmen.

Pakistan is indeed a land of contrasts, where persistent poverty exists simultaneously alongside affluence and prosperity, resulting in increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. On the one hand, we talk of shortage of housing, but on the other, our print and electronic media create the perception of a housing glut.

The government has no will to address housing shortages for the poor.

Almost all big cities in the country have Defence societies, followed by Bahria Town, and now Fazaia schemes. But all of them have one thing in common: they are meant for the rich and affluent middle classes. In these housing schemes, a small, two-bedroom flat will cost between five to six million rupees, a 500 square yard plot will be available for Rs10 to 15 million. Another phenomenon is urban sprawl taken to its limit: Bahria Town Karachi is 40 kilometres from the city centre while DHA City is 45km.

There is hardly any doubt that neither the state nor the private sector is interested in solving the housing problem of the urban poor and low-income people. This means the ‘informal sector’ will continue to be the main provider of plots to them (albeit illegally), and the state will continue to ‘regularise’ the katchi abadis that keep proliferating.

In Karachi alone, around 55 per cent of the population lives in these abadis, over 500 of which have been regularised. If you look at the numbers, the informal sector has supplied more plots than Karachi Development Authority, Malir Develop­ment Authority and Lyari Development Authority put together.

But the crucial questions remain: firstly, is this the solution to the problem, and secondly, what would be the living conditions in katchi abadis (even low-income planned areas) when densities increase further and the already inadequate infrastructure crumbles?

To understand the problem of density, compare a phase in a Defence Housing Authority (DHA) with a block in Liaquatabad where all plots measure 80 sq yards and initially had two-room dwellings. In the early ‘50s, these were meant to house a family of six, but now three generations live together. In DHA, most plots measure at least 500 sq yards and are occupied by a small family of three to four people.

There is a similar disparity where infrastructure is concerned. While poor and low-income families have to bear the fallout of crumbling physical and social infrastructure, the rich enjoy modern-day sanitation, water supply, waste disposal, and health and education facilities. As a matter of fact, these are two nations living in two separate worlds.

So far we have discussed three income groups: the rich, high-middle income, and the poor. But what about the lower-middle classes who are neither rich nor chronically poor? They are the largest segment (about 40pc of the urban population). Their average monthly income ranges between Rs35,000-40,000. They are distinct from katchi abadi dwellers in that most of them rent small-sized housing units (if they don’t own one themselves) for between Rs8,000-10,000 a month.

They cannot enter the formal housing market because of the exorbitantly high prices and harsh terms of payment, but they have the willingness and capacity to pay (for land, infrastructure and cost of construction) if the cost is recovered in easy instalments over a period of 20 years.

The silver lining in the present situation is that some social entrepreneurs and the House Building Finance Company Ltd (HBFCL) have come together, and after considerable experimentation, developed a ‘business model’ where a two-room house will cost around Rs1,300,000. This will suit those who can make a down payment of Rs300,000 and take a 20-year loan from HBFCL. Monthly re­­payment will be around Rs8,000 (the amount they are already paying for rented accommodation).

Work on five such schemes has already been started at Kala Shah Kaku, Faisalabad, Peshawar, Multan and Lahore, and the response is excellent. A recently held expo in Islamabad also offered evidence of the lower-middle classes’ eagerness to book houses in such schemes.

Can we hope that the private sector will take up this challenge in right earnest and, instead of concentrating its attention on the rich, try to reach the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ where a big market awaits them?

The writer is chairman Saiban – Action Research for Shelter.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2017