Houses or housing?

Published July 15, 2018

THE seriousness of the housing issue in Pakistan can be judged from the fact that conservative estimates put the housing backlog at nine million units which is increasing at 300,000 units annually because of unmet demand. Sixty-two per cent of this demand is for lower-income groups. Yet political party manifestos hardly talk about this.

Before its last tenure, the PPP promised to build 15,650 housing units. The number is so small that it would have made no difference to the housing crisis. However, none of these units were constructed.

The PML-N did better. In their 2013 manifesto, they promised to build 1,000 clusters of 500 houses each. This would have made some difference even if it would not have come any nearer to resolving the crisis. But again, not a single house was constructed.

Imran Khan has outdone both the PPP and the PML-N. He is promising to build 5m houses. This will cost a minimum of five thousand billion rupees which is one-seventh of our GDP and will require more than 120,000 acres of land. We do not know how he will manage this but even if he succeeds in building 20pc of what he is promising, it will be a great achievement.

Housing is not about building units. It is a far more complex affair.

All political parties talk about building a certain number of housing units. However, housing is not about building units. It is a far more complex affair. First you need a sustainable financial arrangement with funds that revolve and multiply through the process of giving affordable house-building loans. Affordability for low-income groups can be achieved through direct subsidies or through cross subsidies from higher income housing.

The national budget 2017-2018 has allotted Rs2.3bn for the housing sector. This is a drop in the ocean as, according to some sources, Rs100bn per annum for the next 10 years is required to freeze shelter shortage at the present level. In addition, location is important as jobs and social infrastructure have to be easily accessible to homes. Many housing schemes built by both previous governments lie empty to this day, simply because the location was wrong.

A sustainable housing policy would also require a control on speculation, and so it would need considerable political support to operate in a ruthless ‘mafia’-dominated land and real-estate market. It would also mean determining what constitutes a home in terms of minimum space per individual and the typology of housing for different locations and groups. In short, housing would have to be a part of a larger process of planned urbanisation and rural development.

Traditionally, low-income groups have acquired their homes in katchi abadis or through the informal subdivision of agricultural land on the city fringe where costs are low. Both the processes have become difficult to access because of the rising cost of land, the increasing distance of the fringe from work areas due to the expansion of cities, and because land on the fringe is now being held for speculation and/or construction of middle-income housing. In the absence of more affordable options, low-income settlements and the centres of historic cities, which have been abandoned by the rich, are densifying heavily with all the physical, social and climate change-related problems of unplanned densification.

In Karachi, many of these settlements are now high-rise with densities of over 1,000 persons per acre. Meanwhile gated colonies are being constructed all over Pakistan for the elite on the city fringe with densities as low as 50 persons per acre. These colonies are ecological disasters as they are eating up orchards, forests, natural drainage systems, geological formations and historic sites.

The housing crisis is so huge that it cannot be resolved through conventional means. What is required is to support the densification process by developing urban design plans for those areas where it is taking place and providing technical and design advice to the builders along with short-term loan packages. It would also require containing speculation on land and built assets. For this, a heavy non-utilisation fee on land and properties would have to be imposed. To conserve land, an urban land ceiling act would also have to be enacted to limit land holdings per individual, and a minimum density determined for all housing, including elite projects. In addition, laws giving the state the power to acquire land for low-income housing at appropriate locations would be required.

In the absence of these steps, and the required institutions to implement them, it is more than possible that large-scale housing projects will either not be implemented, or will end up being victims of massive speculation, and cause further environmental damage as has happened many times before and in many countries.

The writer is an architect.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2018



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