PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has created a committee to explore options for implementing his five million houses initiative — expected to benefit those without shelter, slum dwellers and other urban and rural low-income groups. It is rare for a national leader to swing into action, implementing the promises in his party manifesto so early on. It is also encouraging that housing is being accorded high visibility on this government’s list of priorities. Given that the provision and facilitation of housing is one of the most complex social development undertakings, many are looking forward to seeing how this unfolds. Nevertheless, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of housing must be carefully examined.
The demand for housing — especially for apartments in large cities such as Karachi, and single unit villas in various other urban locations — is intensifying due to changing sociological dynamics. For example, the joint family structure in cities is breaking down and nuclear families are growing. Another important contributor to the swelling housing demand is the expanding housing backlog. According to some studies, a backlog of more than 11m housing units exists as per current estimates. About 450,000 formally built units are constructed annually with a predominant focus in urban areas, and the backlog continues to mount.
Housing demand is also affected by migrations to the cities for better healthcare, education, employment, and safety and security reasons. Social dislocations caused due to geopolitical factors and terrorist and anti-terrorist campaigns during the past three decades also need to be studied in order to evaluate their impact on cities. Replacement of housing stock is an important demand factor in the context of urban Pakistan. Census figures of 2017 shall reveal the actual status of the housing demand.
The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of housing must be carefully examined.
In the past, land was considered a social asset. Now it is traded as a saleable commodity. Urban land has become a product attracting investments in exponential proportions. Hence its prices rise to high limits where its availability and access become impossible for housing, particularly for a low-and-middle-income clientele. Political interests define and determine land supply and distribution, while social and development-related demands become a low priority factor.
The allocations of land to various political favourites at less than market price in Karachi, creation of large real-estate developments in suburban locations, unapproved land subdivisions and development of housing schemes by realtors in Lahore and Islamabad are some examples of this.
The rise in informal living and overcrowding in Karachi’s low-income residential areas is a visible reality. The emergence of katchi abadis in Islamabad also reflect the fact that better controlled and managed cities have not been able to extend affordable options to the urban poor. The struggle of the Awami Workers Party to find a solution to this issue in Islamabad must be supported by the centre.
Housing finance is an important subsector. Studies indicate that at present, not more than two per cent of finances are arranged through formal housing finance institutions. About 10pc lending is facilitated through informal sources while the remaining is facilitated through personal savings and other related means. State Bank reports have lamented the fact that the total housing finance mortgage market is around 1pc of GDP, one of the lowest in South Asia. High risks in transactions, poor governance and a breakdown of law and order on a routine basis impacts the scenario.
Some solutions have been recommended by experts in the past. Establishing housing resource centres at the district levels is one option. These institutions may be empowered to gather and package up-to-date information about public and private sector housing options. Pilot projects may be launched for developing housing on cooperative basis for low-grade government employees, public organisations and formal private organisations.
The House Building Finance Company must undertake innovatively designed packages to enhance clientele and expand access of housing to more needy groups.
Feedback can also be drawn from the experiences of other countries in South Asia. For instance, Sri Lanka launched a Million Houses Programme some three decades ago. Its key components included provision of small loans, ensuring community participation in housing development ventures, revision of technical standards to conform to needs of the poor, technical assistance by the implementing agencies, extension of subsidies for local infrastructure provision and capacity building of the administrative and technical staff. Despite challenges, this initiative became a useful milestone in addressing the housing issues in Sri Lanka.
The writer is chairman of the Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2018