Pakistan’s affordable housing crisis is a definitive instance of both market and government failure.

Slums, katchi abadis, unplanned or informal, illegal settlements proliferate because the market and government have failed repeatedly to provide adequate housing to low-wage workers and their families.

In Karachi alone, nearly 60 per cent of the city’s population resides in informal settlements.

The country’s housing problem was predicted long ago by renowned urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who was hired in the 1950s by the government of Pakistan to design a new capital and reconstruct Karachi.

As Doxiadis observed the massive migrations, staggering post-Partition overcrowding and ensuing challenges of shelter for thousands of people in Karachi, he correctly foresaw the issue of livable shelter would become a colossal challenge for cities across Pakistan, unless a comprehensive housing plan was put in place.

Related: Where the poor live

When Doxiadis proposed to the Planning Commission a comprehensive housing and settlement plan, his ideas were were summarily rejected.

The development economists within the Harvard Advisory Group, which was attached to the Planning Commission, were particularly disparaging of Doxiadis’ proposal.

Ironically, they believed a national housing plan for Pakistan was akin to a disaster in the making.

In the Planning Commission’s universe, investment in a housing plan was not complementary to Pakistan’s development agenda for prosperity.

In fact, as the historian Markus Daechsel writes in a clever book called Islamabad and the Politics of International Development in Pakistan, economists saw housing as an unnecessary distraction and the least remunerative form of development activity.

This significant moment in Pakistan’s early history pretty much sealed the fate for a comprehensive national housing plan for the poor.

I see this period as a watershed moment for Pakistan because it set the tone for the colossal failures that have ensued in the provision of housing for the poor.

Repeated failures

From ad hoc housing policies, intermittent regularisation of informal settlements, to increasing land/real estate speculation, to failed low-income housing schemes, state-authorised land grabs, urban renewal and gentrification and commercial enterprises clamouring for space in urban centres, all of this has ensured the poor continue to be squeezed into precarious spaces or shunted to the margins.

For Pakistan’s poor, the struggle for shelter has become a dangerous, violent and politically charged process that is dependent on extractive institutions and political compromises that hardly ever lead to tenure protections.

While evictions and displacements are now mediated by court cases and the ballot box, these interventions do not guarantee the ordinary citizen the right to hold on to an 80-square-yard house in a so-called illegal/informal settlement.

If anything, court cases produce uncertainty as residents have no idea how long they will remain in place.

A case in point is the Karachi Circular Railway, where nearly 28 settlements or 4,653 households (according to my estimates, based on different sources) will be displaced soon due to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government’s new planning agenda to upgrade the nation’s railways.

A settlement along the KCR loop.—Photo by author
A settlement along the KCR loop.—Photo by author

While I applaud the PTI’s announcement for a plan to build five million affordable housing units, I wonder whom the PTI is reaching out to in this schema.

Low-cost housing is a pipe dream for the ordinary citizen, who can scarcely muster Rs100,000 to purchase land and construct a house in Karachi’s periphery, where land is still relatively inexpensive compared to the city centre.

Furthermore, the PTI’s announcement of establishing a committee to study international models and consult with experts, sounds like old wine in new bottles: a top-down planning agenda that we’ve seen before, in one form or another, under previous governments.

Are Singapore and China examples to follow?

As for international models, Singapore’s housing plan has been mentioned and I hope the PTI ‘experts’ realise that the country’s successful national housing plan hinges on a state-controlled, tightly regulated market for land and real estate development.

The success story of Singapore’s national housing plan — the Housing Development Board, or HDB flats — is unique to a city-state of approximately five million, where planning for affordable housing has been a vastly different enterprise.

Notably, a universal public housing plan was prioritised in Singapore from independence in 1965.

The plan was akin to a covenant between the government and the newly enfranchised citizen-electorate, and it was realised through the nationalisation of land based on draconian land acquisition laws.

But displaced people were not left homeless by developers and government agencies; displacement and resettlement in Singapore has been handled with tremendous care, and it is never begun unless replacement homes or flats for the affected are ready.

Hence, Singapore today is essentially a ‘home-owning democracy’.

HDB flats in Toa Payoh, Singapore.—Photo by author
HDB flats in Toa Payoh, Singapore.—Photo by author

HDB flats in Tao Payoh, Singapore.—Photo by author
HDB flats in Tao Payoh, Singapore.—Photo by author

As for looking to China, which has also been mentioned during Imran Khan’s visit to Karachi last week, the story is disquieting to say the least.

Chinese cities are increasingly about gated communities, urban renewal and supporting middle class aspirations.

This is a well-documented fact. China’s ‘nail houses’ have become a symbol of homeowners’ resistance against demolitions and pressures from real estate developers.

In China, residential security has been destabilised with the commodification of socialist tenancy rights, a process that has changed radically the housing landscape.

In cities like Shanghai, the state has privatised large swaths of urban land or leased it to private developers, and in the pressure to attract capital investment, it has used brutal measures to remove residents — public housing tenants, rural migrants, private homeowners — and clear land.

Between 1995 and 2006, nearly 900,000 households were relocated to make way for real estate and infrastructure developments in Shanghai.

Up next: An anti-poor society

As activists, e.g. lawyers, have emerged to advise residents who have lost homes, many have been persecuted by a state that does not tolerate dissent.

Lawyers have been incarcerated or their licenses have been revoked for representing demolition cases.

Necessarily, social conflicts have intensified in China over relocations and compensations because the commodification process has begun to favour property developers.

As for those homes that are compensated, only those family members are considered who have urban hukou or urban registrations.

The massive displacements that have taken place in Chinese cities over the past 20 years were made possible by the central government’s actions.

The passing of the 1991 Demolition Regulation empowered local governments to issue demolition permits without seeking residents’ consent.

As urban land reform in China has become an engine for the state to generate revenues and invest in infrastructure and urban development, housing futures look precarious because the state’s overall agenda does not take into consideration the interests of the residents living on the land.

So what's new?

While the PTI’s announcement to bring affordable housing plan to the forefront is a step in the right direction, a nagging question remains: what is new about the plan?

Extensive empirical research and data across the Global South and Global North indicates that despite a half-century of policy interventions — a long list — slums and informal settlements continue to persist.

Their persistence speaks to deeper structural dynamics of inequality, social exclusion and distorted land markets, issues that have never been effectively addressed.

Moreover, the commodification of housing, the increased use of housing as an investment asset within a globalised financial market and the implementation of market-based housing finance models have altogether exacerbated the crisis of affordable housing all over the world.

If the PTI expects to find succour in a market-based financing model, the evidence suggests that markets alone cannot assure housing for all.

Tech talk: Housing for all

Perhaps the PTI representatives should look at the recent data produced by the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing who, as part of the Habitat International Coalition, has underscored that a one-size-fits-all solution of housing policies based on credit are inherently discriminatory against the poor, exposing them to financial risks and pushing them further into debt and poverty in both developing and developed countries.

Thus, advancing new policy agendas on affordable housing in Pakistan will require not only a radically new vision for organising society, but also carving out alternative approaches for overcoming mistakes of the past.

A progressive planning approach

We need to start moving towards a discussion about what kind of alternative models of ownership we want, e.g. land trusts, community led housing projects, how these will be provided and might help to reduce the acutely visible forms of inequality in Pakistan’s cities.

These kinds of discussions require partnerships between community groups and local governments. How is this even achievable in a city like Karachi where the local government system is still in abeyance?

Since PTI’s announcement of the national plan, the narrative has focused on the role of experts, consultants and committees: are these the power holders?

Power holders hardly ever relinquish power.

In-depth: Why a posh Karachi area is running dry

Rather than architects and urban planners who circulated as ‘experts’ during the early years of post-independence Pakistan, the mantle has now been passed on to corporate executives and consultants, who recommend projects that they will directly benefit from financially.

And what of the international experts today? Their expensive visions offer a modern, clean and prosperous urban future that has become irresistible to many of Pakistan’s aspirational ruling elites, who are easily seduced by glossy presentations and computer-generated images of shiny, slum-free cities.

A progressive planning approach for affordable housing will require pathways to partner with community-based groups and local government at the ground level, rather than top-down master planning.

It will have to be an approach that advocates incremental interventions and community consultation, one that lays the foundation for more productive relationships between local communities and local governments and draws into conversations the marginalised populations who have been living for decades under conditions of informality in Pakistan’s cities.

Or else, the PTI plan for affordable housing is nothing more than old wine in new bottles.

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