In search of affordable housing

It is vocally announced by the government that access to housing for common people shall become most convenient and flexible. The realities, however, tell an entirely different story

In search of affordable housing

Prime Minister Imran Khan has reiterated the resolve of his government to extend housing options for the needy at a swift pace. While addressing a housing conference on March 28, 2019 in Islamabad by a donor agency and the Naya Pakistan Housing Authority, the premier expressed his firm commitment to realise the target of delivering the five million housing units during the tenure of his government.

Some stakeholders have been extremely pleased by the interest federal government is showing in the housing sector. Foremost among them are developers, builders, real estate agents and property dealers of different scales and spreads. Through expensive advertisements in the print and electronic media, this powerful lobby has been felicitating the new regime in anticipation of greater policy favours and relaxations of the sorts.

To the common people, an attractive impression is given that "housing market" will now receive a fresh boost. It is vocally announced that with the renewed commitment to what is called as construction industry, access to housing for common people shall become most convenient and flexible. The realities, however, tell an entirely different story.

In order to assess the prevailing situation pertinent to housing, it is vital to find the status of need of various cross sections of the society. The problem of housing is most acute for lowest to lower middle income groups. According to the recent statistics, the low and lower middle income groups constitute around two-third of the total population. However, these groups face an acute shortage of housing choices. With very limited financial means, they find it extremely difficult to sustain their white collar lifestyles. The situation is now further aggravated due to economic challenges faced by the country.

In the absence of proper land supply, lack of credit facilities, absence of proportional technical and managerial support, access to housing appears an impossible task. The presently available housing or land stock has become extremely expensive during the recent past. For example, an apartment measuring 1200 sq. ft. in Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi, which had a price tag of Rs7.5 million about a year ago, is now being sold at Rs12.5 million. Similarly, land supply and development is mostly done in high income areas where the property market is experiencing a meteoric rise.

The poor or low income groups walk away from formal sector schemes as they do not have a regular and documented income that is necessary to become credit worthy. Scores of research studies have established the fact that housing and community development cannot be achieved by creating extraordinary stimulus in real estate markets. Both of these sub-sectors have an entirely different clientele.

According to present demographical characteristics, the country has a sizable young population under the age of 34 years. Expansion of nuclear families is on the rise. Percentage of population below poverty line stands any where between 25 to 30 percent. Amongst the basic unfulfilled needs, housing is a prime mention. This category of population and other categories which are marginally better, cannot access housing through the conventional practices due to their weak affordability and financial status. They can only benefit from a housing support package that would provide them access to some kind of employment opportunity; locational advantage to link up to infrastructure and transportation; conserves cultural characteristics and provides reasonable chances of upward mobility in the society.

In other words, housing has to be evolved as a comprehensive approach for community development. It cannot be reduced to the status of a real estate product!

For housing pertinent to low and lower middle income groups, land is a key asset that ascertains gradual development and improvement in housing conditions. Over the periods of time, status of land has changed. It used to be a social asset which was provided to the needy through state support. Now it has become a commodity which is openly traded in the market. Thus it is obviously acquired by that investor who has best bid to offer. Another major change is the growing incapacity of the government to influence what is now termed land market. Since the decisions related to land supply and transactions involve a spread out cadre of stake holders, the mechanics of land delivery for housing and other functions are governed in proportion to the relative influence exercised by each category of stakeholders. Thus the military, their foundations and countless enterprises; real estate investors from the country and abroad; international financial institutions; political groups; communal, ethnic and religious lobbies; transporters and civilian bureaucracy are some prominent categories of stakeholders that directly affect the decisions pertinent to land. It is obvious that neither poor nor their well wishers/sympathisers show up in any of these categories. The outcome is stark apparent. The choices, formats and typologies of housing development are undertaken in an entirely self fulfilling manner without any trace of social justice towards the real needy groups. Evidence of this fact is the scores of real estate schemes announced in different parts of the country under the garb of housing provision.

Laws, regulations, byelaws and procedures do not account for the socio-economic, cultural and technical requirements of low and lower middle income groups. The income status of such groups does not allow them to set aside savings sizable enough to finance a major undertaking like housing. They build their houses incrementally, in non-continuous cycles and in strict response to the pressing nature of need.

For instance, in a squatter settlement, people first build a boundary enclosure to derive a sense of ownership of the house. Thereafter, they would build a shelter in the form of a room or shed as per their affordability. Toilet is the next important ingredient that is developed. Rest of the spaces is developed entirely according to need. Marriages of siblings or children would force to create additional rooms. At times small workshops or places of artisanal work are also internally allocated. Existing byelaws cannot accommodate this process. The origin of such byelaws was based on colonial planning traditions where segregation of land use was adhered to. Neither mixed land use nor incremental manner of development is currently given a place in planning and development of neighbourhoods. The provincial governments, which are now responsible for housing and land supply after the 18th Constitutional Amendment, are required to play their role in this respect.

In a sizable number of cities in Pakistan, squatter settlements became the alternative for housing. Initially, state policies and actions strongly discouraged their development. However when the bulk of housing problem could not be addressed by government institutions, the state quietly accepted their existence. No clear policy directive was prepared to deal with this issue. Attempts to regularisation were made in the 1980s and 1990s but no impact at a larger scale of problem could be developed.

Scale of katchi abadi dwellers can be understood from the fact that in Karachi alone there are 1700 such settlements. More than half of the city population seems to be residing in these locations. This requires a comprehensive strategy aiming at rehabilitation and upgradation according to laid down criteria of relevant provinces.

It is a well-known fact that land and housing are expensive entities. Even the upper income groups acquire them with the help of credit. However the credit worthiness of low and lower middle income groups is almost non-existing. Banking credit can be obtained by those who possess stable and recognised employment, moveable or immovable assets, marketable social status and an understanding of the banking system. Thus the credit access remains confined to individuals who are employed in corporate sector or own formal business enterprises; possess properties and assets and are socially well connected. In a snowballing effect, they acquire more and more resources to upgrade their already plush lifestyles or expand incomes by investing in properties.

The poor and needy belong to a different category. They are usually employed in the informal sector; do not own any worthwhile assets and hardly possess any relations with influential lobbies. Whereas they desperately need credit to fulfill their most essential needs for housing, the system does not offer enough opportunities. The credit requirements of low income groups are usually of small amounts which are discouraged by commercial banks due to rising overheads. With the exception of few micro credit windows, this group does not possess any other alternative in the formal sector. They either obtain credit from illegal money lenders who fleece them at exorbitant interest rates or the suppliers of building components if the need is of a small scale. None of these options favour their socio-economic status.

During the conference some measures were announced by the central bank representatives and senior members of some private banks management. It is hoped that these packages shall take into account the status and realities of the urban poor to make them inclusive and beneficial for all.

It is very important that the issue related to housing be reviewed and analysed on the basis of facts. The responsibility of the state is to regulate markets to an extent whereby the most essential needs are fulfilled. There are few fundamental steps that must be considered for larger relevance to masses. Credit towards access of land by the needy and poor must be ensured through appropriately laid down mechanisms.

Relevant changes must be introduced in the building and zoning byelaws to provide for survival of mixed land uses in an effective manner. And checks of proper urban planning provisions must be applied on the rise of real estate markets. Haphazard and uncontrolled real estate development is a non-sustainable approach. It shall soon disappear under competition from parallel investment options.

In search of affordable housing