To build or to rebuild

The human right to shelter must not be violated to build new housing

Long ago, under advice from Bretton Woods’ institutions, the government of Pakistan almost completely absolved itself of the responsibility to provide affordable housing. The people, especially the urban poor, have been left to the whims of a highly informal private sector. The result is that Pakistan currently faces a housing shortage of more than 10 million units, increasing at the rate of 0.3 million units every year.

No political party after the 1970 elections had promised to provide housing till 2018 when the PTI announced plans to build 5 million units in five years for low-income families. After coming to power, it announced that the private sector would be involved for investment generation to make the project a reality. However, crossing its half-life, the PTI-led government has decided to track the same beaten path, earlier taken by the Musharraf regime, i.e. to provide loans instead through commercial banks.

No different results are expected this time. The distortion in prices of urban land and properties has already started. The ill-conceived conversion of precious agricultural lands in urban peripheries into residential blocks is also under way.

Instead of exploring alternate financing options or attracting foreign or local private investment, the government seems desperate to mobilise the economy through the construction industry with a ready-made plan. India, which has a plan to construct 20 million affordable houses by 2022, has done a risk-sharing agreement with the World Bank to take some burden off the private investors and financial institutions.

In countries like Pakistan that have a poor record of repayment, governments guarantee repayment to attract investment. As before, the financial institutions will rely on the government to ensure repayment of their loans and the return on investment. Can an economically struggling government afford to give such guarantees to commercial banks?

Second, the concept of affordability is more holistic than just an installment option. It needs to overhaul a range of governance and policy frameworks. For instance, the provinces’ local construction codes are not compliant with the international energy and water efficiency standards. According to World Resources Institute, this increases the construction cost only by 0.2 percent but reduces the energy and water consumption by 15-20 percent, giving the investors a sound return on investment in a few months. Take Brazil’s example, which is working on a similarly ambitious housing plan, Minha Casa, Minha Vida, and enacted a new law in 2017 updating standards for its national social housing programme.

The world is moving back from urban sprawl to city centres as the time and energy costs of transportation have risen enormously over the previous quarter of a century. We need to redefine urban spaces, especially the city centres, with the reclamation of land from human and automobile encroachments and build back better.

Third, the choice of locations in each city for building housing clusters makes a huge difference. The construction of these houses should be close to urban centres and city cores. This will go a long way towards improving the quality-of-life of low-income groups, unfolding livelihood, recreation, healthcare and educational opportunities without burdening them with additional transportation costs. Being connected to a wider community facilitates human engagement and social cohesion and increases productivity and creativity.

Take the example of Lahore, where people from the city centre commute to southern parts for jobs and people living on southern limits travel daily to the city centre, which is the city’s business district. There is a need to redevelop the city centre and introduce vertical urbanisation in the impoverished northern districts of Lahore to give new dimensions to affordability, efficiency and access to the urban poor.

In Karachi’s case, Mr Arif Hasan, the renowned architect, in his 2018 article suggested that “The area (of Pakistan Quarters) can be redeveloped as low-rise apartments and/or houses of ground plus two floors to a density of 800 persons per acre. This will give us 40,000 housing units, an addition of 27,000 units to the existing stock. The existing population can be accommodated in low-cost units, and the additional 27,000 units can be developed as middle-income housing and commercial facilities.”

Fourth, the human right to shelter must not be violated to build new housing. The governments in the Punjab and Sindh are currently using force to reclaim the illegally occupied government lands and properties. In Lahore, the nature and purpose of land grab are different, but in Karachi, the demolitions have rendered many urban poor homeless as the city already faces an acute shortage of housing. These evacuations could have been done in a more orderly manner with proper planning and provision of alternative housing.

Last but not least, the world is moving away from urban sprawl to city centres as the time and energy costs of transportation have risen enormously over the previous quarter of a century. We need to redefine urban spaces, especially the city centres, with the reclamation of land from human and automobile encroachments and build back better.

The Prime Minister’s Housing Programme will require vast chunks of land, which is the most precious resource in urban Pakistan. Instead of converting more agricultural land into residential estates, the authorities must think of out-of-the-box solutions and plan to rebuild the old city areas vertically with value-added features of efficiency and affordability.


The writer works as a Communication Specialist in River Ravi Revitalization Project and can be reached at [email protected]

To build or to rebuild