“Over the last century, literature and film have portrayed a series of housing crises in Egypt of one sort or another. Images of overcrowded rooms, crumbling housing, and unpainted redbrick and concrete towers carpeting once fertile land match regular news reports capturing a housing problem,” housing and urban-policy expert Yahia Shawkat writes in his recent book Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space.
This is the bottom line of the argument that this researcher is trying to make: Egypt has a serious housing problem that has been getting worse over the decades and has been causing serious damage to the country’s urban fabric.
Shawkat also acknowledges the basic fact that in Egypt housing is a major social and political issue and that housing policy has been a top agenda issue for almost every government over the past eight decades.
In the 1940s, the then government decided to work on increasing housing capacity in order to cope with a fast-growing population. The original plan was to do this in an orderly manner that would not inflict harm on Egypt’s fertile agrarian land. However, by the 1970s it had become clear that the expansion had not been enough to accommodate the increasing demand and that it had not been orderly or undamaging to rural areas.
Today, Shawkat notes that Egypt is perhaps the world leader in per capita housing production, with “building at almost double China’s rate” and housing units counted in “the millions”. However, his book also notes that the problem of housing and its negative impact on urban space persists.
The reason for this problem and for the failure to see it resolved relates not just to the growing population, however. Nor does it only relate to the many social and political changes that the country has gone through during the past 80 years. Instead, Shawkat says, the problem is related to all these aspects and to economic policies adopted without sufficient consideration being given to their impact on this problem.
Neoliberal policies, corruption, and bad planning are the culprits for the housing problem, he says, perhaps more than the growing population that has been more often than not blamed by successive governments for a range of problems including that of housing.
Going through volumes of official statements and policy papers, Shawkat examines the long story of the housing crisis in Egypt and approaches it in its rural and urban aspects. Today, he says, there are millions of mostly poor but also middle-income families living in precarious legal and physical conditions.
He recalls that in the 1940s a significant part of the rural population lived in privately built houses in izbas (hamlets). Those who were not housed within these hamlets had to build their own houses, mostly of mud-brick and stone.
In the city, people either lived in houses that they had built or bought, or in apartments that were made available, mostly for rent, by the government or private sector. But “if you wanted to live in the city and were not a regularly employed worker or government employee or affluent enough to build or rent in the new districts, your only option was to self-build,” Shawkat says, perhaps settling for a courtyard house (hoash) or shack (isha).
“Despite all these forms of housing, many of them were inadequate. Homes were overcrowded. Workers’ accommodation on rural and industrial estates came with surveillance and coercion — and proper accommodation was simply out of reach for many,” Shawkat writes. World War II then made things even more challenging, he adds.
He quotes Mahmoud Riad, a prominent architect of the time, on the housing problem in 1945. Two years later in Imbaba in Cairo, the state introduced one of the earliest public-housing estates with the first formulation of rent-control measures, he notes.
In the 1950s, after the socialist republic replaced the colonial-era monarchy in 1952 there was a boom in government-built housing. Meanwhile, “decolonisation along with mass migration in the 1950s and 1960s… fundamentally reshaped housing in Egypt.”
Throughout the 1960s, “existing housing was no match for the increase in urban residents”. This coincided with the abolition of hamlets, the sequestration of the estates of large land-holders, and the nationalisation of industry.
A “new speculative building spree saw a high incidence of the demolition of buildings in good condition to build ones that were larger and more profitable,” Shawkat writes.
THE 1970S AND BEYOND
For about a decade, the government and private sector built no more than one third of urban-housing provision.
Then in the mid-1970s, the state opted for the Infitah (open door) economic policy during which the government promised to eradicate once and for all the housing problem in Egypt.
In 1979, a government policy paper on the housing crisis presented plans to build new cities outside Cairo. However, the situation still got worse, not just due to insufficient units, but also to the declining availability of rented apartments as the market was becoming geared towards owing apartments or houses with the inflow of cash from the oil-rich countries.
“With government housing being expensive and being built in remote areas — and private housing out of reach — the marginalised poor would largely rely on self-build and through moving their constructions out of the cities,” Shawkat writes.
The situation continued to deteriorate into the 1980s. The new president, Hosni Mubarak, promised to find a solution, but as Shawkat’s book notes, during his 30 years in office Mubarak was not able to resolve a problem that had also challenged his predecessors.
The 1986 census showed “the beginning of what would be the inexorable erosion of renters” in Egypt. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, tamlik or private ownership was almost the norm, and petrodollars were there to help. “In urban Egypt, home purchases almost doubled in the 1976-1986 period to nearly four per cent of households, and doubled again to eight per cent by 1996,” Shawkat writes.
In 1998, the government passed a new mortgage law, and a few years down the road rent-control policies were abolished in favour of liberalised rents. But the problem of housing in general was not resolved, and it seemed to be getting worse.
Calls for greater social justice brought in hopes of a fair settlement to the housing problem that had been increasingly affecting the poor also middle-income families. But the answers to these calls were still hard to find. Shawkat quotes Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli saying in 2017 that there would be “a major breakthrough” in “the housing problem within four years”, for example.
“That same year, the census indicated that government housing production had seen the biggest decade-on-decade increase,” Shawkat notes. This was not only about post-2014 housing policy, but was also a result of a policy initiated in 2005 when the state decided to increase the building of housing units in the informal sector.
Shawkat’s book also examines the increase in self-built housing, prompted in many cases by “the sheer accessibility and autonomy of building one’s own house” and by the fact that an “irregular income means that incremental building is the most adequate way to acquire a home — one builds as conditions allow.”
“Ultimately, it is cheaper to self-build than to buy,” he says, though the problem can be that self-built houses at times end up as informal buildings that can lack services as basic as water and sewerage. They can also be threatened by demolition, and they are not always aesthetically pleasing.
On many occasions, the state has adopted regulations to put a freeze on the construction of self-built homes or to order their demolition. On other occasions, these buildings have been tolerated by the state, sometimes to compensate for political or economic disappointments.
The earthquake that hit Egypt in October 1992 and caused the collapse of a few thousand buildings also raised questions about many self-built houses, especially those around big cities in ashwaeiat (informal areas) in the 1990s. Upgrades were promised, though the work was not always licensed. By the time for the 25 January Revolution in 2011, the issue was still unresolved, as was the rest of the housing problem.
Shawkat notes that at the same that Madbouli was promising an end to the housing problem in 2017, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi “ordered the removal of all transgressions on state-owned land.” A committee was formed to take back land illegally taken over by individuals to build houses on in what was seen as a reversal of the off-and-on “state de facto tolerance of informal self-building”.
THE SITUATION TODAY
As Shawkat’s book shows, the path towards dealing with decades of informal self-building has not been easy.
There has also been a shift from “the socialist rent controls” that prevailed from 1952 until the death of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970 to the khiliw system of key money and then by the growth of private ownership rather than renting.
The failure of the state to step in with realistic answers to the shortage of rented housing has challenged many families and caused the significant disrepair of many apartment buildings because of neglect by landlords irritated at imposed rent controls.
Eventually, “rent control was being circumvented altogether,” Shawkat notes, with some rents going up by 20 per cent, according to a 2008 study.
Finally, Shawkat’s book does not only offer a detailed and thoroughly referenced history of housing policies in Egypt since their introduction in the 1940s, but it also gives a thorough mapping of many elements of the housing problem, especially those related to affordability and finance.
The book contains a plea for prompt treatment to avoid a worsening situation. Large-scale homelessness, Shawkat says, is not a problem that Egypt is immediately facing, but it is not one that the country is immune to.
Yahia Shawkat, Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space, Cairo: AUC Press, 2020, pp271.
RIGHTS TO THE CITY
With a degree in architecture from Cairo University and now in a PhD programme in anthropology at the City University of New York, researcher Omnia Khalil has long been a dedicated activist for urban rights.
Cairo, her hometown, is a city that gets a lot of attention in this regard, she says, and also a lot of concern.
“This is a big city, a multi-layered city, with such a long and diverse history, but it is also a city that has been facing a lot of dilapidation that has been harming its architectural wealth and its social fabric,” Khalil said.
“When I look at one of the older neighbourhoods of this city, like that of Sayeda Zeinab, I see a lot of beauty. I see a fabric of Islamic architecture, and I see a place that shows a real design. However, I also see a lot of deterioration,” she added.
According to Khalil, the dilapidation that Sayeda Zeinab and other neighbourhoods of Cairo has been seeing is not just in terms of the poor maintenance of the neighbourhood and buildings. It is also, she argues, the social fabric of the neighbourhood that has suffered.
“Until a few decades ago, this was not what we would call a popular neighbourhood, but rather a neighbourhood for civil servants who were until a few decades back part of the middle class. But today this is no more — the vast majority of civil servants are no longer able to assume significant financial responsibilities, and of course financial challenges have been on the increase,” she said.
The maintenance of a neighbourhood, Khalil argued, is partially about public services, but it is also about the ability of residents to maintain their own houses and buildings. Today, in older neighbourhoods like Sayeda Zeinab and even in some more modern neighbourhoods around downtown Cairo, public services and the financial capacity of the residents have been on the decline.
The 1992 earthquake was a defining moment for Cairo, she said. “It was not just about the city that suddenly tumbled down as a way of showing its state of disrepair. It was also about buildings that had to go through exhaustive restoration and those whose restoration was not licensed as they were deemed likely to fall down anyway,” she added.
1992 was thus a revealing moment because it showed the level of degradation of state services that should have included following up on the maintenance of buildings in older neighbourhoods. It also showed the inability of many residents to find themselves alternative shelter.
With the economic policies of liberalisation that came in the early 1990s, Khalil said, it was highly unlikely that this course of incremental decline was set for a reversal. The poor were becoming poorer, and the investment of the state in public services like decent pavements and pedestrian crossings was simply out of the question.
“It was very clear that the urban management of the city was just not there; and it was not just a temporary failure, rather the opposite; this became the norm and we got to see main roads in the city being very poorly paved and the demolition of old buildings and the construction of new ones that are out of the architectural context,” she said.
“The need for enough houses to go round was offered as a justification for the demolition of older buildings and the construction of new taller ones. But the fact of the matter is that there would not have been that much need for all these new buildings had all the apartments that could be put out for rent been on the market,” Khalil argued.
“We were seeing an increasing number of apartments being closed as the owners were looking to end rent controls and to demolish their apartment buildings to allow for newer ones that can be sold rather than rented,” she said. “Laws and regulations have been simply inefficient in addressing the problem, and this has continued for decades,” she added.
According to Khalil, the construction boom has been exaggerated compared to the real needs of the city. “This is not just about the heart of Cairo, but also about the new residential compounds on the outskirts of the city,” she said.
“It would have been better if there were efficient regulations to allow for the optimum use of all available units.”
Today, she added, with the growing urban expansion on the outskirts of the city and the possibly upcoming move of executive bodies to the New Administrative Capital, there are real question marks about the future of Cairo.
Rejecting the pessimist view that assumes that upon the inauguration of the new capital Cairo will be left to disrepair, Khalil sees “a plan to upgrade several parts of the city to make it a real business and tourism hub”.
In her view, this is partially good and partially bad. It is good, she argued, because it means that Cairo will not be left behind. But, she added, it is bad because it raises serious questions about the capacity of limited-income residents to hold on to the city they call home.
This, she added, is not just about the residents of poorer neighbourhoods, but also about the economically better-off zones. “We saw that the residents of large segments of Masr Al-Qadima had to be evicted into relatively remote even if new and upgraded buildings, and we also saw the residents of eastern Cairo waking up to their streets being turned into highways to connect the city to the NAC. In both cases, the urban fabric of the city is being changed,” she argued.
What would have been ideal, she argued, would have been for the poorer neighbourhoods to be upgraded in a way that would have still accommodated the residents rather than having them evicted. It would have been better for Cairo to have been connected to the NAC through alternative roads rather than the construction of close to 40 flyovers that have cut through main roads in Cairo.
“Development is a legitimate process, but the right to the city should be maintained,” Khalil said.
Today, she added, there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that residents who continue to live in the city can maintain their basic urban rights. Putting an end to unplanned demolitions and constructions is a priority, Khalil said. Making sure that evictions are only done to the minimum possible is another. Improving the quality of roads, pavements, and public transport “is a must”, she added.
“Residents should be able to continue to live in the city, and if they have to go, they shouldn’t need to move out. Mega-development schemes should not be executed at the expense of residents,” Khalil said.
“Above all, we should be mindful of monitoring the gap between those living in posh compounds on the outskirts of the city and those who live in informal areas around it,” she stated.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly