Eligible Palestinian refugees sign up for new housing initiative

Palestinians living in refugee camps in the three largest cities of Amman, Zarqa and Irbid were among thousands of low income people who flocked to post offices last week to take advantage of a US$7 billion housing initiative that aims to provide affordable homes.

[Read this report in Arabic]

Only those Palestinians with ordinary Jordanian passports - some 1.55 million of the 1.8 million registered Palestinian refugees - can apply for the cheap housing; other refugees (mainly Gazans who hold temporary two-year passports) are not eligible.

Most Palestinian refugees arrived after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and have Jordanian passports as well as refugee cards from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

The building of 20,500 units has already begun, and as of 2009, a total of 20,000 housing units will be constructed annually, according to Sana Mehyar, director-general of the Housing and Urban Development Corporation. The initiative seeks to provide 120,000 housing units in the main cities below market price, as the government will provide free land and infrastructure.

''To have a house of my own is a wish I did not expect to come true with the high prices.''

No down-payment is required and monthly payments will not exceed one-third of a beneficiary's salary. Owners of the units will not be allowed to sell or lease them, said Mehyar.

Application forms run out

Thousands of applicants gathered in front of Baqaa refugee camp post office over the past week.

"To have a house of my own is a wish I did not expect to come true with the high prices," said Palestinian refugee Emad Khalil, an employee of Amman Municipality.

Khalil said he is qualified for the initiative because he is not a house owner and his salary of $350 a month is well within the accepted range. Only those earning less than 1,000 dinars ($1,410) a month can apply.

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Applications ran out at the camp's post office in less than 24 hours, forcing many to turn to the black market to obtain the forms - paying 15 dinars instead of the official one dinar ($1.5).

Most of the Palestinians in Jordan live in crumbling 96 square metre units accommodating an average of seven people. Residents are not allowed to build a second floor, forcing many to start a family in their parents' home.

It is common to see one house sheltering as many as 15 people, say camp residents. Refugees own the houses they live in, but the land is rented by the Jordanian government from its original landlords.

Price surge

Since 2003 over half a million Iraqis have fled to Jordan, mainly to the big cities, helping to drive prices higher. Over the past four years, prices of apartments have nearly tripled, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

"An apartment that used to cost $35,000 four years ago is now sold at $120,000 all because Iraqis badly needed apartments and they did not bargain," said Mohammad Jamil, an estate agent in Amman.

Economist Yussef Mansur said that although the influx of Iraqis contributed to price rises, a general increase in the cost of living and high population growth (4.3 per cent per annum) were also to blame.

The move was proposed by King Abdullah in an attempt to help Jordanians cope with rising inflation caused by the government decision to raise the prices of fuel, food and other basic items.