Housing policy gets mixed reviews

The government’s policy on low-income housing districts received mixed reactions from experts, with some praising it for providing basic utilities and others panning the plan for not addressing the root cause of slum growth.

A new UN-Habitat report, “The State of the World’s Cities 2006-7”, praises the government for investing in electricity, water and sanitation infrastructure in the country’s vast slum areas. “The approach of the government has been to extend basic infrastructure for water, electricity and sewage removal to slum areas,” said Naglaa Arafa, programme analyst with UNDP in Cairo, which is currently working with the housing ministry to develop government policy towards slums. “They’ve invested millions – maybe even billions – of Egyptian pounds.”

The report, to be released Monday during the third session of the World Economic Forum in Vancouver, measures the growth and development of the world’s cities in terms of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. During 2007, the report notes, the percentage of the global population living in urban areas will outstrip the percentage of those living in rural areas for the first time in history. Most new city dwellers, however, will live in slum areas, where their economic prospects – as well as their access to healthcare, education and sanitation facilities – will often be worse than in the rural areas they came from.

According to Arafa, Egypt is home to 1,221 urban slum areas, housing between 12 and 15 million of the country’s approximately 75 million citizens. While the report praises Egypt – along with Mexico, Brazil and South Africa – for its policies toward slum areas, Arafa noted that the government’s policy has focused on providing utilities without addressing the factors that cause slum growth. “The biggest factor is access to housing for the poor,” she said. “The government doesn’t allocate land for the poor, so they move to the outskirts of cities and establish their own networks of slum housing.”

The trend is furthered, Arafa added, by a lack of detailed urban planning that accounts for population growth, the absence of clear boundaries around villages and cities and the failure of law enforcement to prevent illegal construction on agricultural land.

Ola Abbas, vice-chairman of the General Organisation for Physical Planning at the housing ministry, acknowledged these problems, mentioning also that there was no single definition of “slum”. “When we talk about ‘slums’, we’re talking about illegal buildings on agricultural land, people living in tombs, building desert settlements and living on rooftops,” said Abbas.

In any event, improving life in low-income areas and stopping slum growth has become a national priority, according to Abbas, and one frequently addressed by President Hosni Mubarak in the last presidential election. “The effects of the slums aren’t only on the people who live in them,” said Abbas. “They’re on the whole society. Terrorism comes from slums. Sickness comes from slums. Any area that has a negative health and social environment causes problems for the entire country.”

Abbas went on to cite the provision of land and economic opportunity as the best way to deal with the issue. “If we give these people the right place to live and a way to earn a living, the problem is solved,” he said. “It’s those two things: housing and work.”

BH/AR/AM