Promoting apartment culture can cure Pakistan’s homelessness problem?

The State Bank of Pakistan’s statistics show that the country is 9 million units short in the housing sector and 400,000 units are being added to the existing backlog each year. The problem is further cemented by uncontrollable growth of population and unemployment, which is becoming the main reason behind the poor finding no place to call a home of their own.

Affordable housing is an increasing need across Pakistan and with more and more people finding it difficult to buy a residential unit, the issue may soon to get out of hand if not dealt with properly.

Costly land

The best available option for now seems none other than adopting the less expensive architectural technique of vertical development, i.e. building medium height affordable apartment complexes for the less privileged.

Infrastructure development in Pakistan has been undertaken horizontally for decades, leaving little land in urban centers for conversion into affordable apartment clusters. Less land and a swelling population adds up to properties becoming pricier, and expensive land means that the underprivileged can’t even dream of owning a house in city centers. At least, not without government help.

According to property web portal Zameen.com, average land prices in Lahore rose 13.64% in the past year, while prices of 5 marla and 10 marla plots rose by 16.73% and 25.26%, respectively. Karachi had similar results with an average rise of 23.4% in land prices.

Population boom

The annual population growth in Pakistan in 2014 was measured at 2.1% by a World Bank study and the unchecked population rise is leading to both shortage of houses, as well as poverty and unemployment.

The issue of homelessness and ways of addressing it has gone mainstream. Fortunately, viable recommendations in this regard are in abundance.

Tasneem Siddique, a former bureaucrat and the brain behind ‘Khuda ki Basti’ scheme, a trailblazing 1986 housing project for the poor in Hyderabad, has been very vocal about the need to provide homes to low-income families.

Siddique’s policy brief regarding housing sector published by the Woodrow Wilson Center, stated that only 1% of housing is within the reach of Pakistan’s poor, which means that 68% of Pakistanis fight over 1% of its real estate. The options are low and the competition between the underprivileged is cutthroat.

The brief also mentioned that in the last 30 years the public sector has failed to invest in low-income housing, while the private sector has offered housing solution to the middle- and higher-income groups.

Measures

First and foremost, obvious amendments in this connection would require strengthening property laws that improve legal provisions, standardize processes and computerize all land records.

The government can introduce temporary legislation to limit large plots to 400 sq yards from the 3,000sq yards found in most posh localities. The area covered by one house here can leave enough space to accommodate three times the apartments for the poor while also keeping land prices stable. Legalizing the culture of developing small houses is another step towards ensuring that there is enough land to develop low cost apartments which can be allotted to the ones in need. A point in time is the Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance 1999 that was created with the purpose to promote small plot development schemes. This ordinance needs to be revived on a national level.

According to Siddique, another way to deal with this problem is to follow the government’s Hajj scheme formula in which young professionals from underprivileged backgrounds can dedicate a small amount of their monthly income and invest it in a government apartment scheme. After a specified time period, the same person can own that apartment at a controlled rate.

In this regard, examples of London’s council housing for the working class people and Singapore’s public housing initiative launched in the 1960s are worth mentioning. In the latter case, people used their provident funds to buy flats, a move that drastically cut down the number of homeless people in the country.

Moreover, the federal government should initiate low cost apartment projects and encourage formation of public limited construction companies or foundations in each province where loans can be acquired from banks and leasing companies by underprivileged families.

Furthermore, the abundance of land in rural areas can be exploited by the officials concerned by developing infrastructure. The development of small housing complexes in these areas will most likely slow down the migratory trend of rural population towards urban centers if dwellers are provided with the basic necessities of life.

Providing cheap apartments to the homeless might prove helpful in pacifying the homelessness situation in Pakistan on a temporary basis. A lot more needs to be done in this regard which will require the government, private developers and financial institutions coming together to deliver small affordable apartments to cater to a large number of homeless people across the country.

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