Picture a block of contemporary high-rise apartments with lush green landscaping of lawns and palm trees, kids riding bikes around. Then a major street. And right across the street, poorly built temporary structures with no drainage, wastewater discharged on to the streets. This is the reality in many cities. Sometimes these different classes of housing units are not sited so close to each other. But almost every city has the usual gamut of housing types ranging from slums and very low-quality housing to decent middle-class housing, luxury, high-rise apartments and gated estate communities.
Severally referred to as informal housing, they develop as a result of several factors, none bigger than uncontrolled urbanization. The insatiable appeal of urban areas to rural dwellers is often the root of this problem. As more and more people move into cities, the harsh realities of inadequate housing begin to bite. Sometimes the rent is beyond their financial reach. They are forced to put up in temporary structures. Facilities like potable water, electricity, and drainage facilities are not available. There are high levels of congestion, crime rates and violence are usually high.
These range from affordable housing units developed by governments to single and multi-family rooms developed and sold/let out by private individuals. The target market is lower and mid-level government employees, law enforcement and health sector personnel. There is sometimes some home financing arrangement available for prospective buyers who qualify. Occasionally, homes in this mold are developed by government agencies for their employees. Monthly deductions/payments are made in the form of rent or payment instalments towards a purchase.
They come in the form of condominiums, townhouses, penthouses and apartments. These are sometimes sited on prime lands with very high values, the designs are international level standards, and they command premium rents or sale prices. These developments are also equipped with state-of-the-art facilities like gyms, roof-top gardens and pools, dedicated/underground parking, and recreational facilities like tennis and basketball courts. The target is usually expats, athletes and other high net-worth individuals.
Exclusive gated communities
These types of developments comprise several houses developed to the same design, usually by the same developer. Because a large expanse of land is needed for this development, it is usually carried out away from the city centre, sometimes along waterfronts. Buyers have the means to commute long distances to and from work in the city centre. These developments are also targeted at the upper-middle-class members of society and high net-worth individuals who desire a more serene atmosphere away from the noise and bustle of the city centre.
Where to now?
Housing provision has been a thorny issue for several governments. There have been arguments about leaving it entirely to the market forces of demand and supply. Another school of thought argues that governments should take an active and controlling role, initiating the majority of the buildings and capping the prices and rents to be charged.
Clearly, neither approach is right or wrong. For starters, there are different preferences by different income groups in society. Some people will be just fine in a no-frills two-bedroom apartment. Others with the means will prefer the high-risers giving them spectacular views of the city, as well as a sense of belongingness. Some others will lean towards privacy and opt for a gated community in the suburbs.
But the common ground is that as more and more people move into our urban areas, the demand for housing will always be on the increase, outstripping supply. Efforts must thus be adopted to help (effective) supply match the demand for housing. If the government is leading the development, for instance, there is the need for the development to hold a high financial appeal among the intended target.
Governments must take a second look at the procedure and bureaucracies involved in the building process. From land acquisition to permitting, an inspection of buildings during construction and finally market regulation, there should be a streamlining of the activities of all agencies involved. The cost and duration of some of these processes in some countries are unacceptable. In the long run, all these reduce the short term supply of housing or else increase the short term cost of housing.
On the cost of housing, there should be a strong emphasis on the use of local materials for construction to reduce the costs. The cost of importing some building materials only increases the cost of the building after construction. The nature of the land and property markets is also a factor that bears heavily on cost.
Finally, the availability of home financing options is worth a mention. Where there is no robust mortgage industry, the home buying process gets even more challenging. The hands of developers are tied and they are sometimes forced to demand very high down-payments from buyers. Buyers are effectively trapped, as they might not have the amount readily available.
In summary, urban housing needs, though ever-changing, are never-ending. There is a clarion call for all stakeholders to team up to find the most suitable solution to make life in the cities more meaningful and dignifying, starting with housing. It is possible. It is doable. It only calls for a collaborative effort.