Capital Tackles Housing Woes

Better regulation and more money for new developments hoped to ease problems facing the sector. By Faleh Hasan in Baghdad

Capital Tackles Housing Woes

Better regulation and more money for new developments hoped to ease problems facing the sector. By Faleh Hasan in Baghdad

Thursday, 25 March, 2010

The Baghdad government is stepping up its efforts to curb uncontrolled construction and unauthorised land deals brought on by a housing shortage residents feel is tearing at the social fabric of the capital.

At the same time, the authorities are planning to build tens of thousands of housing units, with much of the initial construction in the overcrowded slums of Sadr City.

Municipal officials say an independent committee is evaluating building permits and land transfers in an effort to return order to Baghdad's housing sector, after years of chaos created by war, random construction and waves of internal refugees.

The commission is meant to address years of weak oversight that have led to the repeated division of existing homes into smaller units and sprawling shantytowns that have sprung up in some of Baghdad's empty spaces.

A study released in 2009 by the United Nations Human Settlements Program, UN HABITAT, concluded that Iraq is experiencing a housing shortage "of at least 1.5 million units, with the total housing stock of about 2.8 million units well below the minimum requirement”.

According to the study, the average Iraqi family has 6.9 members, and there are 2.8 people per bedroom in Baghdad where 60 per cent of the city's seven million residents live in dwellings that need "major rehabilitation".

Housing problems and a lack of services are worse in the capital's poorer neighbourhoods such as Sadr City and the Ur district northeast of Baghdad. Residents there say the conditions deteriorated during the international economic embargo of the Nineties.

"These neighbourhoods were neglected in past decades and this was a deliberate effort by the regime of Saddam Hussein to keep [them] uncivilised and undeveloped," Baghdad governor Salah Abdul-Razzaq said.

Baghdad mayor Sabir al-Essawi said major new housing projects are being planned for the capital to address the growing demand for accommodation. He said ten billion dollars had been earmarked for the construction of 150,000 units in Sadr City - home to just under half the capital’s population - over the next ten years. Essawi said there were also plans to expand housing in central and southern parts of Baghdad.

Yas Mohammad, a real estate broker from the Al-Zafraniya district, southeast of the city, said the government’s plans “will definitely help solve the housing problem. This issue is critical because it will help deal with social issues and lower real estate and land costs as well”.

Although the price varies by area, Baghdad real estate agents put the current average price of a square metre of floor area at one million Iraqi dinars (840 United States dollars). Analysts say housing costs have steadied since the return of relative stability that drove prices to record levels after the US-led invasion in 2003.

The high cost of land and scarcity of existing homes has led enterprising Baghdad homeowners to sell off parcels of property to raise money. With no framework to monitor these transactions, residents say the frequency of the deals is out of control and has disrupted traditional neighbourhoods.

Essawi believes the rampant sub-division of homes is a "very dangerous issue" that must be addressed by the new housing committee.

"We have shown some leniency with citizens who built houses without obtaining official approval in addition to those who split their houses due to the circumstances they have been suffering from, especially in the capital," Abdul-Razzaq said.

According to Baghdad real estate broker Abu Mustafa, standard homes in the capital are shrinking by the day as owners of apartment complexes rush to sell off blocks of property in 100 or even 50-square metre chunks.

"Before, a home built on 400 sq m would be occupied by four to seven people. Now, after it's divided up, the same area is being occupied by 25 to 40 people," Mustafa said. "And as for [the number of] houses on a street, it used to be 20 to 24, but now it has become 40 to 60."

The result is overcrowding and a struggle over overstretched utilities such as power, sewage systems and clean water. Mohammad told IWPR that 962 families lived in apartments in one block in the Zafraniya neighbourhood. Three hundred more families moved in when the original apartments were split up.

Some Baghdad residents, such as Moaza Abdullah, 48, from the suburb of Adhamiyah, say the overcrowding is ruining their neighbourhoods.

"One house is now three [houses] after being divided up. The neighbourhood is now ugly. There are no more gardens, garages or even yards," Abdullah said.

"The arrival of new people has created a kind of confusion among the original residents. Now, when new neighbours move in, people start to whisper about them."

Essawi said a permit will now be required to sub-divide or expand a home, and the permit process will be monitored by the new committee. The body, which is headed by the municipality, is authorised to impose fines of up to 500,000 dinars (420 dollars) for violations, among other sanctions. "The committee is independent and all its rulings are respected," he said.

Faleh Hasan is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.

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