Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dream Homes Turn Off Erbil Residents

With many locals struggling to pay their rents, plans for a luxury development have not gone down well.
By Fazl Najeeb
Ameen Muhammad, 72, spent 33 years of his life working for the ministry of housing. Now he is retired, and his biggest problem is - housing.

Up ‘till 1990s, he owned a house, which he inherited from his father, but was forced to sell it to save his family from going hungry, a fate he shared with many Iraqi families during the economic sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait.

He lives in a rented house in a middle-class neighbourhood, for which he pays 300 dollars per month - around three times his monthly pension. He can’t find anywhere cheaper because rents have soared in the Kurdish capital over the past couple years. Without the support of his son, who runs a small shop, Muhammad could not get by.

The old man often spends his days with his friends at one of the teahouses in the centre of Erbil. They sip their sweet tea and talk about how life is changing in their hometown.

The most obvious signs of change are the countless cranes towering over the place. A building boom has seen the construction of new bridges, shopping malls and apartment blocks.

For Mohammad and his friends, however, much of the new housing is not an option, especially that on offer in the biggest residential project, Dream City, a multi-million dollar development, consisting of 1200 luxury homes, ranging from 170,000 to one million US dollars.

By way of comparison, houses in poor neighbourhoods of Erbil cost around 75,000 dollars and four times more in wealthier suburbs.

“Even if I spend the remaining years of my life working every minute, I won't be able to own even the smallest villa in [Dream City]," said Mohammad.

Located in the west of Erbil close to the international airport, the luxury housing project got under way in 2005 and is expected to be finished in five years’ time.

Advertisements featured in newspapers run by the governing KDP party praise the new 300-million- dollar development as the “most beautiful and fanciest” in Iraq.

Sa'd Ihsan, the head of PR for the Iraqi Construction Company, ICC, which is implementing the project, says the Kurdish government gave the go-ahead after it was proposed as an investment for the area.

But people here take a dim view of the development. Many stopped discussing it after learning how much apartments were going to cost, as they are well beyond the means of most workers, who earn an average of 100 dollars a month, which is barely enough to pay for basic necessities.

Hushyar Bakir, 40, is married and earns a living as a taxi driver. He has six brothers and a sister, with whose family he shares his father’s house. Bakir says that even if he and his siblings were “to throw all our money together, we could not afford a house in Dream City”.

Abdulkareem Qadi, a university graduate, wonders how the government can give approval for a luxury-housing scheme when it “cannot provide the city with water and electricity?"

But the Middle East Construction Company, ICC’s mother company, defends the high prices for property, saying that it started selling units as soon as the project was made public and the majority of customers have been businessmen and doctors.

"People from all over Iraq can buy villas," said a media adviser for the company, who declined to be named because of security concerns. “Although prices for our villas are too high for [low-level] government employees.”

Financial experts say that while the majority of Iraqis continue to struggle, many of those involved in business are doing well and can afford Dream City prices.

Adham Ahmed, head of the Kurdistan Central Bank, said, “Profits of business people have broken the record, and their capital grows every year. At the same time, the income of ordinary people does not change."

For those who cannot afford a Dream City home, the government promises to offer more affordable alternatives. "The regional government has a plan to make all Erbil a dream city," said Ferhad Mohammad, a local authority spokesman.

He said the government aims to build 5,000 low-cost housing units. The homes will sell for 30,000 dollars and people on very low incomes should be able to afford them, as they will be allowed to pay in installments over an extended period, he continued.

For Murad Saeed, 56, a doctor, money is not a problem. When colleagues of his bought property in Dream City, he decided to join them. He says if the development can provide, water, electricity and security then it will deserve its name.

Fazl Najeeb is an IWPR trainee journalist in northern Iraq.

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