Housing Crunch Hits Young Couples in Sulaimaniyah

High prices and lack of new homes make it difficult for newlyweds to find a place of their own.

Housing Crunch Hits Young Couples in Sulaimaniyah

High prices and lack of new homes make it difficult for newlyweds to find a place of their own.

Thursday, 27 July, 2006
Shayma Omar's world is limited to four walls in her mother-in-law's house. Within the one room she shares with her husband and her one-year-old son, Shayma, a 27-year-old housewife, sleeps, watches television, prepares food and tries to avoid her mother-in-law's acidic tongue.

She yearns to live in a family home of her own, but high housing prices in this northeastern Kurdish city mean there is little chance she will escape her small, suffocating world any time soon.

"If I could have rented a house, I wouldn't be living here," said Omar, tears welling up in her eyes. "We’re always fighting with my mother-in-law."

The two biggest economic issues facing residents of northern Iraq are the housing shortage and low salaries, and the combination makes it difficult for young couples to afford to live on their own.

House prices in Sulaimaniyah skyrocketed after the fall of the Baathist government in 2003. As the economy grew, villagers moved in looking for better-paid jobs, and people from other parts of Iraq migrated to a city widely considered the safest in the country.

Marriages, too, flourished following the cancellation of United Nations-imposed sanctions three years ago, but many young couples now find themselves priced out of the market and living at home.

Bakir Mohammad, 32, owns the Lara estate agents’ company in a middle-class Sulaimaniyah neighbourhood. He reckoned that house prices have increased fourfold since 2000, and are still rising daily because of the high demand. He said a 200-square-metre house is now worth 120,000 to 150,000 US dollars. The same property costs between 250 and 500 dollars a month to rent.

"The housing crisis is among the main economic problems in the region. The rents are unaffordable not just for one person, but even for a family," said Niyaz Najmadeen, a professor in the statistics department of Sulaimaniyah University's college of administration and economics. "The Kurdistan government pays low incomes, and building a house is costly."

The civil servants who account for much of Sulaimaniyah's workforce earn as little as 100 dollars a month.

According to Shwan Mahmood, the 42-year-old owner of the Pasand firm of estate agents, another reason why housing prices have skyrocketed is that private companies, government agencies and non-governmental organisations are willing to pay higher-than-average rents and have moved into private houses rather than Sulaimaniyah's limited office space.

And then there is the population increase. Thanks to the instability in other regions that has forced some Iraqis to move to Sulaimaniyah, as well as a growing number of jobs in the city, its population is increasing by about three per cent every year, according to Mahmood Othman, head of Sulaimaniyah's statistical office.

The government of the Kurdish region - which assumed office in May, replacing the two separate administrations which previously ran the three northern governorates known collectively as Iraqi Kurdistan - has said it wants to adopt free market principles following decades of Baathist socialism.

The previous Sulaimaniyah-based government set aside 30 million dollars to build 25,000 new housing units in 2006. The authorities are also facilitating loans and payments for married couples who want to purchase housing through the Nawzad company, which wants to build 5,000 homes in Sulaimaniyah over the next two years. The government offers first-time buyers 7,500 dollar-loans.

But the housing project has progressed in fits and starts, and few new homes have been built in the city this year. Many residents said that even if the additional housing comes, it is overpriced when compared with average income levels. Nawzad is selling houses at 275 dollars per square metre.

Tara Mohammad, a 31-year-old employee at Sulaimaniyah University, has spent nearly a year looking for a house to live in with her future husband. She makes 250,000 Iraqi dinars (about 170 dollars) a month, while her fiancé earns only 100,000 each month.

Tara has frequent arguments with her father and other family members about why she has not moved out yet, and now she is close to giving up on her marriage plans as well as finding a home.

"The housing problem isn't a problem for me for me alone. It's affecting all of my friends," she said. "If I don't find a house, the best solution will be for us to break up."

Azeez Mahmood is an IWPR contributor in Sulaimaniyah.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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