21st Century Real Estate

Housing for all

Housing for all

October 12, 2018
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018

THE housing initiative announced by the government is highly laudable

considering the seriousness of the housing shortage in the country. By some

estimates, demand for housing increases by 200,000 every year, with a backlog

of almost nine million units, yet no major government housing scheme has been

launched in decades. Instead, vast swathes of prime, state-owned land in

urban as well as agricultural areas are being eaten up by rapacious property

developers in the private sector who build to cater largely to elite demand.

As the housing shortage grows, the vast majority of the poor find themselves

left to the mercy of the rental market and the informal sector. Successive

governments have shown marked apathy towards this situation, since catering

to the housing needs of the poor does not carry the promise of outsize


Given this context, the PTI government at the centre has done the right thing

to prioritise housing and own the initiative at the highest level. The next

step is to bring greater transparency to how the scheme will be structured

and more importantly, how it will be financed. Housing is a complex issue in

Pakistan because it touches on so many areas that are only partially under

the control of the federal government, and many of the issues involved go far

beyond housing alone. Zoning and tenancy laws play a big part, as do taxes

and the depth of the financial markets. A scheme built on the simple idea of

providing free land to private developers, with the condition that they will

build only for low-income groups, runs the risk of ending up like the 14,000

plus acres reserved for that purpose by the Sindh government in Karachi’s

Malir district. That land, through the provincial government’s own

machinations, was instead handed over to Bahria Town as part of a huge, for-

profit gated community.

A major source of scepticism about the plan, however, is the sheer size of

the financing involved — a reported $180 billion — and its scope, which is to

build five million houses in five years. The fervour with which the party and

its followers believe in their ability to do big things can be admired, but

questions remain about the viability of the initiative. If it is implemented

in project mode alone, without accompanying legislation that seeks to change

the power structures of urban Pakistan, give more voice to the poor in

representative municipal bodies, improve the provision of civic services like

water, sewerage and solid waste management, then it will amount to little

more than another speculative enterprise. And the ability to finance $36bn

per year, even through mortgage financing, will be challenged by the

shallowness of Pakistan’s debt markets. The intention behind the initiative

is laudable, but translating it into outcomes on the ground is likely to

prove a bigger challenge than what the party seems to have bargained for.

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