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The unblemished truth about Nigeria’s housing ‘crisis’ II

There are three issues with our housing ‘crisis’.

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One, the private developers in Nigeria, and even the government have tried to focus on mortgage lately. Sorry, it won’t work. We have not organized ourselves for the mortgage idea. Too many people are out of work and the educational system has been deliberately broken by you-know-whom. Too many are eking a living by being street-traders or ‘hustling’ or owning some small business with irregular cash flow.  We have no pool of artisans and ‘handwork’ is seen as failure! No deliberate policy has tried to actively reorganize society in this regard. So how do we support a mortgage system when people have no steady salary?  Our lack of organization is also the reason why a secondary market for housing – or anything else – is hardly existent, compared with say the UK where Capital Gains Tax on properties sold yearly for profit, nets at least 5 billion pounds sterling (N2.5trillion), mostly from London. 

Two, Nigeria has wasted trillions upon trillions on luxury housing, most of which are sitting and collapsing where they stand today. Housing business is sweet. It is great and exhilarating to transform spaces, to transform jungles into neat luxury estates and all that.  The problem is that usually developers go for the kill. They price their houses at perhaps 5 times the cost of putting up their units. That is 400% profit. Again, only a few can afford those kinds of houses.  Not up to 100,000 are employed in Nigeria’s financial sector for example (including banks, stockbroking firms, insurance firms, central bank, regulators etc), and the figure is dwindling with all sorts of layoffs these days. Less than half of that is employed in Nigeria’s oil sector – private and public sector. The entire population of middle and upper-classers in Nigeria is not up to 800,000 (including their spouses, children, brothers and sisters). This is 800,000 (a generous figure) out of 170million or whichever figure we decide to believe in. Only 1 in 20 Nigerians can be said to be truly comfortable such as to afford a house built by private developers. 1 in 20 could even be too generous.

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Even if it is 800,000, these are people that also know there are opportunities for them to buy their own land and build, rather than buy off an expensive developer.  This is why there is no traction from that sector on which many developers depended. Many of these middle and upper classers have however already bought quite a number of these hyper-expensive properties with the hope of renting.  A downturn in the economy ensured that they are people sitting on those properties today. Where they get tenants, the hassle of obtaining their yearly rents is another thing. We didn’t learn from the subprime mortgage crash in the USA to know that it is untrue that house prices never fall. They do fall. Though if you refuse to reduce prices because you want to hold on to a myth, the houses just dilapidate in your hands. More than 300,000 housing units lie fallow all over Abuja as I type. Most of them are ‘luxury’. And they are pitiably falling apart.  If you see their states today, you will weep. The MD of AMCON, Ahmed Kuru, spoke about the folly of people who refused to lower the prices of their real estate in a recent interview. 

In short, we should forget all these luxury real estates. What we need actually, is BASIC HOUSING.

Three. It is the role of government to take a lead on this.  They may not be able to influence developers in setting prices, but they should care about prototypes. What types of buildings should we be focusing on? Which demographic do we have a problem with? Over 70% of Nigerians presently crawl out of stinky ghettos with zero infrastructure every morning – including those with some sort of corporate jobs. As a people we haven’t yet set the standards and outlawed some kind of despicable living. Perhaps that is where to start. The last real attempt at mass housing ended with Lateef Jakande in 1983. There is no plan for the lowest among us. If Singapore built up, we also need to determine how we will house our large population. The USA also built the Projects in the 80s. What plans do we have for our youths and not-so-young? Why have we left our poorest to live in conditions that will irritate even the beasts of the wild? The world is watching us, mouth agape. We need to positively outlaw the spread of urban ghetto sprawls. 

 The ghetto squads have won

But the truth on ground is that the ghetto squads have won! In a place like Abuja, Mallam El-Rufai, when he was a minister announced on national TV that anyone earning less than N50,000 monthly should  leave Abuja and go back to their villages. That was around 2003. He demolished many shanty houses and rendered 500,000 homeless (according to UN Refugee Commission figures then). His successors, Adamu Aliero and Bala Mohammed also demolished their own tens of thousands. The new gentleman there says he will not demolish though. True, demolition is not the solution, but what plans do we have?

In Abuja, the Federal Capital, just as it is in many other towns across the country, the poor have taken position and are now unshakeable. They have seen it all and are ready to dare government.  They aren’t going anywhere. They continue to buy land from dodgy unofficial quarters and ghetto houses are springing up by the thousands everywhere; badly built, and defacing the layout of the land. The sprawls are expanding.  The government is absent. And this is year 2017, where other countries are thinking but Nigeria is asleep.

It occurred to me to write this when I visited an abandoned housing estate around Aleyita in Abuja. Aleyita is one of Abuja’s 100s of ghetto settlements. It must have been demolished a few times. But it stands. And today, it’s thriving. The corporate guys who thought they could use the power of big money to crowd out the ghetto without making any alternative plans for the millions who dwell therein are tired and defeated. It seems they no longer have access to cheap money or cheap loans to continue their luxury estates. And so, the people of Aleyita today freely use the middle of the abandoned, half-complete luxury estate of about 200 duplexes as thoroughfare. All over Abuja, the slums and shanties are growing. From Apo, to Asokoro to Maitama, from Utako, to Jabi, Wuse and all over Garki, not to talk of Mpape, Dawaki, Gwarimpa and into Suleija, Gwagwalada, Nyanya and Mararaba, millions of our people are eking some sort of survival since their country doesn’t give a hoot and their leaders are on vacation.  Somehow, the super big men who planned Abuja, and who superintend over our other big cities never gave a thought to where those little men who serve them as drivers, cleaners, cooks, chaperons and so on, should live.  They just never cared.  Yet the true measure of development is to get these less privileged people to live properly and appreciate the good life. It’s pretty basic stuff.  Instead we are consolidating the gains of income inequality by expanding luxury estates on one hand, and vast urban slums on the other.  We are setting ourselves up for disaster.

Still one day, some crazy minister will embark on new demolitions in Abuja, without alternative plans. On that day, I shudder at what will happen since the people are now totally disconnected and patriotism has since departed from us.

All is fair in love and war. 

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