Over the Last Three Decades HOUSING DEVELOPMENT IN YEMEN [Archives:1998/51/Focus]

December 21 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 
By: Architect Kamal Haglan
Ministry of Construction, Housing & Urban Plannng
MA in Architecture and Housing Studies
University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, U.K.
Housing is considered, in all countries and over the centuries, as one of the most important and basic priorities in life after food and clothes. The people of Yemen have been famous since a long time for their skills as builders – building houses, dams, terraces, etc. – with locally produced material.
Our towns, filled with old buildings, are the best witness to that fact. Our ancient dams and impressive terraces adorning mountain-sides are additional proof.
The availability of land, especially in rural areas where almost every family owns land, the participation of family members, relatives and even neighbors in the construction process in addition to presence of local building materials were amongst the factors that made housing construction easy and affordable.
The Seventies and Eighties
However, this situation started changing as a result of political, social and economic developments following the 1962 revolution. After Yemen opened up to the outside world, the construction sector witnessed a rapid increase to meet rising demand. Most houses in our cities and much of the residential countryside were constructed since the seventies. Many factors are responsible for this phenomenon, above all the population increase, rural-to-urban migration, and a higher level of income.
The main construction boom occurred during the 1970 and part of the 1980s, when the Yemeni bread winner’s relatively high income at that time enabled him to save money for use in real estate investment. At first, citizens depended on local contractors and material. But later, foreign contractors and material came into the picture.
Role of the Public Sector
At the same time that the private sector invested in construction, the Yemeni government’s rising level of revenue – from local and external sources – enabled it to invest in building infrastructure, as well as offices, schools, hospitals, and other buildings. Services and utilities needed for private residences, company offices and industrial development became more available.
The construction of an asphalted network of roads facilitated the import and movement of building materials such as cement, steel, wood, etc. The public sector played an important role in determining urban land uses such as types of streets and location of necessary services such as schools, mosques and clinics. It provided the people with building permits and furnished necessary infrastructure to existing and new suburbs. However, it did not keep up with the rapid increase in construction which was manifested in the acute shortage of water, sewer drainage, electric, telephone and other connections.
Furthermore, the public sector launched a number of housing projects for low-income government civil servants with financial and technical assistance from regional and international orgnizations. In some projects, the government provided the land, infrastructure and plans and then left responsibility of building to the beneficiaries. In certain cases, the Housing Credit Bank either directly contracted out the construction process, or provided soft loans to those citizens. Examples of such projects are the Sawad Sawan in Sanaa and Ghalel in Hodeidah. The number of beneficiaries, however, is still very low compared to the people who are in desperate need of housing facilities.
In what used to be called the PDRY (South Yemen) before the 1990 reunification, the government, that took total control over real estate ownership following the 1967 independence. All kinds of property and lands were nationalized. The government shouldered responsibility of providing housing for each and every citizen. It ostensibly pledged to construct housing units and provide them to the people as tenants and not owners. Unfortunately, due to high costs, scarce sources and lack proper management, the government was not able to meet the increasing demand. As a result, not much construction took place.
The Nineties
By the late eighties and early nineties, the economic and social situation in the whole country started to deteriorate dramatically as a result of many factors including external and internal changes. On the national side, reunification of Yemen became possible in 1990 followed by big demographic movements, then political tension, and the 1994 civil war which greatly affected the country’s development prospects by shifting financial resources to military uses.
On the regional side, the second Gulf war had a strong negative impact on Yemen’s economy when some one million Yemeni expatriates returned from the Gulf countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The returnees used to pump almost two billion U.S. dollars in remittances to the country. Furthermore, Gulf assistance of almost 250 million a year, stopped immediately as a result of Yemen’s position on the war.
These factors led to acute decline in the annual income.
The demographic factors such as a high birth rate, 3.7% – one of the highest in the world – further complicated the situation. If present population trends persist, it is estimated that the population of Yemen in 2020 will reach 27.5 million.
The average size of the Yemeni family per dwelling increased from 5.8 persons to 7.2 persons. That means that more family members will share the same house leaving less space for its occupants who will suffer from overcrowding.
Amidst such hard circumstances, securing adequate housing became a very difficult task particularly for low income groups.
Prices of land soared due to speculation in the large cities, the capital in particular. The increase in prices of construction material, especially of those imported, along with the difficulties of acquiring loans, added to the difficulty of building one’s own house.
Another complication was the continuing migration from rural to urban areas. As a result of such factors, many families, especially in the low-income category, resort to building in unplanned areas or they illegally occupy public lands. Thus, the squatter settlement phenomenon arose in Yemeni cities. In most cases, the construction process of these squatters take place over a short period of time to avoid harassment by the authorities. Most of the building material is simple and cheap. More often than not, the family members move into the poorly constructed dwelling before full completion of the house. Windows, doors and other extension works, in many cases, are installed at later stages. Of course, there are no electric, water, sewer or other services.
There has been a visible increase in the number of such squatter areas around Yemeni cities, particularly after the return of the workers from the Gulf war. Evidently, the housing conditions of such areas negatively affect the health of inhabitants especially children and women.
It is not only in Yemen that low income people face the difficulty of obtaining a house. This is a problem in most developing countries and it is expected to continue in the near future. The Yemeni society will be burdened with the rising demand for housing units and the associated demand for complementary infrastructure and utilities. Many individuals will now have to depend on their ingenuity for acquiring their own dwellings.
There are already several social consequences to the housing shortages.
1) Many young men and women delay their marriage plans. The average marrying age has moved from the late teens, to the early 20s and now to the mid-20s.
2) Many newly-married couples find themselves forced to live with their parents, thus giving up some degree of privacy.
3) Many husbands have decided to take back the wife and kids to the village. In other words, a certain level of urban-to-rural migration is in shape.
That is why the government has lately encouraged the private sector to engage heavily in solving the housing problem.
One of the main areas which needs attention is ways to resolve differences over real estate ownership. The ways deeds are registered, proper enforcement of the law, and other steps are important factors in this process.
Even then, it is important to adopt a comprehensive housing policy which is, so far, absent. It is important, when preparing such a policy, to take into consideration all aspects of the housing problem.
New regulations and legislations must be introduced to remove the constraints that hamper the private sector’s contribution in this field. The recent experience has shown that the private sector implements high or medium standard housing projects, which are oriented towards the needs of foreigners. Thus, such projects they will not be suitable to the majority of Yemenis. Thus, the private sector should be encouraged to invest in housing projects for low income groups making use of local material. One way to do that would be to offer public land and tax breaks to investments in low income housing.