Standing in front of a banner that read “Developing Lives” on March 11, Deputy Housing Minister Ahmed Darwish presented the housing alternatives the government plans to offer residents of downtown Cairo’s Maspero Triangle after their land is confiscated and houses razed as part of a contested urban redevelopment project.
Not long after Darwish had finished, the hall began to buzz with residents’ objections. Many described the state’s housing alternatives and financial compensation as an injunction to “self-relocate.”
The Maspero Triangle is composed of a network of narrow and integrated alleyways, the most famous of which is Sharkas Alley, named after the Turkish landowner who held sway over the area 100 years ago. But when Sharkas abruptly left the country in the 1940s, he established an endowment for his former workers, allowing them to continue to on the land legally for the 20-year period of the endowment’s duration. The years since the endowment expired have been marked by conflict centered on claims of ownership over the valuable land in the heart of downtown Cairo and near the Nile River.
That was the narrative retold by the older residents, and which was relayed to Mada Masr by Ahmed Zaazaa, an architect who worked on a participatory project with the residents to redevelop and renovate the cascading buildings in the Maspero Triangle four years ago.
The government’s economic redevelopment plans for the Maspero Triangle were made public when the Cairo 2050 master plan for the capital’s redevelopment was unveiled in early 2008. The plan depicted a luxurious, modern Cairo. However, as Zaazaa noted in a previous interview with Mada Masr, the there was no mention of the role residents would have in the development of their neighborhoods. Later that year, Maspero Triangle residents established the Association for the residents of Maspero Triangle to defend the land and began working with a group of architects and researchers at the Maad Platform on a participatory project that would forego eviction, while allowing for investment opportunities in the area.
Maad and the residents’ efforts culminated when the Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements Ministry – established in July 2014 – adopted their plan, with Foster and Partners winning a competition to design the redevelopment plans. However, by the end of 2015, the ministry had been abolished and the governance and planning of informal areas was transferred back to the Housing Ministry, which had other plans for the Maspero Triangle. The fate of the area has been unclear to residents since, with the first information coming at the March 11 meeting between Darwish, Cairo Deputy Governor Mohamed Amin and residents.
“This place will be developed by you. You will be able to stay here, if this is your desire,” Darwish told the residents at the beginning of his address. “The state does not want to relocate anyone.” While Darwish presented residents with five alternatives, he also gave assurances that other alternatives will be unveiled at a later date.
Darwish’s presentation did not go smoothly, as residents regularly interrupted him with objections, anger and, at times, mockery. Nonetheless, the deputy housing minister maintained a diplomatic smile throughout the four hours he spent with them.
The Darwish alternatives include three plans by which residents can remain living in the Maspero Triangle and two by which they can relocate. However, they ultimately grant incentives that reaffirm current socioeconomic hierarchies in the area, by hitching compensatory payments to the number of rooms residents currently occupy in a given household, paying LE60,000 in compensation for each room. However, the compensation is not directly dispensed in some of the five options outlined below. Rather, it is placed in a bank account where it accrues interest at a rate of 10 percent. The interest returns are then factored into the options whereby residents choose to remain in the area after development as deductions. This is done such a way, however, so that those able to rent larger flats with more rooms at higher prices are given greater affordances than those who would only be able to trade current cramped quarters for similar tight but more expensive spaces.
Under the first option, residents will be able to lease either a 60-square-meter or 75-square-meter flat in the Maspero Triangle under a contract that can be inherited by a next of kin once. While rent for these properties would range from LE2,510 to LE3,125 per month, the government would allow families to have the interest paid on their compensation deducted from the rent value. The deduction would range from LE500 to LE3,000, and the household would be liable to cover the remaining rent.
Under the second option, a household can obtain a leasing contract that terminates in ownership, but under which residents forfeit the right of sale during the lease period. The government has listed the value of the 60-square-meter and 75-square-meter flats at LE360,000 and LE450,000 respectively. After deducting the compensatory payment, residents would be required to pay the remaining value over a 30-year period in monthly installments of LE650 to LE1,600 for the smaller flat and LE1,100 to LE2,050 for the larger flat.
The third option would allow residents to buy a range of more expensive flats – LE600,000 and LE750,000 – through a 30-year payment plan. In this case, families would pay installments of LE1,900 to LE2,850 per month for the smaller flat and LE2,700 to LE3,650 per month for the larger flat.
Many described the state’s housing alternatives and financial compensation as an injunction to “self-relocate.”
The explanation of these three plans was met with roars and objections from residents who decried the proposed rents as unaffordable. However, Darwish was able to appease some in the crowd with the fourth and fifth options, which outline scenarios in which the state would facilitate residents’ relocation.
In the fourth option, households would be granted compensatory payments to leave the area. Payments would range from LE100,000 for those occupying one room to LE280,000 for those occupying four rooms or more.
The final option would see each household receive a flat in Asmarat district of the Cairo suburb of Mokattam, where the state plans to relocate residents of several of the capital’s informal settlements. The Asmarat flats would be offered to the Maspero Triangle residents through the lease-to-own scheme, whereby each family would pay a monthly lease of LE300 that would be subject to a 5-percent annual increase.
Residents objections mainly focused on the steep rent and lease payments demanded of those who wish to remain in the Maspero Triangle after it is developed, especially given their limited income levels. Others expressed skepticism, saying that they were not sure they would be allowed to return to the area after the three-year redevelopment process is completed.
By presenting residents with a plan where the only attainable options are eviction or relocation, the state is creating a framework that promotes forced relocation while maintaining an illusion of choice.
Those who elect for one of the first three of the Darwish alternatives were offered two options for temporary housing during the redevelopment process. In the first, the government would issue a monthly LE500 cash voucher with which residents could then secure housing in whatever way they choose. Otherwise, the government would provide households a temporary housing unit in either Badr city or 6th of October City, both of which are on the outskirts of Cairo.
A member of the residents association stood up in the middle of the state presentation and addressed the audience. “The association does not know anything about what is being presented. We are as surprised as you are. Nobody will force us out of our homes,” he said.
“Nobody will leave against their will,” Darwish replied. “There is no coercion. The area has to develop. You can not keep living here in this way.”
However, the Darwish alternatives push residents to accept either cash compensation or relocation to the Asmarat neighborhood, given that most of the residents are either craftsmen or street vendors who have no fixed source of income to commit to the monthly lease payments demanded of them in return for staying in their neighborhood.
Zeinab, a 50-year-old widow who was born in the Maspero Triangle and has lived there all her life, opted for a cash compensation, which according to the specifications of her current property would come out to be LE160,000. She told Mada Masr on the margins of the conference that she can’t afford the state’s proposed monthly payment plans, as she and her sons currently live on her monthly pension of LE450. She estimated that the household monthly income varies around LE1,300 per month, which is less than the financial liabilities set by the Darwish scheme.
Relocation to the Asmarat district is equally prohibitive for her. “I can’t live there. It is too far,” she said, adding that she would try to find somewhere to rent in any of the neighborhoods surrounding the Maspero Triangle, including Ard al-Lewa and Boulaq al-Dakrour.
But Um Eslam, who has lived in the Maspero Triangle for more than 14 years, sees this distant neighborhood as the only alternative. As the mother of three children who suffer from epilepsy, she says she only cares about putting a roof over their heads and living in an area where there is access to schools and a hospital. “We will agree to move to the Asmarat neighborhood. But will there be a hospital for my children?”
For Um Sameh, who lives with her son, his wife and their two children in one room that they rent for LE10 per month, none of the alternatives is acceptable to her. “My son sells children’s clothes and earns little income. I get a pension of LE320 a month, because I am a widow. We are basically barely managing with God’s help,” she said, adding that moving to the Asmarat neighborhood would deprive the family of most of their income and heap on additional transport expenses. “Our livelihood is here.”
“We attended more than 70 meetings with former and current officials in the Housing Ministry and the Informal Settlements Redevelopment Fund. In all of them, we asserted the necessity of accommodating the social and economic circumstances of the residents,” Mahmoud Shaaban, a member of the residents association, told Mada Masr.
By presenting residents with a plan where the only attainable options are eviction or relocation, Shaaban said the state is creating a framework that promotes forced relocation while maintaining an illusion of choice.
The Darwish alternatives mock people’s socioeconomic circumstances and their inability to afford the costs that would come with living in their own neighborhood after its development.
“They came today with wide smiles to offer the people several alternatives” Shaaban said. “The reality is that what they are offering is a single alternative, which, in my opinion, is evicting people using cash compensations, if they can not afford to pay thousands every month.”
The residents association member said the Darwish alternatives mock people’s socioeconomic circumstances and their inability to afford the costs that would come with living in their own neighborhood after its development.
“As the residents rejected the alternatives set by the government, we are now waiting for the government to adjust the compensation values and to approach the association to hear the resident’s suggestions,” Shaaban said.
“Ahmed Darwish is offering us a 60 square meter flat here for LE2,500 per month, while the same space is offered furnished in Asmarat for a rent of LE300, said Islam Faisal, another member of the association. “It is just a matter of some building blocks put over each other. They cost the same. If the state really wants people to stay and not coerce them to relocate themselves, it should apply the Asmarat model here.”
Funded by the Tahya Masr Fund, the Asmarat compound in Mokattam was inaugurated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in May 2016 as part of a government’s plan to relocate residents of informal settlements. To date, hundreds of families from the Manshiet Nasser neighborhood in Cairo’s Deweika district have been relocated to Asmarat, with the government demolishing their cascading homes.
The relocation is part of a wider plan to relocate some 850,000 people from dangerous informal areas. The government has stated that it will have built 20,000 housing units in the Asmarat complex that will house around 100,000 people upon completion of the project’s final phase.
But relocation has been the government’s answer to people’s crumbling houses for decades. The “Osman Houses” located in 6th of October were provided to those whose homes were demolished rather than renovated in the years prior to the January 2011 revolution.
State-led relocation as a response to deteriorating houses has been facilitated by the construction of several other complexes on the outskirts of Cairo, such as Badr City, to which tanners working in the area connecting downtown to Old Cairo and overseeing the Nile are to be relocated, with the government explaining that the move will allow them to be close to a new tannery industrial complex.