The promise of a new housing minister and the policies Egyptians deserve

Mostafa Madbuly is the fourth housing minister since January 2011, the beginning of a revolution that called for social justice. It is rather unprecedented that the ministry sees four different heads in the span of three years, as tenures of a decade or even more have been the norm. It also happens to be the second time an urban planner makes minister — the other being Tarek Wafiq in Hesham Qandil’s Freedom and Justice Party-dominated Cabinet — as they have mostly been civil engineers with backgrounds in construction.

It is easy to dismiss Madbuly as someone uninterested in social justice, as he was the main architect behind the controversial Cairo 2050 plan that threatened hundreds of thousands of families with forced eviction, families who were surprised to find images of their neighborhoods replaced with gated communities, skyscrapers and 600 meter-wide avenues (from page 122 on).

It is also easy to label Madbuly as a high modernist planner, and say that he doesn’t really believe in participatory planning, for he was also responsible for the Egypt 2052 Regional Plan, which was prepared at the time local councils were not in session, and thereby without any democratic local participation of the communities these plans will affect.

But what is more important is Madbuly’s expertise in matters of urban research and planning, to which his résumé attests. Much of his research reveals him to be someone who is quite knowledgeable of Egypt’s housing and urban problems, something that will come in handy no doubt when realizing Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab’s promise that social justice is at the forefront of this Cabinet’s priorities.

When it comes to social justice and housing, no issue is more prominent than affordability. Each year the gap between rent and real estate prices and incomes widens. According to a the cost of living aggregator Numbeo, house prices in Egypt relative to income are more expensive than in Western Europe, double most Gulf countries, and four times more expensive than the US. 

The real estate and land market policies of the last two decades have created ‘Ministers of (Luxury) Housing,’ where they have, as chairs of Egypt’s largest land developer, the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA), both promoted and taken part in real estate investment and speculation. This has led to a 16-fold increase in land prices over the last decade in the so-called New Cities in Greater Cairo, something that has also driven up the cost of subsidized housing 260 percent in the same period.

Madbuly is well aware of all the inner workings of the land market as his policy note on public land management tells us. So will he be putting this knowledge toward policies that regulate the land and real estate market and curb massive price inflation?

Second on the list of issues is the production and delivery of subsidized housing. The previous Mubarak National Housing Program’s (NHP) units mostly went to middle and upper income beneficiaries, while the rules for the current program, the Social Housing Project (SHP) or “Million Units” — endorsed by Beblawi’s Cabinet but still to be ratified — also channel the billions of pounds of investments and subsidies to the richer half of Egyptians.  That is because applicants for so-called affordable mortgages must have a minimum income to qualify; this income base is currently in the middle of the middle quintile, effectively ruling out the poor and the extremely poor.

Madbuly’s contribution to the 2010 Egypt Human Development Report tells us he is also aware of how mortgages direct subsidies to higher earners. So will he build on his own recommendations for a range of tenure options, hopefully dominated by rental units, and revise the SHP’s regulations to favor the poor?

The third issue, and one that is at the core of the housing minister’s responsibilities, is raising the quality of and access to drinking water and wastewater networks in the more deprived areas, mostly informal and rural communities. According to UNICEF, 6.5 million Egyptians do not have a tap inside their homes, especially in rural Upper Egypt. When it comes to sanitation, almost half of households throughout the country lack proper waste water infrastructure.

In contrast so-called New Cities, ones that have failed to gather any meaningful population, have siphoned a disproportionate amount of the infrastructure budget over the last three decades, and, continue to do so. So will we be seeing a comprehensive restructuring of public investments in water and wastewater away from new cities and toward those most in need?

The fourth and final issue is that of urban planning. Decades of top-down high modernist planning has meant the exclusion of Egyptians from the planning process, leading to inadequate formal urbanism, and thus the housing of most of Egypt’s population in self-built, informal communities.  Many of these communities have been built on agricultural land, threatening food security, but the lack of strong, representative local government has also meant the unequal geographic distribution of development.

Madbuly, again, is very well aware of how decentralization can improve local development. So as minister, will he call for a rethinking of the current planning paradigm along lines of local democratic participation in the preparation of urban development plans?

What is clear is that Madbuly comes well prepared to rewrite urban and housing policies in favor of social justice and the poor, especially since the new Constitution embodies no less than five articles guaranteeing the right to housing, infrastructure and urban development, while a recent report by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was less than kind on the state of housing in Egypt. All he needs now is some ink and paper. 

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Yahia Shawkat