Hard to access: Bamako’s exclusionary housing market

Rapid urban growth and a high level of urban poverty have contributed to an exclusionary housing market in Bamako. For the majority of the urban poor and the small, but growing, middle class finding affordable accommodation in the Malian capital has become almost impossible. For many tenants housing is reduced to sometimes unfinished structures on the city’s outskirts, causing the capital to sprawl spatially. Government-funded social housing schemes aimed at providing affordable housing have failed to do so, as private agents have moved in, taken over contracts and hiked up prices.

Bamako faces the same challenges as many West African cities. Between 60 to 80 percent of the urban population in Sub-Saharan African cities live in slums and informal settlements, according to the United Nations human settlements programme UN-Habitat.

In Bamako, access to the formal housing market is limited to between 10 to 20 percent of the urban population, says Alain Durand-Lasserve, the director of research at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Bordeaux, France.

This inequality between those with access to formal housing and those who live in shacks or rent on unregulated land is likely to have costly long-term social, economic, and environmental effects, according to Durand-Lasserve.

“Land and accommodation change hands through verbal agreements,” he says. “A tenant can be asked to leave at any moment while buying a house becomes almost impossible. Land is practically always inherited. For those looking to build their own house, agricultural land on the outskirts of the city is often the only option.”

Rising prices

The demand for housing and land to build on has increased following a steady rise, until recently, in the incomes of urban households and the emergence of an urban middle class that, however, remains fairly small. Remittances from Malian expatriates that are partly invested in land have contributed to the higher price range. For many, the only available accommodation is in neighbourhoods as far as 70 to 80 kilometres from the city centre. In addition, profits from the illegal trade in the country’s north — which remains largely unstable following a military coup and an Islamist takeover in early 2012 — is recycled through the land market.

Someone moving from the countryside to Bamako looking for property has a long way to go before becoming a proper Bamakois, a Bamako citizen.

Chaka Cissé, a Bamako-based housing agent, says the high transaction costs — tenants are often asked to pay a fee to gain access to a house — are due to the lack of formal contracts for housing and the involvement of a large number of stakeholders. And prices increase as more actors enter the market. This has lead to a few people occupying houses in the city centre, except for a few crowded neighbourhoods, and a large number of informal settlements where tenants have limited or no access to services and infrastructure. In some areas the lack of formal housing has lead to conflicts between inhabitants and house-owners, local and state authorities, and those who have inherited land.

Coup disrupted government’s housing scheme

Already in 2010 an influx of people combined with growing consumer markets stressed the need for new urban housing initiatives in Bamako. Social housing was an important project of the former government. Under the leadership of president Amadou Toumani Touré, also known as ATT, thousands of new homes were built on land allocated for housing. The government funded private contractors and semi-governmental institutions, like the Malian office for housing, OMH.

Bamako was growing and new houses were urgently needed, especially for the poor and the middle class, recalls Mamadou Diaby, the OMH general director. “The idea was to produce decent housing at a low cost according to the national housing policy,” he says. “Over a short time period we built thousands of new homes to accommodate families with a low income.”

With the promise of affordable rents and access to water and the city’s power grid the first residents took up lodging in 1,500 one-storey homes in the southeastern part of the capital in early 2012. A few months later, president Touré was ousted in a military coup. All funding to further housing projects stopped. Construction continued on a much smaller scale but government lost control over who held the leases.

“Agents and brokers moved in, took over contracts and raised the rents,” says Zhao Bamba with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

In the ATTbougou neighbourhood private renters let houses, part of the government’s social housing program, at considerably higher charges than the authorities intended. Nana Diallo lives with her family in one of the low, one-storey building blocks.

If the government wanted to provide affordable housing they should also make an effort to control the market, says Diallo. “Many agents want you to pay one year’s rent upfront. Others try to sell the same house to several buyers. Without the right connections it’s very hard to find a house in Bamako.”

The informal expansion of the city not only leads to expensive housing, it also complicates urban planning, new infrastructure projects and environmental protection. With different land tenure systems coexisting, the procedures to make land available for housing are complex, costly and non-transparent. Land markets fail to efficiently distribute land, according to a recent World Bank report.

“Authorities urgently need to improve land administration and end the seizure of farming land combined with public subsidies and limits to rent increases to provide affordable housing,” says Durand-Lasserve, of the CNRS.

Change is urgently needed.

Future urban growth

Bamako’s population is expected to grow by 100,000 inhabitants annually in the next decade. By 2025 it’s expected to reach close to 4 million people, according a recent UN-habitat report. By 2050 the figure is expected to double to over 8 million inhabitants.

To help house the growing population, 1,200 housing units are currently under construction in a housing project on the city’s outskirts, according to Mr Bamba with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s better than nothing, but it’s far from enough,” says Durand-Lasserve, commenting on the development.

Meanwhile many foreign and private companies have entered the market.

“They are building hotels and offices for the many internationals that poured into the country following the crisis,” says Diaby, with the Malian housing office. But this is not what Bamako needs. “We need affordable, if possible rent-controlled houses and apartments, for the low-income earners and the small, but growing middle class,” he says.


Katarina Höije is a Bamako-based freelance journalist. Follow her on twitter: @katarinah

Photo: Homes in the ATTbougou neighbourhood, a social housing development. Abdalla Ousmane.



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