How to make affordable housing ‘shiny’?

Quick thoughts and puzzles on the search for a new modern in the Middle East

Bernadette Baird-Zars, AHI Project Manager

In our recent seminar in Cairo, developers did not approve of the examples of ‘best practice’ developments –new or slum rehab – of affordable housing. The numbers checked out, but something didn’t sit well with them. The homes and neighborhoods pictured on our slides, from Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, Tunisia, and beyond, just weren’t ‘clean’ enough. “too messy… and not modern”.

Good cities and neighborhoods are almost inescapably ‘messy’, but these comments prompted a thought that perhaps one of the biggest problems facing more complex and locally-responsive projects is how to sell them as ‘new’. How can affordable, mixed-income, mixed use communities, especially those where many people are poor and will have ‘messy’ activities which spill into the public sphere, perform “cleanliness and order” enough to seem new…and worth a subsidy. Or “safe” enough to not intimidate the average investor?

On one hand, this is just a losing battle. If the idea of what is modern (big and small M) is drawn from architectural textbooks, a hara shaabiya, new or old, is never going to get there. For a neighborhood of mostly poor people in the middle east, the imperative of density, connectivity and co-existence of livelihoods in and around homes guarantees some level of ‘messiness’. To take an easy metric, both in older and newer neighborhoods, streets will never be wide enough to qualify as truly ‘new.’

And if there was a brave developer out there in the Arab world that actually wanted to make a good-faith effort at a new best-practice affordable community (anyone?), the very ‘best practices’ are inevitably…messy. In Haram City, the best example we’ve encountered so far of a valiant attempt at a ‘cutting-edge’ development, they bet that poor residents would be more likely to stay if they had venues to operate small businesses. So they built stalls, and gave the poorest new families –relocated from a rock slide- free rent for a year.


A terrific idea. But…it still looks messy to the standard developer and planner. A redeveloper recently remarked that ‘we don’t want to just re-create slums..with all their small streets and chaotic life’. If that’s the perception, where to start?

An overly-simplistic illustration of how I understand the classification in most developer/planners’ minds:

My first reaction to this is to simply argue that this particular idea of modern has long gone stale. And it’s easy to start by citing examples of ‘modern’ attempts at affordable housing and their famous failures. Large concentrations of poor people jammed into ‘clean’ tall buildings results in (a)significant modifications to structure, laundry out of windows, ‘messiness’ (b) people don’t live there, leave and/or the value declines.

Take Sheikh Maqsoud. Built as a luxury neighborhood on a great location overlooking northern Aleppo, the buildings themselves could be ‘modern’ but, adorned with the typical accompaniments of life –laundry, awnings- of any dense and low-income building, nobody sees them as new or desirable anymore:

Side note: A absolutely superb book, by the way, by Dr. Farha Ghannam examines in detail folks living in a low-income social housing project in cairo, and how they physically modify their ‘modern’ homes and how then they understand and talk about them.

When the discussion hones in on towers with cleanly-bordered lawns, many developers brought up the examples of Turkey and Singapore. The apparently successful – and clean appearance – of these towers is tempting, but overlooks that most tenants are relatively well-off, ie they likely have access to a washer/dryer system in-complex and are not over-crowded at the start. They also have to take long commutes to purchase goods and get daily services. Finally, wherever it’s possible, people will generate messiness. And in an Arab world that will likely have less strict enforcement power by the state, at least on aesthetic issues, messiness is bound to multiply.

Include or ignore? One of the problems is that ‘clean’ is usually a priority of those who are looking at the homes, not those who are living in them. But while façade work seems like a practical waste of time and money from a low-income resident’s perspective, should it be formally acknowledged and promoted as a symbolic device?

Incorporating symbolic changes into projects. If we accept ‘shinyness’ is an amenity than translates into approvals, subsidies and starts, then how to begin? From a practical standpoint, adding a ‘clean’ component costs more money. That additional cost will be passed on to the residents. Most people would probably pick a new sidewalk, new park, or new fridge over a new façade. What modern looks like depends on who is making the decisions, and what they care about:

Examples in the region. Another challenge is that the examples which do exist were all highly subsidized from external sources. That is to say, projects that are approved of by developers and planners as ‘shiny’ and affordable, were all charity-driven. The Darb al Ahmar wall facing the high-end park in Egypt was subsidized by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Hafsia rehabilitation was paid for by a World Bank loan, among other things.

Despite all those funds, the neighborhoods are still seen as ‘not modern’. What to do? Is this an unavoidable conundrum, superficial as aesthetics, or has it been taken seriously anywhere with success?

End note. This is not to say that a ‘modern messy’ is what is needed, and not at all that it is a new urbanism plastered on Egypt. Nor is it ‘old urbanism’. While the arab world has one of the richest traditions of continuous urban life, something more is needed than superficial snatchings-up of cornices, over-nostalgizing, or attempts at massive creation (or re-creation), like the Jumeira mall:

An interesting space, granted,
but something feels strange.

Instead, I want to see housing for low-income people that is built to embrace and facilitate their customizations of their home and neighborhood as legitimate centers of economic and social progress..and modernity.

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