The houses that Karachi's poor want

Karachi is building upwards to house its expanding population, but unregulated building leaves poor families at risk. An IIED film outlines solutions that could benefit the whole city.

Suzanne Fisher's picture
Insight by 
Suzanne Fisher
23 April 2014

"Are we some rubbish to be thrown out of the city by the government?" asks a woman living in Lyari, Karachi. "Why should we go to the outskirts of the city? Give us space close to the centre of the city."

She expresses the anger of many of Karachi's urban poor who feel that their preference to live in the city centre is largely being ignored by their government.

Around 70 per cent of Karachi's 18 million inhabitants are poor. Most live in the port city's more affordable periphery.

Over time, Karachi's growing population has expanded into its hinterland destroying the rural economy and damaging the region's ecology. Houses were built by the informal sector and services have been provided to residents by the government through its Katchi Abadi (informal settlements) Improvements and Regularisation Programme. 

But the low-income residents interviewed in a new IIED film, above, who moved to the city's periphery seemed to regret it. This is because owning a house and living on the periphery is become increasingly expensive and inconvenient.

Transport costs have more than doubled and the uncomfortable commutes on crowded public transport are long. The film cites a study by the Urban Resource Centre in Karachi which found that women were spending around four hours a day, and much of their income, commuting to and from work on buses. This leaves them with little time to look after their families and carry out housework.

Building upwards

So it's no surprise that most families prefer to live in the city centre, and over the past decade many have moved back. Demand for accommodation, driven by migration and population growth, is leading to ad hoc solutions to house them.

The informal sector is catering to this demand by either purchasing single story homes from owners or entering into "joint ventures" with them to build high-rise apartment blocks. The extra rooms or floors built onto existing structures are creating increasingly congested housing. And the situation is only set to get worse.

These high-rises do not follow environmental or building control regulations set by the Karachi Building Control Authority. As a result, poor families are generally living in buildings that have little light or ventilation. They are built on shallow foundations and will likely collapse in the event of an earthquake. They also have no lifts so the elderly are unable to leave their apartments if they can't climb the six or seven flights of stairs.

How do such sub-standard high-rises get built? According to the film, developers bribe the building control authorities to look the other way and ignore what's happening.

Long-term plan

"The plan is being settled, particularly in the peripheral areas of Karachi, on an ethnic, political and party basis, so that creates a lot of friction and…there is spill off in the form of violence, crime and killings," says Farhan Anwar, Project Director of Sustainable Initiatives, in the film.

The state owns considerable plots of vacant land within the city centre. Thirteen different land management authorities operate there, often with little coordination with other authorities.

They govern ineffectively and weakly, leading to politically-motivated land grabs, as this IIED study describes. As a result, the land is often used to build real estate for commercial purposes, or to create housing for the elite or the middle classes. Often speculators will hoard it.

High density, affordable housing built on state land could provide homes for the poor. "Where state land is available, such low-income housing could be supported with loans," says urban planner Arif Hasan. Cooperatives or collective low-income groups could provide the poor with the means to own their property.

Watch urban planner Arif Hasan's introduction to the Karachi Rising film:

Planned housing could help combat growing political, ethnic and socio-economic divides. It could create a "multi-class city," says Hasan, linking what are currently four "distinct cities, divided between the rich, poor, the elite and the middle class".   

Although the benefits are clear, is the political will there to provide the governance and land needed to build the housing? Given the power of those behind speculative housing development in the city and the government's anti-poor bias in its policies and planning, it seems unlikely. Karachi's urban poor would be astonished, but pleased, if it did.

Suzanne Fisher is a freelance writer and editor