In conversation with Jawad Aslam: The challenges of providing affordable housing in Pakistan

 

Invisible Cities | BLOG

According to a 2010 World Bank report, there is a shortage of 6 million units for those who earn less than PKR 25,000/month. At this point in time, with the exception of a few isolated low-income housing projects, there is little the government plans to do about this crisis. This is despite the fact that major political parties promise housing as a basic right if brought to power. So, if the government is unable or unwilling, who does one turn to in order to find feasible solutions to the housing shortage?

Invisible Cities editors recently met with Jawad Aslam (JA), founder of Ansaar Management Company (AMC), the only private sector organization and social enterprise that exclusively develops affordable housing in Pakistan. Jawad moved to Pakistan in September 2005 and soon after started work with Saiban, a non-profit organization which is well known in Pakistan’s housing circles for using the incremental approach to housing to provide homes for the poor. In 2008, he set up AMC as he wanted to make Saiban’s model sustainable and take it to scale in order to meet the increasing demand for housing in the country.    

In this interview we learn about Jawad’s journey, and the challenges and obstacles that explain why there is such limited work being done in the affordable housing sector in Pakistan. We also discuss with him the potential role of the government in the provision of affordable housing, and how and why the private and public sector need to come together in order to make any effective difference.

 

Invisible Cities (IC): Despite having been born and raised in the U.S., why did you decide to move to Pakistan?

Jawad Aslam (JA): The ‘softie’ reason: My wife and I realized that there is more to life than just working, making money and trying to live the American dream. We realized that this was not our goal so we decided to come to Pakistan and try something different. I also wanted to be closer to my parents. It didn’t sit well with me that they were in Pakistan and I was in the U.S.

IC: How did you get into affordable housing?

JA: I used to do high-end real estate in the DC area during the real estate boom in the U.S. I was working with a small-to-mid tier developer who was building 30-400 unit projects. Yet when I came to Pakistan, I thought I would do anything but housing. This was because I knew that the corruption and red tape made it really difficult and messy; one would have to deal with patwaris, linemen, and so forth. So it just wasn’t going to sit well with me.

At that time, I only had one contact, and it turned out that she was connected to the Orangi Pilot Project and Saiban. She told me that Saiban was planning to develop an affordable housing settlement – Khuda Ki Basti (KKB) – in Lahore, and was looking for a project manager. When I saw a powerpoint that described Saiban’s model, it just blew my mind. I thought, “Forget that thing about not doing housing – this is it! This is exactly what needs to be done.” It was such a compelling model of how affordable housing is supposed to be done. So I joined as Project Manager in 2006, and was Saiban’s highest paid employee at 25,000 rupees or so.

IC: Can you tell us about your experience in launching KKB-4 in Kala Shah Kaku? Were there any difficulties in getting the project off the ground?

JA: For starters, we were the first ones to ever seek legal approval of a housing development from a Tehsil Municipal Authority (TMA) in the district of Sheikhupura. It was not as if there were not other housing developments being constructed there, but it was just that no other developer had gotten approval from the municipal authorities before. Let me explain this in more detail. In order to construct a private housing development at that time, a developer had to get approval from the TMA or relevant Development Authority. In our case, the application would be submitted to the TMA, after which it would go to the district level where the District Development Committee (of which the District Coordination Officer was Chairman) would make a decision. Only after that would we be allowed to commence construction and sales. The entire process was so painful that at times we would go to a certain department and say that the law is requiring us to get a document, and the relevant authority would tell us that they’ve never produced that document before. Instead they’d tell us to go ask another department. When we would go there, they’d tell us to go back to another department, and so on and so forth. It would take weeks to complete a single document.

It was definitely a disadvantage to us, but it also came as an advantage to the TMA’s because at times we helped them understand what was being asked for (all the documents were in English). So we had to do this multiple times for a number of documents. That’s the thing with affordable housing – nobody has done it before, nobody has even thought about it before. We had to invent and be innovative about how to find solutions. Otherwise we weren’t going anywhere.

IC: How long did it take you to finally get approval?

JA: I believe it took roughly two years to get approval although the process should have taken four-five months. We also have a zero tolerance policy for bribes so that may have contributed to the delay. Yet, we were ultimately able to get approvals because of the nature of our work. We’d tell the authorities that we’re doing this for your relatives, brothers, and friends so whatever you pass to us, we will pass on to them. When they’d understand that we wanted to benefit low-lower-middle income groups, they’d often feel ashamed and would give us the go-ahead.

IC: Once you got approval, how was the rest of the process?

JA: It was fine. Once we got the approval, the DCO said that let’s set this as a benchmark and try to do this for all other developments in the area. So were able to set a precedent. The authorities then also began to take action against housing developers who had not gotten approval.

IC: So which demographic did the families who moved to KKB-4 belong to?

JA: The average household income at that time was PKR 12,000 – 15,000/month. The majority moved from Lahore. However, people also moved from Karachi, Sargodha, Peshawar. Also, these were mostly nuclear families.

IC: That’s interesting. Why did they move? Did they move because they could acquire land at a minimum cost? Or was there some other reason that compelled them to make such a major shift?

JA: Think about it. 80,000 rupees for a 3 marla (~800 sq ft) plot. People were willing to do the math on it and figure out that it was more cost effective to move out here and build a future. So people who could only dream of having housing in this country now had a prospect.

We had two options there. Under one option they could build their own house, and under the other we could built it for them. We also had the House Building Finance Corporation (HBFC) for mortgage financing. So for under 1 lakh rupees, they could get into a house and then pay the rest in installments. While there were a lot of setbacks and failures, at the end of the day, everybody who was living there said they could have never dreamed of having their own home. Jumping ahead, you know, that a 1 lakh rupee plot is now worth 3 to 4 lakh rupees.

IC: You mentioned that many of the families moved from Lahore. Did they have difficulties commuting back and forth from work?

JA: Yes absolutely. Some families decided not to live there anymore because they found that it was more conducive for their work to stay in the city. They found that they wanted to be closer to friends and relatives, and feel the vibrancy that comes with living in the city. Yet other families were extremely happy with owning their own homes, and continued to commute back and forth to Lahore. It mostly depended on their perception or experience.

IC: So why did you decide to launch AMC?

JA: Very simply, I realized that we needed a solution that didn’t require donor funding. That meant I had to turn to the business sector. In the business sector, the bottom line question is: did you make money this year or not? If you made money – great. If you didn’t make money – well you don’t exist anymore. That forces you to be more efficient and think about things in a more unique and creative way.

Also, the magnitude of the problem required that others in the private sector also realize that there’s money to be made in this sector. I’m not going to provide – if I’m really lucky – more than 100,000 houses in my lifetime. In the bigger picture, that’s nothing. I need to demonstrate to people that there’s profit to be made in this sector. When we have 50 AMC’s or 100 AMC’s – that’s when we’re going to start having impact.

IC: Besides being a for-profit company, what differentiates your model from Saiban’s? Also is there any difference between AMC and Bahria Town – for instance?

JA: We’re somewhere in the middle between Saiban and Bahria. Our model is built on the shoulders of people like Tasneem Siddiqi, the founder of Saiban. We have simply tried to use and professionalize his model so that other policymakers and developers can also understand it better. We have included all of the rules that Saiban uses to prevent speculation, develop a vibrant community, and build incrementally. However, we have made a few tweaks to the model and have formally made them a part of our approach. For instance, in Saiban, residents are required to come and build on their own incrementally over time. However, we have decided to provide them with a basic unit – one room, one bath, one kitchen – that they can build on once they have money. This allows people who don’t have time to build their own homes to easily move into one.

We’re different from Bahria because, as a social enterprise, profit is not our sole motive. Whereas developers like Bahria earn an exorbitant amount of profit on their developments, we’ve intentionally lowered our profit margin so that we just make enough to keep re-investing. Secondly, we’re different from Bahria because unlike commercial developers who build housing and exit, we work with communities on community development for a number of years even after the development has been constructed.

IC: What challenges have you faced in getting your first project – Ansaar Model City – off the ground?

JA: Interestingly, unlike with KKB4, it took just 6 months to get preliminary approval for Ansaar Model City (also located in Kala Shahu Kaku). In 2010, we were almost ready to launch the development. We had also just constructed a portion of the road to our housing scheme in order to have direct access from the main road (a requirement under the housing bylaws). One day, the local government came and overnight broke the initial portion of the access road to our development that had been built by another developer. Suddenly we no longer had direct access to our housing scheme.

Since then we have been attempting to find ways to develop the access road, however we have been unable to because of local politics/the land mafia. Essentially, the other developer who had built a portion of the access road before us had built it illegally so even the documents we had seen had forged signatures on them. That developer had been involved with fraud and had also displaced villagers. The developer used to have the support of the MNA before, but then they parted ways. The officials basically said that we like you, but we like them more. In a sense, we became collateral damage for a developer that was also benefitting from the road to our housing scheme.

IC: What are your thoughts on the Punjab government’s affordable housing ‘Ashiana’ projects?

JA: When the Punjab government was developing the Ashiana model, we were a part of that. We were helping the government. And then they took a right turn, and we took a left turn. The reality is that Ashiana is not driven from a policy perspective so that you can solve the problem; it’s driven from a self-promotion perspective so that you can gain votes.

So again, if you want to take an approach of how to solve the problem, you end up at a different destination. If you want to take the approach of how to promote yourself, it becomes clear you will not even create a dent in the affordable housing market.

When we went to the Punjab government, we were advocating a model – it wasn’t the Ashiana model. It was a model in which the private sector and public sector come together and develop a synergy that allows the private sector to develop and the public sector to facilitate. That was the basic principle. And we had said let’s start with pilot projects. Get some credible, focused developers who want to do affordable housing. Think about it. The private sector provides the land, the private sector does all the development, the bank provides the mortgage, and all the government has to do is provide: (1) external infrastructure; (2) a one window service so we don’t have to go through the corruption process; (3) cobranding; the government brand is meaningless for us at the higher end of the spectrum of income, but very very powerful for the low-income segment because they know that they’re not going to be fleeced, there will be no fraud involved; and (4) a mortgage subsidy. The subsidy was to go directly to the end user. Let’s say if at that time the interest rate was 12%-13%, they were going to bring it down to 8%. So they were paying a subsidy but it was a subsidy that wasn’t benefitting the developer, it was benefiting the end user.

So external infrastructure, cobranding, one-window operation, and mortgage subsidy. Four points. That’s it.

IC: All Ashiana housing schemes are planned for peri-urban areas. Because land is cheaper in peri-urban areas, it is perhaps more affordable to plan low-income housing in those areas. But then that forces people to move out to peri-urban areas, and that causes problems such as a drastic increase in the distance between work and home, as well as from other services available in the city. Do you think that this is an approach that should be encouraged, or is the only solution that is available?

JA: Punjab Government’s point of view is lets find empty parcels of land and lets do low-income housing there. And lets try to find the best possible land of the worst parcels of land. You can see that from the results.

Now, how do you change that? By taking a step back and saying, lets have a master plan. And that master plan that is going to take into consideration that we are going to have hubs and these hubs are going to be offshoots of suburbs that we have to develop because the city center area is going to be limited. So lets do what the rest of the world does and create these suburbs and create easier ways to get into the cities for work and get back out as opposed to letting the city have this mushroom sprawling growth.

How do we do that? We analyze the needs of the income segment we’re targeting. Lets deconstruct what the needs of a basic person in Pakistan in that income segment is. First and foremost, they need a place to put their family. And that place has to be secure in terms of crime and it has to come with a guarantee that they will not be evicted every other week. Second, they need a place that is close to their work. And that’s pretty much it. Those are their primary needs. Secondary needs would include that there needs to be a place close by to the school for their kids. And if somebody gets sick, they need a clinic and a doctor. But when we approach housing, we don’t approach it that way. We approach it keeping in mind what our needs are. The way Ashiana has been designed reflects our lifestyle, not their lifestyle. Their lifestyle is… “yaar mujhey ek kamra de dein…sir chhupaney ki jaggah chayeh, baaqi mei kar loon ga…” (“give me a single room, a roof on my head, and I’ll manage the rest on my own.”). They were trying to target the poorest income segment (widows, orphans). But it was designed as a place where you and I would be happy to live. So that’s what actually ended up happening. The widow took it, was very happy to flip it, give it to you at a markup, and go back to living where she was living.

Then comes the second challenge, which is the challenge you were referring to, which is the distance of transportation and coming back and forth. So lets jump to the third need, which is that they need to be close to work. To resolve this problem, the sort of planning that is required is that we are create industrial hubs or some sort of commercial centers, and use that as a core and build out housing around that. You can’t just keep creating industrial hubs, you need to create infrastructures that allow you to get in and out of the city with efficiency and that is why the metrobus is a good project. The amount of people who are happy with it is quite high, right? The elites don’t like it, ye jangla hai, ye falana hai. and then everybody objects that this is such a high subsidy. They are going to put the money in their pocket, and it could have gone toward something else; money could have gone towards subsidies on agriculture or towards building roads that would have only benefited the elite. But instead that money was directed towards the metrobus. Granted there’s lots of place of improvement in terms of the long-term view of it – what its life is going to be and so forth. But now you find a large part of the low-income community using it and they are very happy with it. So maybe that’s not the best solution, but you need BRT or other such similar solutions.

IC: What’s next for AMC?

JA: It’s taken us 6 years to get where we are, and a lot of pain, perseverance and patience. Twice we’ve almost gone out of business. Working in Pakistan doubles the time required for any development, and doing a social business triples it. But 6 years later, there’s more than one specialist in affordable housing that’s said you have a very innovative model, you’re doing cutting edge stuff and it all makes sense. One of our investors is Homeless International. All they do is invest in affordable housing companies, and they have said that we have a very unique model.

So far we’ve built housing in flood-affected areas in South Punjab, and even though we’ve only built 500 homes, it’s unfortunately 500 more than most people have done. We haven’t been able to have clear inputs, investments and exits, but we have been able to demonstrate different parts of our model. So it’s enough for us to say that we have something here, and now enough for other people to realize that there is something that they want to invest further into. But in a place like Pakistan, or in the developing world, to get something like affordable housing to come on the map is extremely difficult. This is because there’s an entire ecosystem that’s needed, and we’re supposed to be only one part of it, i.e. the developer. Yet we end up playing developer, we end up playing community mobilizing entity, we end up being an advocacy group for the government, we end up playing advisors to the state bank, and we end up pushing the banks and convincing them to go down this way in terms of the market. That’s not what AMC was really built for per se. We’re forced to wear all these different hats that should be worn by different people with different levels of funding and expertise. I don’t think we’re experts in any of these fields but we’re forced to jump into these because without that, we won’t survive.

Invisible Cities is a Tanqeed blog, edited by Fizzah Sajjad and Hala Bashir Malik, that seeks to explore alternative discourses on the urban question in cities of the Global South. For pitches and submissions to the blog, please contact invisiblecities@tanqeed.org and editors@tanqeed.org.

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