Yahia Shawkat, author of Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space (AUC Press, forthcoming), is a housing and urban policy researcher who specializes in legislative analysis, data visualization, and historical mapping.
In the book, you argue that “housing is political.” Why is that?
Housing is political because it has big ramifications on the ruling government as well as the people themselves. Like we say, it’s the cornerstone of Egyptian life. There wouldn’t be a need for people to have to work in the Gulf and have this dependent relationship with working abroad to save up enough to be able to buy a home when they come back to Egypt.
You would probably have a more stable society with much better family relationships, you wouldn’t have people dying every year in housing collapses or living in substandard housing.
Was there a period in Egypt’s history when government housing worked efficiently and fairly?
I am not sure if there was a time when government housing worked efficiently or fairly. The 1950s and1960s were arguably the time where government housing was more geared towards the poor but then again it wasn’t enough in terms of scale or reach, for many different issues, and when Egypt did produce enough housing in the 1980s, it wasn’t accessible to the poor.
So there has always been this problem between the government’s ability to produce social housing and for it to actually be cheap enough or affordable enough for the poor that are supposed to be its main target.
Why is it that half of Egypt’s population can’t afford a decent home?
We have a relatively unique situation where about half of Egyptians cannot afford decent housing and I can boil that down to having a deregulated market. It is very important to look at the term ‘deregulation.’ As Peter Marcuse, who is a well-known urban planner and lawyer-activist, says, deregulation is a conscious act by the government to not regulate the housing market.
In fact, it is geared to be a market that is pro-speculative buying, pro-rising prices and this is a very big issue when the state is the main driver of commodification. It is very hard to get out of that. At the other end, the social housing that is produced isn’t enough to cover the needs of most Egyptians.
Do you advocate self-built informal housing?
As you find in the book, the self-built housing is what is actually called the social production of habitat. It’s where people produce their own homes for social use, that is the family use, and in Egypt people have been building their own homes for millennia.
Even with the invention of the housing market, with there being a rental market, with there being government housing, self-built housing is still the main provider of housing in Egypt.
To that end, I think it needs to be supported in a very big way for many reasons, chief of which is that there is very little real estate value in self-built housing. It is not built to be profitable, it is not built to be expensive but at the same time, it has very high value in terms of it being a home and providing all the needs that a home is supposed to provide.