Analysis: Addis Abeba may never house its dispossessed, unsheltered inner-city dwellers

AA Slum

Slums may remain permanent fixture of Addis Abeba

Samuel Bogale

Addis Abeba, September 04/2017 – On left side in the middle of the long stretch from Arat Kilo Square (otherwise known as ‘Victory Square’) down to Mesqel Square, lays the age-old Menilik II Palace (The residence of the prime minister) and one of the most protected and secured places in the country.  On the other side of the same road, a large plot of land fenced with green and yellow corrugated iron lays idle. Covered by the fences is an area famously known as Fit Ber (Front Gate), where thousands of the city’s poor lived for as long as 50 years. It is where Ephrem Ayele, (who requested his name to be changed for fear of “repercussions” from his Kebele administrators), lives with his wife and two of his kids in a combined plastic and corrugated iron makeshift ‘house’. 

Ephrme’s ‘house’ is barely a hundred meters away opposite one of the many gates of Menilik II Palace, and on the other side, roughly two hundred meters away, is the country’s luxuries five star hotel, Sheraton Addis. Previously, Ephrem and his neighbors lived in a poorly built and dilapidated mud houses which, by many standards, do not qualify for the name “house,” and were demolished in mid 2000s as part of the city government’s effort to clear the city off its slums.

“I was born and raised here [as do] all of my friends you see around. I am living in this makeshift house with my wife and my kids ever since the area was demolished,” says Ephrem pointing at his ‘house. “We had [a better] house before but many of us did not get a replacement after it was demolished for development projects.”  Hundreds of others who lived in the same area were relocated to different parts, mostly to the outskirts of the city. “We didn’t want to take those options so we made these plastic shacks and continue to live here,” Ephrem told Addis Standard.

Ephrem and his nighbors

Ephrem and his neighbors had seen better housing

Ephrem and his neighbors are not only forced to live in makeshift houses but also to sustain “the cruelty” of their Kebele administrators who “come and dismantle our plastic makeshift houses whenever they want to, or cover the area with corrugated iron fences whenever there is a high level meeting in the city or some international leaders visit the city,” says Haqegna Birega, another resident of the area. “They don’t put up the fences to make us feel secure, [but to cover the ugly site] and make it look acceptable for onlookers.”

“Accumulation by dispossession”

In the years between 2009 and 2015, the Addis Abeba city administration has expropriated 392 hectares of land from inner-city dwellers in four different sub-cities: Arada, Lideta, Kirkos, and Addis Ketema, and demolished more than 23,151 dilapidated houses for 23 Urban Renewal Project sites, according to a newly released report by the UN-Habitat.

City authorities often argue that their efforts to upgrade slums in the city is primarily aimed at improving the living standards of poor people and the urban status of the city. It is, they insist, a necessary sacrifice. However, although the intention is not disputed by many, the process by which slums are demolished, the lack of adequate replacement and compensations has often come under criticisms both from the people affected, several researchers, and concerned urban planners.

“I don’t buy the [narrative of] ‘sacrifice for a better future’, because the sacrifice is not equally paid by everyone. In practice it is not a ‘sacrifice for a better future’, it is rather a sacrifice for a better future of someone else,” said one such Urban Planning Expert who requested to remain anonymous in an interview with Addis Standard. According to him, when the city’s average household size of 4.3 (2007 population size divided by the total number of housing units) is multiplied by 23,151 demolished houses, it brings the number of city residents currently displaced to more than 100,000. It is a conservative estimate, and most of them are pushed out to the city’s periphery which have “less or no access” to social facilities and job opportunities.

housing in AA cover

Addis Abeba is full of houses that need to give way to better ones, but at whose cost?

Our interviewee mentioned a recent development project in Kasanchis I site (the Radisson Blu Hotel area) as an example, where the people have paid “huge sacrifices” after relocating to areas which are “not easily accessible even by transport, and are far from schools, health and market facilities”. The ones that have benefited from many development projects are the upscale developers, stared hotels and luxury apartments that mushroomed in that area. “[The people] have paid huge sacrifices but not for themselves or their children’s future. It is impossible to give your child a better life while as parents your income is dwindling [due to lack of job opportunities] and at the same time living very far from the inner part of the city,” our interviewee says.  The sacrifices city authorities often mention as necessary are therefore not to bring about a “bright future” for the ones paying the sacrifices, but for the “very few resourceful and privileged people.”

Over the course of the last 10 years, many studies conducted on the impact of inner-city redevelopment projects have found out that displacements have resulted in social disarticulation, increased the time of travel to the nearest social service facilities, lack of employment opportunities and homelessness, among others. “David Harvey, a well-known professor of anthropology and geography, calls this process ‘Accumulation by Dispossession’”, says our interviewee, adding, “The City Administration is dispossessing the poor inner-city residents so that the upscale developers could accumulate more wealth.”

Are condominium alternatives at risk?

The Addis Abeba City Administration has built several condominium house project sites as alternate means of accommodating displaced peoples. The condominium housing projects built in Lideta, Yeka Abado, Basha Wolde Chilot, and Tulu Dimtu, for example, are but few that bear witness to that.

CondoCondominiums were trending, until recently

However recent moves by the city administration shows the government is increasingly vying to use redevelopment sites primarily for stared hotels, shopping malls, and luxury apartment projects than building affordable housing. The redevelopment sites of Kasanchis II (Denver Café area) and the African Union II (in front of AU) are but two examples.

In Addition to that, a few weeks ago the government has announced that it was planning to revise the current Urban Lease Proclamation to allocate land for five-star hotels, shopping malls and luxurious condominium developers without auctioning.

Our interviewee fears this will end up in “transferring the prime land at cheaper prices to the upscale developers after expropriating the properties of poor citizens by paying them meager compensations, or in the case of tenants of government-owned houses with no compensation.”

But even before the city authorities’ recent plan to change urban land provisions for upscale developers was announced, the massive condominium projects the city has been undertaking for several years is besieged by lack of finance, corruption, proper implementations and poor infrastructure designs.

In the backdrop of this is the grim estimate by many state-owned and private media organizations that going by the current pace, it will take several decades to house the thousands of inner-city dwellers registered to get a house. “Bear in mind that the number of people who demand affordable housing is not static,” said our interviewee, “it will increase annually in response to migration and the new entrants to adulthood (18+).”

Perhaps cognizant of this grim reality, City Administration officials have recently unveiled yet another plan to facilitate cooperative housing programs. Speaking to state affiliated media organizations, Diriba Kuma, Mayor of Addis Abeba, said in September 2016 that,  “to enable people to be owners of their own house, the government is setting out a plan to construct new houses for 20, 000 civil servants. Construction of the new houses is necessitated as far as [condominiums] alone cannot solve the housing conundrum.”

A year later not only has the program started (it is awaiting for city administration cabinet members’ approval), but there is no indication on whether or not it will address the demands of those already made homeless by previous projects.

Promises broken, slums kept

The latest report by the UN-Habitat estimates that 80% of Addis Abeba’s population live in houses that do not qualify as such.  Most of these houses are owned by private individuals and the government.

The city government had launched the much hyped Integrated Housing Development Program (IHDP) project in 2005, and promised to clear the inner-city slums and poor neighborhoods by building “up to 50, 000 houses per year”. Accordingly, many of the city’s notorious slum areas and poor neighborhoods, such as the ones in Fit Ber and Basdha Wode Chilot, were demolished at the speed of light, displacing thousands without proper replacement. But twelve years on, the City Administration of Addis Abeba is able to build just about *175,000 houses so far.

Still holding onto the promise of getting better housing facilitated by the city government, by the year 2013 more than 900,000 city dwellers were registered to get affordable and clean houses, and have started saving millions in the state owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. But, 12 years on, as city authorities faltered to deliver on their ambitious plans, many fear if they could ever get their savings back, and inner-city slums remained prominent features of the city. The promises are broken and the slums remained.

Biruk, 26, is another resident of the city living in a slum around Janmeda area, near the expansive French Embassy. He lives with his parents and two siblings. “We have to share communal toilet with around 50 of our neighbors. I have to go to some hotels to take shower twice or once in a week,” Biruk told Addis Standard. By saving for a condominium house from his meager income, all he wanted to get was “a small house with access to clean toilet and shower, and live a simple life.”

That is something his income wouldn’t allow if he had to rent a house of his dream, small it is.  “It would cost me more than I earn. I don’t have any choice but to live here with my family and support myself and my family until we get [the house of our dream].”

communal toilets.jpg

Biruk and around 50 of his neighbors share communal toilets

Biruk’s monthly income is 3,000 Ethiopian birr (About US$125). While millions of the city’s poor consider such income as a better income already, Biruk is in no position to spend 30% of his income on housing alone, a conservative estimate per a given household one needs to spend to get decent housing, according to UN-Habitat.

The story of Biruk and thousands like him who are trapped in no-win no-lose poverty flies in the face of the government’s major narrative that it is a champion of pro-poor polices.

No rain please! Not now, not again

Beyond the quantum of highlighting city authorities’ failure, however, it is important to look at the immeasurable suffering of tens of thousands of inadequately sheltered city residents who simply do not have permanent incomes that could cover for their basic social needs such as food and access to health, let alone housing. This is also a section of the society where addiction to substances including drugs and alcohol among the youth is rampant, and where the women are more vulnerable to sexual abuses and other forms of exploitations.

But above all, the current rainy season, which is heavier than usual, has united all of them in their sufferings. A recent report by Addis Zemen, a government daily, revealed the partial extent of flooding in June this year that affected an entire neighborhood.  According to Debela Biru, Addis Abeba Rivers and River Banks management bureau head, his office has identified 37 flood-prone areas within the city, of which 24 were given priority due to the severe nature of the damages expected this rainy season. But all the same the rain continues taking heavy toll on all.

The sight of rooftops loaded with rocks and other heavy materials to prevent them from either sinking by the weight of the water or flying by the power of the wind is a prominent appearance on thousands of houses in the inner-city.  Inside, buckets serve to collect steady trickles of water from the roof, something Ephreme’s family are accustomed to do.

Hopes are fading

Back in Fit Ber, Ephrem and his neighbors know all too well that their dreams of one day having a proper roof over their heads “may never come true”. And a recent fresh attempt by city administration officials to demolish 3000 more houses located on 360 hectares of land in Yeka Sub City comes as just another reminder that theirs too will not last any longer than it already did.

But more than anything else, it was a cover page story on 01 March 2017 by the government daily Addis Zemen that delivered the ultimate shock: it estimated it will take the City Administration at least 55 years to fulfill the housing needs of those who are already registered and are saving money at the state owned commercial bank.

“I believe the government needs to facilitate housing provisions for the middle and high income people and take the [sole] responsibility of housing the poor and the homeless to itself. But what the government is doing [now] is the reverse; it is trying to build for the rich, who can pay the full price of 40/60 apartments upfront while efforts to house the poor, the homeless and the poorest of the poor have received less attention,” said our Urban planner interviewee.  AS 

  • ED’s note: this article has been corrected to indicate the number of condominium houses built by AA city Administration as *175, 000. Originally it was mentioned as 250, 000, which is the number of condominium houses built nationwide.
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