Africa rising or Africa overpricing? House-hunting blues of the young African middle-class

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By Iina Soiri


I have a friend in Namibia, let’s call her Selma. Selma has a university degree, works for an international organization, has a car and a smart phone of the latest model. In short, she lives a life of a single urban professional in Windhoek. Except that she cannot afford a home of her own. With the growing cost of housing in Windhoek and other urban parts of Namibia, there is no way Selma can afford a house in the near future. Even with her recent pay-raise, she still keeps counting her dollars, but comes not even remotely near to qualifying for a house mortgage that would give her a decent flat in a decent area of town. Her best chance is to get lucky with one of the social housing projects in the country. But that will take some time, as queues are long – today housing loans are awarded to those who have been in a queue since 2009. And quite frankly, Selma is a little bit too well off for a social housing scheme, which she admits herself too.

There are many Selmas in Namibia, as the young generation, so called born-frees (born after the country’s independence in 1990) are now graduating from various education institutions in the country and entering the job market. Jobs are scarce (some estimate that almost half of Namibian youth is unemployed), but those who have education at least stand a decent chance. My other friend Tuafeni is one of those young Namibians who never completed any professional training. He lives in ‘a converted garage’ rented from a cousin of his brother-in-law’s sister’s nephew – the best support networks even in towns are still extended families. He shares the space with two other guys, who all live by odd-jobs here and there. There are more Tuafenis than Selmas in today’s Namibia (out of the total population of little over 2.3 million) as despite post-independent efforts the education is not yet within reach of the growing young population. Many of them have to do with a shack or makeshift dwelling somewhere on the outskirts of town.

But we leave Tuafeni out of this blog posting, and concentrate on Selma, to discuss the fate of the middle class in many African cities. The growth of the middle class has been celebrated as success of the Africa rising narrative. These young, dynamic, IT-savvy urban professionals are considered the best insurance of Africa’s bright future development. They are both the best guarantee and the beneficiaries of the economic growth all over the continent.  And the growth continues even this year, as according to recent statistics four African countries (Libya, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Zambia) appear in the Top 10 of best performing countries in 2014. Many have said that the poor can’t eat economic statistics, and the poor are many in Africa and might also be on the increase, if growing inequality is not tackled. But what if in addition to that, the current economic boom with high price increases is affecting negatively even those middle class people who should according to the Africa rising narrative be doing well? Just before last Christmas Selma and other Namibians learnt from Wall Street Journal that Namibia has the fourth ‘hottest’ property market in the whole world in terms of house price increases (after Hong Kong, Dubai and Brazil). Indeed, a real boost of self-confidence to realize that a little desert country in the Southern hemisphere can be ranked alongside well-known global business centres! Average house prices in Windhoek are today double of what they were six years ago. Good for those who managed to benefit from the scheme for privatization of government houses in the early 1990’s or invested in a piece of urban land after independence when apartheid legislation separating housing areas was dismantled. But, the price increase is sour grapes for the young middle class buyers. If earlier bank tellers (with a monthly income comparable to Selma) could afford a house in town, now even the bank managers cannot buy one! According to Africa Report  Namibia’s problem is not unique: with high population and urbanization growth rates, similar stories apply to many African countries.  Booming African cities and towns are drawing in rural migrants eager for jobs. Urban dwellers are settling down and starting families. Urbanism as a way of life and its lived realities are increasingly defining Africa. However, these processes are often ridden with contradictions. Therefore, struggles, inequalities and conflicts shape African urbanism as well, and diverse urban situations are of interest to many academic institutions e.g. at the Nordic Africa Institute.

Often based on colonial era plans and infrastructure, African cities are struggling to cope. Governments have been slow to create solutions for the housing problem, but perhaps in recent years the situation is changing a bit.

In the North African uprisings lack of housing played a heavy part to trigger unrest, but even less dramatic effects can wake up the governments. Both Selma and Tuafeni can vote this year for the first time in their lives. Although Namibians are according to Afrobarometer rather satisfied with government performance, unemployment, lack of decent housing and poor public services are considered as alarming problems. Private companies see rapid rates of urbanisation as an opportunity. They consider the potential of the African market as a way to make money, and often target their business to the wealthy, while governments are left to deal with the poor. The key is to find a way around conflicts between property developers and governments. The governments want the developers to focus on cheap housing, and the developers seek to make money. And money is booming in African cities with the current investment rates. But who is there to cater for the middle class? Land is scarce in urban areas, and even scarcer are the urban services in an arid country like Namibia with lack of water and overburdened electricity networks. So competition for decent urban space increases and money rules the game.

Foreign investors, established segments of the urban population, well connected new elite with public housing allowances, as well as local businesspeople benefitting from the current resource boom can afford to pay the current prices, or negotiate decent financing. Consequently, Namibian urban areas are again differentiated despite laws and policies stating the opposite, and people from different social strata separated. Many who cannot anymore afford to live in town are from the previously disadvantaged groups – frankly speaking black. Scholarship programmes, better educational and employment quotas for all do not help, if only the markets determine the price of land. The future prospects of the new productive middle class are becoming bleaker. The Africa rising narrative can become a story of Africa overpricing for its own population. So, as for Selma, what are her solutions at the moment? Stay in a queue, get a job with a housing allowance, move to far away area so-called ‘ex-black township’ and drive a long daily way to work, or look for another job in another town where the market is not ‘so hot’? But if all Selmas move out of town, who is then left to make the New Africa happen?

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