When filmmaker Leslie Amponsah was shown round a squalid and waterlogged property up for rent in a suburb of Accra, Ghana, she was quoted a monthly rate that was barely affordable, even on a decent income, and was told that the landlord wanted two years up front. The estate agent would also be charging a 10% commission, she was reminded, and was already being paid a fee for every viewing.
As frustrating as this experience was, it is nothing out of the ordinary in Accra. Amponsah endured fruitless searches for months before finding a new home, and tales of middle-class Ghanaians looking aimlessly for suitable properties in Accra are common. "Even when you have the money to rent, it's terrible,” says Amponsah, "that is how ridiculous it is.”
Accra is in the grip of a serious housing crisis. Ghana’s economy has been one of the fastest-growing in the world in recent years, but growth has completely outstripped investment in infrastructure. Despite rising incomes, the housing market has been neglected and this has led to a yawning gap in middle-income properties. On the one hand, 90% of Ghana’s urban housing is informal, much of it in slums on the outskirts of cities; on the other hand, plush gated communities and mansion complexes have sprung up to cater for the new super-wealthy.
Many middle-income Ghanaians, faced with a choice between exorbitantly-priced real estate and slum conditions, have thus been forced further and further out to the edges of cities where house prices and landlords may be more reasonable. The resulting commute, however, can stretch to three hours, and many leave their homes well before dawn to beat the heavy traffic.
Around half of Ghana’s 25 million residents now live in urban areas, and suburban sprawl has subsumed towns near major cities. To deal with these growing urban populations, UN Habitat estimates that 5.7 million new rooms – or 2 million new households – will be required by 2020; “If these are to be successfully supplied, 3.8 new rooms must be completed in every minute of the working day for ten years,” the report calculates dramatically.
However, Ghana is nowhere near this target, and the only significant housing developments being built in the heart of Accra are luxury apartments affordable to only a tiny minority of the capital’s 2.3 million population.
"This is without question the biggest problem that Accra faces," says Nat Amarteifio, who was mayor of Accra from 1994 to 1998. He blames much of the housing problems he and his successors have faced to IMF-backed structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which were designed to take the economy out of state control, limiting public spending and investment. These policies inhibited the government’s ability to meet Ghana’s housing needs and instead left the property market in the hands of private companies.
"The market is naturally interested in returns on investment,” says Amarteifio, “and private firms are much more assured of that when dealing with upper income buyers than in building housing for the masses.”
Indeed, private developers have tended to focus heavily on building homes to sell to wealthy Ghanaians who can afford $500,000 apartments, and investors who want to be able to charge $3,000 a month in rent.
The result of this is that Accra tells a tale of two cities. In East Legon, flash mansions owned by footballers, retired politicians and senior civil servants sit alongside informal neighbourhoods in which residents have to put up their own streetlights and dig their own sewage systems. In suburbs like Haatso, homes protected by high walls and electrified razor-wire share space with crammed ad hoc slums.
As you move further out, the tarmac roads start to thin out, replaced by deeply-rutted dirt tracks. Soon the only signs of infrastructure are the towering electricity pylons surrounded by the ruins of the half-built houses that were there first.
Keep going, however, and the number of building sites grows as you drive through neighbourhoods named after the small towns they subsumed – Ashongman, Abokobi, Pantang – until there horizon is dotted with thousands of half-built houses perched on the foothills that mark the border between Greater Accra and the mountains of the Eastern Region.
Those half-built houses – on the outskirts of the region, let alone the city – are the single biggest investment most Ghanaians are likely to ever make. And most are built gradually, some over the course of as much as a decade, because land and construction materials – 80% of which have to be imported – are prohibitively expensive.
According to developers, this is one of the main reasons building affordable housing in Ghana is so difficult. According to Alex Tweneboa, former president of the Ghana Real Estate Developers’ Association, even modest homes can cost around $300 per square-foot to build, taking into account the money spent on building the necessary infrastructure and the costs of construction.
"The biggest factor of all is money," he says. Furthermore with lenders seemingly unwilling to invest much faith in the housing market, he adds: "As a developer, if I'm borrowing in Ghana, I will end up paying close to 40% a year in interest."
The result of all this is that most real estate is out of reach for the vast majority of Ghanaians. Tweneboa, for example, revealed that he had recently sold properties in an Accra suburb to high-ranking employees at banks and insurance companies and claimed that even they could only buy the $30,000 homes because their employers provided cheap mortgages. This suggests the government’s plans to build around 9,000 homes at $25,000 will also price out all but the wealthiest groups of Ghanaians. And according to Tweneboa’s research, a more realistic cost for a home for Ghanaians on middle incomes would be closer to $5,000, and that is with large subsidies and a generous mortgage.
But who will build these homes? The government has largely deferred to the private sector, but as Amarteifio insists, “There's simply no way in which the private sector can meet the demand." According to Tweneboa, there is also little profit-making incentive for private firms to want to build affordable housing.
However, the stakes for Ghana and its urban residents are high, and until a solution is found, shanty towns will continue to pop up in even the fanciest of neighbourhoods, slumlords will carry on making a killing renting wooden shacks and repurposed shipping containers to the limitless stream of people looking for a place to live, and the intense competition for the few decent and affordable properties that do exist in the city will mean rents will keep on rising and rising.
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