Reaping profit from real estate development and housing the poor

Words by Claudia Gastrow | 15 Jun, 2012

Could it be that we, who have nothing, will be the first to live in the sky?” Osvaldo asks me. Police demolished Osvaldo’s house in 2004 to make way for a state-supported housing project aimed at civil servants. The new project is named Nova Vida (“new life” in Portuguese). Since then, he has continued to live next door to the project, watching as growing numbers of Luandans suffer a similar fate. “The war is over,” he comments, “why are they [the government] punishing us like this?”

Almost no new formal housing was built in Luanda during Angola’s civil war (1975-2002). The period nonetheless witnessed rapid urban growth as many Angolans fled rural areas for the relative safety of coastal centres. By the time the war ended, Luanda’s musseques—the Angolan term for favela or informal settlement, mostly denoting an area that has not been formally planned—had expanded dramatically and much colonial-era formal housing had fallen into disrepair. After 2002, housing construction boomed as urban land values rose, and the possibility of high profits beckoned in Africa’s second largest oil producer.

Even post-conflict state housing provision has not been immune from the speculation driving real estate development. New state housing projects can be divided into roughly two categories: low-income social housing, and commercial projects, such as Nova Vida, where residents must purchase the housing from the state. For a country in which the majority of the population is estimated to live on less than $2 a day, the prices of middle-income state housing can seem astronomical. A one-bedroom apartment in a new state-funded satellite city, Kilamba, starts at US$125,000.

Seeing these housing projects constructed with oil revenues, being removed to make way for them, and knowing they will never have access to them, many of Luanda’s urban poor feel that state construction efforts merely reiterate, in a concrete form, their socio-economic exclusion from the Angolan polity. The social housing areas—Zango, Panguila, Sapú—have come to represent state neglect rather than state provision. This is partly because they were founded in the wake of forced evictions that began in 2001, but also because the size, quality, and location of the housing are less desirable than the state’s commercial projects. In social housing areas many of the roads remain un-tarred, there is little basic sanitation, and only some of the houses are connected to the electricity grid. The notion is that political, socio-economic and urban exclusion mirror each other.

“Here there are people considered to be people, and there are people not considered to be so,” explains Osvaldo’s neighbour. “So there exists a hierarchy: echelon A and echelon B. Nova Vida is for people from echelon A. If you are from echelon B … you have to go to Zango.”

State housing provision is one of the mechanisms through which the meaning and markers of citizenship emerges. The Angolan state is wavering between trying to reap a profit from real estate development and attempting to provide for the population’s needs. As opposition to demolitions and poor living conditions rises, the negotiation between Angolans and their state will yet determine if a more inclusive urban citizenship can be created in a city in which, as Oswaldo’s neighbour argues, “Everything is business.”

Claudia Gastrow is a lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Johannesburg