4 June 2012

Rwanda: Housing Market Favors Only Rich, Experts Say

Esther Mutamba, the director general of Rwanda Housing Authority (RHA), says there is a very high demand for housing against no supply.

But Charles Haba, the president of the association of real estate managers and agents, retorts there is supply but only for the rich. "There is supply of houses but only for the rich class such as top government officials, top level corporate people, and expatriates," he says.

Whichever way one looks at it however, there exists a serious housing problem in the country.

According to Haba, as agents and managers, they can't influence prices because they buy from developers and sell for a profit. What Haba means is, much as housing agents would like to tap into the lower and middle class demand, current circumstances don't allow.

"The high cost of construction remains our biggest challenge and that is why we can't serve that lower market," he explains.

Expensive land and the high cost of building materials which are mostly imported along with skilled experienced personnel, have ensured that construction overheads remain high resulting in expensive houses.

In 2008 for instance, the cost of construction was estimated at US$ 400 per mÂ' but today it has almost doubled to US$ 700 per mÂ', Haba said.

As a result, unplanned settlements have dominated urban centers, away from the clean and glamorous structures along the main roads.

What one sees beyond them is an appalling state of housing most people live in despite the government's crusade to ensure availability of affordable housing for low income Rwandans.

Fildas Amanya, a banker and resident of Kacyiru, recently bought her first car but she has since the acquisition had restless nights. "I rent a house which has no space for parking, so at night the car has to remain parked by the roadside exposing it to all sorts of risks," she said.

As of 2008, planned settlement comprised of a meager 7%, whereas the remaining 93% catered for spontaneous settlements.

For the most part, individuals are allocated plots and they build according to their convenience, taste and capacity irrespective of the area. The results are pockets of slum-huts next to classy houses in otherwise high-priced communities.

"Its true housing in Rwanda is still much disorganized and there's an urgent need for efforts that can reorganize an otherwise lucrative sector," said RHA's Mutamba.

The burden of undertaking those efforts is incumbent upon the body she heads, the RHA. Having been established less than two years ago RHA is still struggling to put in place tools by which it can regulate and formulate policies to guide the housing sector.

Mutamba admits that the country is still without a regulatory apparatus and standards through which to manage developers. Engineers and architects are still disorganized and associations for real estate players are just coming up.

However, it's not all bleak. Parliament will for example soon conclude work on the Engineers' and architects' law and the forming into associations by real estate dealers in Rwanda will ensure an easier job for regulation and standardization.

"With professional associations in place, it will be a good starting point for the establishment of a clear regulatory framework to enforce standards and uphold quality which we are still lacking," said Mutamba.

Costly construction

If the cost of construction could reduce, then low-income earners can afford houses of a higher standard.

Mutamba says they can only hope for government's intervention in key areas to tame the cost. These areas, she suggests, should include tax waivers for investors in factories that manufacture construction materials. Establishment of such factories would ensure materials such as cement will be produced locally.

Another area is making land available to developers to construct low-cost houses. She suggests that Rwandans who own land but are unable to develop it could partner with investors to construct multi-housing units in which they would own apartments with the land being their contribution.

"The challenge here is the backward mindset which makes some Rwandans insist on stand-alone houses, yet building multi-housing units could help reduce the housing gap," Mutamba explains.

RHA also needs to forge a close partnership with financial institutions to guarantee funding for inexpensive and affordable housing projects. At the moment, there is no such a link - developers seek funding privately but complain the interest rates are high.

Yet banks justify high intrests saying financing housing is still a high-risk venture considering there's still no regulatory framework to protect heavy funding.

But competition in the banking sector has gradually ensured availability of mortgage loans to help Rwandans acquire homes. Until 2008, it was only Rwanda Housing Bank (RHB) specializing in mortgage finance with longer terms and cheaper financing resources to mitigate this problem. Now banks commercial banks such as BCR have these services in place and, as its MD Sanjeev Anand says, is the right way to help Rwandans acquire modern homes and live in comfort.

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