Al Mirfa // Anton Tutunejean has not had an easy time spreading good news in Al Gharbia. For weeks, the construction systems supervisor for Western Region Municipality has been paying house calls to several dilapidated villas in Al Mirfa. But even as he promised residents that their uneven floors, broken stairs, cracked walls and termite-gnarled doors would soon be refurbished - courtesy of a new Dh4 billion investment from the municipality - he was met by plenty of grumbling.
Many of the homes are falling apart. Some have stood empty for years. "Look at the floor," implored one local villa owner, Saqr Mohammed, 38, stamping on the warped tiles in what was once a dining room. The floor was a problem, Mr Tutunejean agreed. But the owner's 10,000 sq ft house is only one of roughly 3,200 villas targeted in the municipality-wide refurbishment project, he said. He asked for patience.
"I'm not telling you the house is going to be 100 per cent; it's more than 20 years old," Mr Tutunejean reasoned. "But after a few months, I hope you'll be happy once you see what we've done." They shook hands and Mr Tutunejean boarded a municipal pick-up lorry, ready to survey another 20-year-old villa under maintenance. "Too much headache sometimes," he said later. "But most people are happy because this is costing them nothing to fix their homes and the Government is doing this free and we are happy to help. We just want the residents to be happy."
For local homeowners in the Western Region, also known as Al Gharbia, there may be good reason to be. Western Region Municipality's Dh4 billion refurbishment project is part of a five-year plan to raise living standards for an estimated 7,000 national families. The maintenance, which has already begun in some cases, will affect government-owned villas in the six districts that make up Al Gharbia - Al Mirfa, Madinat Zayed, Liwa, Delma Island, Ghaiyathi and Sila.
Chafiq Allaoui, the executive director of strategic planning for the municipality, estimated that 110,000 people currently live in Al Gharbia, a quarter of whom are Emiratis. By 2030, he added, the region would need to accommodate more than three times that population. "The big picture is that we have a programme where we are trying to provide well-being and comfortable living for our residents," he said. The Dh4 billion was half of the investment for a five-year infrastructure plan in the region, he added.
"In the end, this is going to represent maybe 98 per cent of total housing units existing in the Western Region." He described the maintenance work as ranging from minimal cosmetic fixes that could be done within a month, to major structural reinforcement of some houses. Some of the maintenance could last up to three months. "At the minimum, we're talking about fixing ceiling cracks and some repainting," Mr Allaoui said. "Of course the most time-consuming work is structural. If you have a beam or a ceiling in need of repair, it can get more expensive."
During a tour of Al Mirfa Sector Five yesterday, Mr Tutunejean pointed out the serious damage to one former home that had been left abandoned five years ago. When contractors arrived in April to assess the property, he said, they found water seeping into the concrete foundation, tiles that were bubbling over in the floor and broken steps leading to the main door. A banister had also been torn out and several windows had been smashed by vandals. Graffiti defaced the walls, which were still being recoated with paint.
"You can say 60 per cent of this villa has been restored," he said, rapping his knuckles against the kitchen wall to check for hollow spaces. New marble-topped counters and cabinets had also been installed and the old ones discarded. While he believes the new home will be ready in two weeks, Mr Tutunejean said the owner was not exactly pleased. Some residents were comparing their properties with other people's homes that had been fully refurbished.
At one villa wrapped in scaffolding, Khalil al Hamadi, 38, a contractor and friend of Mr Mohammed's, demanded to know why cracks in his friend's doors had been merely refilled with plaster and repainted, while at a neighbour's home the doors had been replaced altogether. "Ceramic not good," Mr al Hamadi continued, slapping the tile walls. "Why not replace?" Mr Tutunejean tried to explain that broken property would be replaced only if it was beyond repair.
"I asked the owner why he is sad.I said there is a difference between refurbishing and replacing. These are minor problems. Don't talk about other people's houses; just tell me about problems with your home." For its part, the municipality hoped that residents would bear the temporary inconvenience for a few weeks until the owners can move into their new homes. The municipality's continuing assessment of government houses will take into account that some homes should be torn down and replaced with modern structures.
Mr Allaoui estimated that roughly 1,200 of the houses would be earmarked for demolition as a last resort. "We're still assessing whether some homes are maintainable or whether they should be demolished right away," he said. "How long can you extend the life on a house if it's too short or not worth it?" Alternative accommodation for residents through the Abu Dhabi Centre for Housing and Services would also have to be examined in such cases.