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A better solution for budget housing

Low-paid workers need modern and safe accommodation so they don't have to cram into fire traps.

In coming weeks, officers from Tawtheeq, Abu Dhabi Municipality's property registration department, will be deployed to count shoes. As unusual as that may sound, it's an important part of a programme designed to eliminate overcrowding in rental properties. If the number of shoes outside the entrance to a flat or a villa indicates that more people are living there than is legally allowed, the officers will apply to the public prosecution office for permission to enter the building and find out for sure, then take action against the offenders.

The main targets are the "bachelors' buildings" which are home to many of the emirate's thousands of low-paid workers. The law allows for up to three men to share a room of 14-square metres, and for a villa to have no more than six residents in total, but much higher occupancy rates are not unusual.

Some Tawtheeq investigations are initiated by complaints from neighbours who are uncomfortable about having so many people in such proximity.

But overcrowding also presents very serious health and safety risks, as illustrated dramatically in 2008 when 11 people died in a villa fire in Dubai's Deira district. Investigators said that the single villa, which had been illegally modified, had been home to as many as 500 men, mostly labourers. Two men had rented the villa under false pretences, and then added partitions and even a false floor so they could cram in as many residents as possible.

As well as the increased risk of multiple deaths in the case of fire, there are hygiene implications when too many people live at close quarters.

There can be no question that the authorities are right to act decisively on this issue. However, more attention needs to be paid to the reason why such overcrowding exists in the first place: that there is a dire shortage of fit-for-purpose low-cost housing.

Developers must be persuaded that it is not just in the national interest to build this type of accommodation, in addition to premium properties, but that it's also a commercially viable and sustainable idea.

Surely a modest profit could be made from renting modern, clean, safe and legally compliant rooms at an affordable price to the people who need them most.

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