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Details lacking in new housing policy

There are good reasons to expect Abu Dhabi government employees should live among the people they serve. But an adequate supply of not-too-expensive housing is needed, too.

Expecting people who work for the Abu Dhabi Government to live in the emirate is an idea with merit. It's also an idea whose time will come next year, because the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi has given employees of the emirate's departments and agencies one full year to establish residence in Abu Dhabi, if they don't live in Abu Dhabi already. The policy will touch more than 10,000 people.

There is an evident logic in government employees living where they work, and around the world some big cities, New York in particular, have long applied this policy. In recent years rents in Abu Dhabi, generally much higher than those in Dubai, have created a phenomenon familiar to all: commuters who spend a solid 90 minutes, usually more, in their cars before the work day, and another one after it.

But now some statistics and much anecdotal evidence suggest that rents are declining in the capital, as new developments begin to receive residents, while tenancy costs are beginning to go up in Dubai. That should make the new policy more palatable to many.

The prime factor cited by the Executive Council for this new requirement has to do with traffic. At rush hour more than 10,000 vehicles per hour pour onto Abu Dhabi island, and even the most cheerful of commuters know that navigating the journey can be a real chore. This new policy should reduce commuting time for thousands of people, and reduce accident totals at the same time.

To be sure, plenty of details will have to be settled and explained to everyone involved, before the new rule can actually be applied. In particular, there will be concern about the supply of affordable housing in the capital; many of the new towers in Reem Island and elsewhere offer splendid flats, but at rents of Dh100,000 a year or more.

The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council said in 2010 that at least one-fifth of the floor area of new developments - and so perhaps as many as a quarter of units - should be set aside as middle-income housing (defined as renting for between Dh25,000 and Dh88,200 per year). That's an important goal, but developers have not been eager to comply.

The new policy will be best received, and will serve Abu Dhabi best, if it is accompanied by housing and pay policies that assure employees of a suitable range of housing choices within the emirate they serve.

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