x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

More housing options benefit all income levels

You can't blame families for being a little anxious about crowds of bachelor neighbours. But there is a need for better options in low-cost housing.

A crowd of bachelors sharing a villa can create unease among families living nearby. How well everyone involved handles this by-product of the UAE's unusual labour market is a test of common sense.

The issue arose this week when Sharjah decreed that villas full of bachelors in two neighbourhoods, Samnan and Halwan, must be emptied, effective immediately, and then either demolished or renovated. The same concern has arisen in recent years in Umm Al Quwain and elsewhere; Dubai's solution is its "one villa, one family" rule.

Sharjah's ruling applies to bachelors of all nationalities, officials said, but everyone understands that semi-skilled expatriates make up the great majority of residents who live in these conditions.

Most such residents are peaceable and law-abiding. Nonetheless, it is easy enough to understand that families can feel uncomfortable with large groups of such neighbours. "Single men in barracks," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "don't grow into plaster saints."

In part, this has been a clampdown on those landlords who are all too happy to pack in low-income tenants, who often have few other housing options. In that sense, this kind of housing regulation amounts to a normal, even healthy form of zoning.

It does however raise the question of where these tenants - who are, for the most part, in the country because they are needed in the labour force - can find living quarters that are more suitable.

Many workmen may prefer a bed-space in a crowded villa in town, imperfect though it may be, to quarters in a labour camp - although it should be said that conditions in most camps have by all accounts improved significantly over the last few years. The labour camps have a place in the residential milieu, as long as they meet certain standards, but there need to be more options for low to medium-income housing.

In many places around the world, zoning restrictions are twinned with policies to encourage provision of adequate amounts of decent low-cost housing for lower-wage families and workers.

That is an interesting challenge in this country, where working-class homes are in short supply. Attention to this problem, from both the public and the private sector, would be a useful step towards tranquillity and decent housing for all.