Following the death of a woman and her son in a fire, overcrowded housing is once again in the spotlight
70 in one villa: Sharjah's overcrowded housing in the spotlight after deadly blaze
Overcrowding in Sharjah homes has been thrown into the spotlight following the death of a woman and her son this week in a fire, which injured 64 others.
The cause of the fire in Maysaloon is yet to be revealed, but the human cost was exacerbated by the high density of residents living in the property — the old house had been partitioned to create nearly 60 rooms sub-let to as many as 66 people.
Overcrowding raises the risk of fire, not least due to faulty wiring in things like extension cords that are added to maximise the use of space, and it is a problem that is barely visible to the outside world.
Areas like Maysaloon are made up of single-floor old houses and two to three storey buildings. The highest level of overcrowding is among Asian nationals and in one case in 2015, 70 workers were found to be living in one house in the same town, with up to 15 people sharing a room.
One four-bedroom villa in the area is home to 18 men, including Indian Basheer Ahmad, 45, who has been living there for 15 years. He shares a room with four other men, including Yasser Arafat, 37, also from India, who works nearby, too.
Each man pays approximately Dh600 per month, an amount they say is a fraction of what they would be paying for a better apartment accommodating fewer tenants. They say it is affordable and walking distance from work.
“It is unsafe — we are aware of that, but what can we do? Other places won’t allow single men to move in, and the options for us are located far away and transportation would consume our income and time,” said another resident, Safiraddin Mohammed, 28.
He said that in summer they bear the brunt of the staggering heat as their old air conditioning unit barely works. Paying for a new one would cost them money and moving to another residence would cost them time.
Most housing for single men is located on the outskirts of Maysaloon and even if employers paid for transportation, the time lost in traffic would remain an issue that may eventually cost these men their jobs, according to Mr Mohammed.
Licensing conditions are often breached by the use of wooden or cardboard partitions to modify the properties.
Sharjah Municipality regularly launches campaigns to eliminate illegal housing. They say that some rogue landlords know their property has been modified and sub-let to low-paid workers and do nothing.
“I call on landlords to compare the amount of money they make from allowing these partition modifications with what they will end up paying for repairs if, God forbid, a fire guts it and legal action is taken against them. It’s not worth the risk,” said Khalid Bin Falah Al Suwaidi, assistant general manager of customer service at Sharjah Municipality.
The municipality will soon be introducing technology to detect overcrowding in homes and move to protect people, but in the meantime appealed to tenants not to risk their lives or those of others by living in unsafe housing when other safe and legal options are available.
“In some arrangements, unrelated men and women have been found living in the same property, which is a safety threat. People could be robbed or assaulted because they don’t know who they are living with,” he said.
“We are not trying to tighten the noose on people. On the contrary, we aim to protect them, maintain their safety and that of other tenants in the same area, and preserve homes from the damage that may occur due to unapproved and unsafe modifications.”