x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bachelors face housing crisis after Abu Dhabi fire

One week after a blaze in a block of flats left dozens of people homeless, many are still looking for somewhere to live.

Maniyan Thazhaputhan-Veettil walks the streets behind Al Wahda Mall looking for a room to share.
Maniyan Thazhaputhan-Veettil walks the streets behind Al Wahda Mall looking for a room to share.

ABU DHABI // On a cool Monday evening, three days after the fire that left him homeless, Maniyan Thazhaputhan-Veettil stood in front of his former home, a dilapidated 12-storey building on Al Falah Street.

He was still dressed in the navy blue trousers, button-up shirt and tan sandals that he wore on the day of the fire. Next door, business continued as usual at the cramped grocery. The door to the residence was open, and two weathered men in soot-stained shalwar kameeze carted armloads of blackened appliances out of the door and loaded them on to a beaten-up white Mitsubishi lorry. Two small boys slid down the steep wheelchair ramp squealing. One waved a steel pipe, a souvenir from the fire.

A 25-year-old bank clerk, who did not want to be named, stopped on his way out to inspect a pile of soggy papers after carefully removing them from a plastic bag. The papers were stuck together, and the ink was running. "My degrees," said the man, looking pained. He has a master's and was afraid that obtaining duplicates to replace the damaged documents would ruin his chances of emigrating to the United States or Canada.

"That's my future," he said. "I will put it in the sunshine tomorrow." Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil, 55, watched as the men piled charred bedframes on to the truck. For the third consecutive night he would sleep in his car, change his clothes, and report to work at Avis Car Rental at 6am. After the trauma of losing their homes and possessions, the men's problems were about to get worse. They needed to find somewhere else to live.

Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil had paid Dh550 (US$150) a month for his "bedspace". But property values in the capital have risen, and there are fewer buildings willing to rent to "bachelors" - working-class men who share overcrowded apartments. Since the fire that destroyed the three-bedroom flat he shared with 15 other men, Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil has been to dozens of run-down apartment buildings across the city. He is not alone. Dozens of other men who lost everything in the fire are searching too, competing with scores of low-wage workers desperately looking for affordable accommodation. There is a shortage of living space across the capital - even hotel apartments are full - but the situation is particularly dire for "bachelors".

Many poorly-maintained, ageing buildings are being demolished, and flats in the newer buildings that have been erected in their place are either too expensive or off-limits to groups of single men. Many "bachelors" have been driven out of the city limits, into Musaffah where eight men pay a total of Dh3,000 a month to sleep in bunks in a single room over air-conditioning shops, laundries and salons on bustling unpaved sidestreets steps away from the industrial zone that houses vast lots of dusty orange diggers, and rows of parked trucks.

Prices in Musaffah are not much better. Noushad, a 26 year-old barber from Kerala, pays Dh400 a month for his bed space in a tiny one-room flat above an air-conditioning repair shop. Noushad shares a small, musty room with seven other men. The corridor outside is so narrow that only one man can pass at a time. The room is crammed with steel bunkbeds, each with a thin foam mattress. The single window has been covered with bright-blue film to soften the glare of the sun. Shoeboxes and rusted tin cans filled with toiletries litter the floor.

At the top of the steep ladder-like staircase that leads up to the living space, a slightly wider corridor serves as the men's kitchen - it has a burner and a few pots and pans. The flat has one cramped bathroom, with a hole-in-the-floor toilet. When asked where the shower was, the men laughed and one pointed to a bucket. There are scores of dilapidated buildings still standing along Airport Road and Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil seems to know every one of them.

He points to an ageing, white block next to Al Wahda Mall - a cavernous cracked concrete building with small, square windows. Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil lived there three years ago, but when the mall opened hundreds of men were evicted and replaced by families. "This one rents to bachelors," Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil says, pointing to another building, a tall, white, Soviet-style block on Airport Road.

The building is home to a friend who has offered to let Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil stay. He strolls past a pile of rubbish 2ft tall and 10ft wide in the lobby and makes his way slowly up a dirty, white staircase littered with trash. The door to his friend's flat is covered in graffiti. "He said in an emergency I can sleep on his floor." We meet up again the next day after Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil's shift is over and we walk along the side streets behind Al Wahda Mall.

Everywhere we go, Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil asks the watchman if there is room. He is turned away from half a dozen buildings and then retires for the night back to his car. A slim man with thinning hair, square wire-framed glasses and a wide smile, Mr Thazhaputhan-Veettil has lived in Abu Dhabi off and on for 34 years. Each month he sends Dh500 back to his wife and two children in Kerala, a quarter of his monthly wages. He visits them every 18 months. He has shared rooms with up to eight men since he moved here in 1975 but never before has he found it so difficult to rent a room.

"I have many friends, but none of them has a bed space," he says as he departs for the night. @Email:klewis@thenational.ae