Almost five decades after the country earned its independence, adequate affordable housing still eludes most of its citizens as rich-poor divide keeps widening.
The successive governments have apparently been reluctant to ensure the basic human right of the masses irrespective of their social status.
The government shoulders responsibility for accommodation of government employees only, leaving more than 90 per cent of its 160 million people on their own to manage for a living space.
Housing condition is the worst in urban areas, including the capital Dhaka, with 40 per cent of its 18 million people finding shelter in slums or squatter settlements meeting minimum living conditions.
Still, to live in the worst condition, slum dwellers pay the highest for accommodation compared to what is paid by middle income and rich people to rent per square feet of living space in Dhaka.
Accommodation expenditure of middle income people is higher than the rich having plenty of options to choose from whether they want to rent or buy an accommodation.
Purchasing a house may mean to be on a wild goose chase for middle income people as in land-starved Bangladesh prices of land and construction materials are one of the highest in the world.
In less than three decades, apartment prices went up at least six times on an average with a similar or higher rate of increase in the prices of building construction materials.
‘Housing becomes very dear when there is no place for housing in government policies,’ says economist Anu Muhammad.
He notes that housing cost is rising in Bangladesh at a rate greater than in New York and Toronto.
‘It has happened as the government left housing crisis to be managed by private sector,’ he points out.
Inequality rises when people are required to spend much of their income on purchasing basic human needs that should have been provided by the government, says Anu Muhammad.
The latest Oxfam report on reducing global inequality reveals Bangladesh is among the countries where the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest in the world.
The report ranked Bangladesh 148th among 157 countries.
‘Housing is in a critical mess,’ says Centre for Urban Studies chairman Professor Nazrul Islam.
‘Nobody cares to think about the poor while middle income group is left to owners’ whim to get a place to live,’ he points out, adding, ‘the rich gets an oversupply in accommodation choices.’
Nazrul notes that the condition in which more than half of Dhaka live dies not conform to the basic housing standards.
He says a family requires a minimum of 250 sq ft to live decently in a two-room house whereas a large number of people in Dhaka remain content with a living space of only 100 sq ft or even less.
Housing is not only about offering a physical place but also providing for privacy, safety and utility services, observes Nazrul.
Slums and squatter settlements in Dhaka are deprived of most of these basic qualities and children born in slums grow less compared to those born outside, studies reveal.
In slums, five to six members in a family live in a dilapidated single room of 100 sq feet, made out of scrap materials. Often, the room is furnished with only a cot and custom-made cloth hanger made of sticks picked from roadside.
The only source of illumination in the room is a light bulb running on illegally supplied electricity. Firewood is the fuel many slum dwellers failing to get an illegal gas connection use for cooking.
Dozens of families share toilet and kitchen the size of a room unable to accommodate two persons at a time.
Stink of overflowing sewage constantly fills the air while children defecate in the open. Sometimes the slums are lined along rail tracks with trains passing by it blowing deafening sound from its horn.
Studies say about 3.5 million people live in 4,000 slums or squatter settlements in more or less similar condition.
A Bangladesh University study reveals that a family of a four pays Tk 47 as rent per sq feet per month for occupying 168 sq ft of such a dwelling place in slum areas.
A family dwelling in 408 sq ft room pays Tk 44 as rent for per sq ft per month, says the study.
Occupants of a house in posh Dhanmondi area pay Tk 23.50 as rent per sq ft per month, according to the study.
Ankhi Akhter, a Badda slum dweller, came to Dhaka in search of a job three months ago, leaving two of her children with their grandmother back home in Jamalpur.
Her living place is a room shared with another family of four. It costs her Tk 4,000 a month. Her monthly income is Tk 6,000. She works as a house help.
‘Not a moment goes by without me having to think about my children. But I cannot afford to bring them to live with me. Such is the way life treats me,’ laments Ankhi.
Architect Salma A Shafi says that even after spending more than half of their monthly income poor are living in inhuman condition in the slums and squatter settlements.
‘Even there is not enough security for life,’ says Salma, mentioning, ‘fire breaks out regularly at slums and people get injured and killed.’
Researchers at a Centre for Policy Dialogue discussion recently linked a sudden fall in share of female garment workers to unsafe housing, among other reasons.
Female garment workers stayed in slums or squatter settlements or mess systems where violence against women was often reported, they said.
In many of the Dhaka streets, abandoned children, young people and sometimes even families living there are becoming a common sight as they do not have a home to go.
Their number is rising with urban planners putting the number of homeless population at over 50,000 in Dhaka alone.
‘Housing will continue to elude most people in Bangladesh as long as government leaves it to private sector to take care of it,’ says Jahangirnagar University urban and regional planning teacher Adil Mohammed Khan.
In Dhaka, Adil mentions, only 20 per cent people own the entire housing sector.
If the government leaves them alone, Adil says, they would like to keep increase their profit every year cashing in on the crisis.
House rent rises every year, sometimes even twice, as relevant laws to protect tenants are never enforced.
In 26 years since 1990 house rent in Dhaka increased by more than 388 per cent, marked by a 15 per cent rise every year.
‘Middle income group is the worst sufferer,’ says Adil.
He notes that middle income groups are forced to cut on their medical and other expenses to manage the rise in house rents.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics fixed income groups’ housing cost exceeds combined bill for education, health and clothing in Dhaka.
In the current market price purchasing a house is beyond the reach of 60 per cent middle income people, says Adil.
According to CUS, one katha land in upscale Gulshan costs Tk 50 million or Tk 70,000 per sq ft, or more than $9000 per sq metre, which is among the highest prices of residential land in the world.
Land purchasing price eats up from 50 per cent to 90 per cent of budget for constructing an apartment building, the CUS report says.
A Sheltech study comparing apartment prices in eleven areas in the capital reveals that in 2015 the average price for per sq ft of apartment space stood at Tk 9,636, up from Tk 1,692 in 1990.
Baridhara saw a rise of almost 10 per cent in apartment price during the same period, the study finds.
It also says that price of brick and sand rose nine times or more during the studied time followed by a six-times rise in the price of steel bars and three-times rise in cement price.
‘The government must rein in these businessmen going after even more profit every year,’ suggests Real Estate and Housing Bangladesh president Liakat Ali Bhuiyan.
‘It is not possible for a middle income group person to save up enough money in his or her life to pay so high to own a house,’ he observes.
‘High cost of property registration also increases the burden on buyers,’ says Liakat.
According to Rehab, apartment registration costs up to 16 per cent of the property cost, which is only 7 per cent or less in SAARC countries.
Rehab in a recent press conference called on the government for bringing the property registration cost down to 7 per cent.
Rehab also suggested that the government mobilised a Tk 20,000 crore fund to be distributed among potential buyers for reviving the real estate sector.
In four decades ending in 2015 real estate companies built 150,000 apartment units. Despite very low supply the companies could not sell all of its apartments.
According to Rehab, 12,185 flats were unsold with about 1,000 of its members in 2014. Four years ago the number of unsold flats was 3,018.
On the other hand, yearly flat sale came down to 1,749 in 2014 from 2,492 in 2010, said Rehab.
A recent spike in house loan interest rate frustrated buyers further.
Farhana Urmee, who bought a flat on loan to be repaid in 15 years through monthly installment of about Tk 45,000, saw her installment rise by about Tk 7,000 three months ago.
‘I turned to my mom for a monthly support to cope with the situation,’ said Farhana.
‘But I cannot keep seeking the support for decades. I might default on repayment if the installment did not return to normal shortly,’ said Farhana.
National Housing Authority chairman Rashidul Islam refused to talk about housing crisis when his appointment was sought to discuss the matter in person at his office.
Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha detailed area plan project director Ahsraful Islam said that his organisation so far distributed 45,000 plots and 25,000 apartment units at a low cost in Dhaka.
He said that Rajuk was constructing 50,000 more apartment units.
For the first time in the country’s history, Ashraful said, the government was building 10,000 apartment units to be distributed among poor at low price.
‘We need to have more projects of this kind to overcome the housing crisis,’ said Ashraf.
‘Until recently housing for poor was never a matter of concern for the authorities. They need to change their mindset,’ Ashraf pointed out.
In search of job opportunities, Ashraf said, about 2,000 people migrated to Dhaka every day to end up living in substandard conditions.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, about 90 per cent of houses in Bangladesh are considered temporary or semi-permanent by the nature of construction — being made of bamboo, wood, mud, tin or brick-wall.
The BBS categorises these houses as Jhupri or Kutcha or semi-pucca, terms denoting that these living places were built by individuals without caring for building codes.
‘In general it can be said that housing is still in a pretty bad shape in Bangladesh,’ said Nazrul.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Dhaka's Pollution Focus