12 September 2008 Bahrain is working to provide housing for its citizens, and is looking at a number of proposals to shorten the long waiting lists for those seeking state assistance in obtaining a home.

In its submission to the United Nation's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in April this year, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights warned that there was a housing crisis in the kingdom.

While this may be overstating the case, as many as 40,000 families are registered with the Ministry of Works and Housing, having either applied for low-cost housing loans or for state-provided accommodation, according to officials, though some local non-government organisations have put the total at closer to 55,000.

One of the main issues faced by both the government and private developers in overcoming the housing shortage is the lack of available land. With an area of just 650 sq km, there is limited space on which to build. The United Nations World Prospects Report listed Bahrain as the fourth most densely populated state in the world, behind only Monaco, Singapore and the Vatican City.

Bahrain's real estate boom hasn't helped, as many developers have concentrated on the higher end of the market, catering to well-heeled locals and foreign investors rather than providing low-cost housing. In its 2008 budget, the government set aside $66 million to fund projects by the Ministry of Works and Housing, though not all of this was intended to cover the housing shortage. Though sizable, the allocation was less than the $67 million set aside the year before.

One measure being considered by the government to ease the housing shortage is to amend land and building regulations to allow current home owners to construct additional dwellings on their plots. The proposal includes offering funding to assist in building new houses or enlarging existing ones to accommodate bigger families.

Not only would this reduce the demand for new plots and cut the housing waiting list, but it would also result in larger families being able to stay together, according to Abdulnasser Al Mahmeed, the vice chairman of the Muharraq Municipal Council.

There are many families who own plots of land that have room for more than one house, Al Mahmeed told the local press on September 7. However, current zoning restrictions prohibit further construction. He went on to say that if this legislation were amended, members of extended families who have moved out and applied for state-assisted housing could return, freeing up more land and accommodation for others on the list.

Additionally, Bahrain is seeking to overcome its land and housing shortage through a series of reclamation projects to fill in some of the coves around the mainland and to expand some of the offshore islands.

The latest of these schemes foresees the construction of a mixed-use urban development on the northern shores of Muharraq, and was launched at the end of June by the private sector, with Kuwait Finance House as the major investor. The $3.2bn project, named Diar Al Muharraq, is scheduled to see its first residents move in by 2010, and plans to ultimately provide housing for 100,000 people.

Bahrain's land shortage became especially apparent in late August when a row broke out over delays to a number of state-funded projects in the Northern Governorate. Though approved in the 2007 budget, there has been no progress on a major housing development planned by the Ministry of Works and Housing in the village of Buri, due to the presence of ancient burial mounds in the area allocated for the construction.

Local authorities want to level the mounds, believed to be from the Dilmun era of between 3700 to 4100 years ago, so that work on the housing development, along with a park and associated infrastructure projects, can proceed. The Information Ministry's Office for Culture and National Heritage has yet to decide whether the area should be closed off or some of the mounds removed.

While acknowledging the need to preserve the country's heritage, Northern Municipal Council Chairman Yousif Al Boori said there was a risk that funding for the housing development would be withdrawn unless a compromise was reached.

"Buri residents are waiting for their first government housing project there and their first public park. To be honest, they have waited long enough," he told the local Press on August 20.

Though the government has committed to reducing the number of citizens seeking assisted housing, high demand, a shortage of land and rising building costs are combining to hamper its efforts, meaning that it will be some time before the wait is over.

© Bahrain Tribune 2008

Article originally published by Bahrain Tribune 12-Sep-08