At the heart of the Arab spring was a lack of affordable housing, a bold statement I read in a magazine article, which went on to say that:
the shortage of affordable homes is one of the underlying causes of the social unrest and the resulting political turmoil that has spread across the MENA region during the Arab Spring of 2011.
I was initially quite skeptical and thought as many would, this was simplification of a much more complex problem. Further, common sense dictates that it is more about poverty and a lack of jobs. If you have money, you can afford and buy a house. Let us deal with the underlying problem of poverty, and housing the masses will follow.
Well, maybe it is not such a wild notion. There is some merit to singling out lack of housing as a catalyst to social unrest. One is that it has potent symbolism. Houses in a very tangible and visible way capture the life aspirations of people. A man’s (and woman’s) home is their castle, goes the saying. The “American Dream” has homeownership at its core. The political symbolism is also obvious. This was said of the Apartheid state and its housing policies:
Housing was about control. It was about excluding people from urban areas. It was about regimentation. It was about the administration of deprivation. (South African Minister of Housing, Joe Slovo addressing the Housing Summit, Botshabelo, 27 October 1994)
Post colonial liberation movements consequently make housing the centre stage of their policies to illustrate this break from the past. Build a decent house and you at one stroke provide a basket of necessary services: water, sanitation, electricity. Create decent housing and you create communities and enhance safety for the vulnerable. Providing decent housing is creating healthy communities. It is amazing how some of society’s biggest killers – cholera, typhoid, malaria, and even AIDS; as well as crime and violence – have all been linked to poor housing.
Housing happens in space, and spatial manifestations of societal discontent are almost always in poor housing areas where slums and informal settlements predominate. Areas with poor housing are areas of concentrated feelings of exclusion, disaffection, anger, helplessness, defiance, militancy. Create a home owner, others say, and you create a good citizen. Researchers have for a long time studied this causal relationship. Some conclude that as a home owner’s stake and interest in a house and neighborhood develop, so does their need to fight threats to it, creating heightened public spiritedness and political awareness. Conservative politics in places such as the United States and Britain have also promoted the notion of an “ownership society”, a model society anchored by among others the owning of property.
Where is the next social revolution happening we may ask? Look at housing.