By Laurian B.

As rural to urban migration continues to outpace housing in Accra, Ghana, I was unsurprised by the number of construction projects that took place during the summer of 2011. However, many of these building projects were not in the areas where they are needed most. Whenever I conduct research with migrants in Accra, there are recurrent conversations about the lack of affordable and sanitary housing. Rental fees can strip all earnings within a year for most tenants. Accra residents easily spend more than half their monthly income on accommodations. Often, this leaves people with little choice but to squat on public and private spaces throughout the city. As housing scarcity climbs, so do food insecurity for many people.

The contrasts are striking.

Billboards advertise luxury apartments that are “coming soon” while there is an increasing number of uninhabited mansions on gated housing estates. Last year, as some friends cut through side streets to avoid the chocked traffic outside the city limits, they talked about the number houses being build with monies sent from abroad. Every neighborhood in the city usually has homes under construction or at some stage of completion. In Ghana, mortgages are uncommon and the idea of borrowing funds from a lender to build a home is undesired. Therefore, people usually build houses in stages. After the original groundbreaking, people start with the foundation, then interior walls and floors. Somewhere along the way, between when the paint starts to go up and the furniture gets moves in, a front and side winding gate is certainly added for security. I always thought that the length of time it takes to build a home in Ghana had more to do with upfront expense of buying materials than anything else. Concrete is the most popular foundation material for homes in Ghana with the cost of brick prohibitive. But that is only a small piece of the story. Construction managers and homeowners complain that the length of time to build a house often has to do with the workers. But unlike the comments from homeowners, this is not the place where I talk about shabby laborers who shirk their duties, but rather enterprising folks who advantageously capitalize on the building process.

As I mentioned, homes are often build with money from abroad. Ghanaian expats in Europe or the US send funds to Ghana to start building projects, often for their retirement years. That person may come to Ghana at the outset, to make sure land tenure is secure and that building permits are paid for, but it is the construction manager who handles the day-to-day tasks related to the project.The construction manager then relies on a cavalcade of sub-contractors such as bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, etc. There are full-service construction management companies that can handle all these areas simultaneously, but even they often parcel out these duties to subsidiary corporations. I watched one particular house to see this process unfold and ask a few questions. Once ground was broken on the property, there was a need to secure supplies. No one wanted to leave copper pipes or bricks to lie in the open. The construction manager gave Kobe, one of the masons, a small stipend to sleep at the property and deter burglars. In the first few weeks, only Kobe and his cousin stayed near to keep watch. At that time, the space was merely solid ground out in the open air.

Because the bricklayer would later need a water line to mix cement, productivity on the house increased two-fold after a few weeks. This is when the informal layers of housing began to deepen. During daylight, there was a flurry of building activity. Plaster was carried up newly created stairs and wrought iron laid aside for staircase railings. Embers sparked from circular saws cutting stabilization planks. When those sparks died at the close of the construction day, another shift arrived. These are the hawkers and petty ware sellers who have come to squat in the incomplete building. Cooking pots that had been hidden behind piles of sand start evening meals. Layers of cloth that were neatly wrapped in a seller’s goods became spreads to sit on and later, shields from mosquitoes. These are Kobe’s acquaintances and relatives. He decided to rent space in the unfinished house. Some street sellers in Accra work long distances from where they sell their goods and instead, spend a few nights a week in the unfinished house. The coins they give Kobe are still a savings over the transportation fares they pay to get to work from their other meager accommodations. Others tenants move in completely but are sure to leave no trace of their presence in the morning when the building laborers arrive. Squatters luck out when the monies from abroad cannot meet the costs of certain building materials. Work slows. Weeks and months can sometimes pass before construction re-starts. But the water line remains illegally tapped by the temporary residents. The walls between rooms become dividing lines between families living in the fragmented shell of a house.

Eventually, these houses will be completed. Local squatters will move on when the doors arrive and a permanent security guard is placed. Occasionally, the owners do return to Accra to live in these homes. Or, what is more likely, the house becomes a luxury rental in the increasingly globalized residential housing market of the suburbs. International corporations with offices in Ghana subsidize housing for their executives or offer very lucrative accommodation supplements to employees’ salaries. Alternatively, houses that remain un-rented receive a new batch of residents; the relatives of the homeowner. A cousin or close family friend is charged with keeping the squatters at bay. But with accommodation so unaffordable for most in Accra, it isn’t long before the “empty” house is filled with distant relatives from rural hometowns, who are in need of a place to live in the city. The social actors and nuances change, but the problem remains the same. There are too few reasonably priced accommodations in the sprawling African city.

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