Unchecked population growth and a steady flow of urban migration have combined to produce a severe housing shortage. The Algerian housing problem has been less pressing than in many other developing countries, however, owing to the postindependence departure of most Europeans. Nearly all of the Europeans had been city dwellers, living in the new towns surrounding the medinas (traditional cities) housing the Algerian population. In 1961 and 1962, many Europeans simply abandoned their properties to squatters from the countryside who promptly occupied them; sometimes as many as six Algerian families lived in a residence that had formerly housed a single European family. Property abandonment was so common that biens vacants (empty properties) became a term in common use.
Several years were required for the government to inventory the vacant properties. In 1965, however, a government financial reform endeavored to regularize ownership and collection of rents from about 500,000 nationalized or sequestered apartments and houses in the major cities.
Rural migrants settled into bidonvilles, named after the flattened bidons (tin cans) used extensively in their ramshackle construction. After independence the bidonville population of Algiers alone soon exceeded 100,000. Bidonvilles appeared in other cities, and during the early 1970s they emerged on the fringes of the oil camps in the Algerian Sahara.
The proliferation of urban shantytowns has been a worldwide phenomenon in developing countries. Proportionately fewer have sprung up in Algeria than in neighboring Morocco, in part because of government projects to limit urban sprawl by creating industrial villages near new factories. In the early 1970s, industrial villages were started near Algiers and in the vicinity of Annaba and Oran.
During the first twenty years after independence, public investment was concentrated in the industrial sector, and little attention was paid to the housing sector. Private construction was minimal because of tight government regulation and difficult access to landownership. In Algiers in particular, the government sought to discourage the flood of migration by almost freezing the housing sector and confining itself to improving sanitation and public utility service.
The consequence of those policies was a severe housing shortage starting at the end of the 1970s. By the early 1980s, the occupancy rate per three-room housing unit stood at seven persons, and the shortfall in public housing was placed at 1 million units. In 1992 the shortage had become critical and had risen to 2 million housing units. The shortage had resulted in an average occupancy rate of 8.8 persons per unit, comparatively one of the highest in the world.
Between 1990 and August 1993, as part of a series of reforms, the government has sought to eliminate the housing backlog and has built about 360,000 public housing units and launched new housing programs for low-income groups. Earlier plans to produce 100,000 public housing units between 1980 and 1984 achieved only a 57 percent rate of success. In the Second Five-Year Plan (1985- 89), the success rate for completed housing was even lower, convincing the government that major reforms were necessary.
Largely as a result of import restrictions that included building materials, the public housing sector in 1992 could produce only 35,000 units per year, up from 24,000 units in 1991, but down from the 1986 peak year of 88,000 units. At this rate, public housing shortages will not only continue but become worse.
In November 1990, new land legislation (Loi d'orientation foncière) was enacted to abolish the local government monopoly over land transactions, thus freeing urban landowners to buy and sell their land as they wished. The law was also intended to encourage private-sector investment in housing and construction. Furthermore, new standards were introduced in 1991 to simplify urban development procedures by the private sector.
To encourage the private sector to invest in housing, the government is proposing legislation that will permit private contractors to compete with public enterprises and have access to building materials that are exclusively for public housing. The private sector is also encouraged to produce locally some of the building materials needed, in order to compensate for market shortages and for the cost of importing those materials. By the early 1990s, some Algerians in the private sector had begun producing bricks, ceramic tiles, and steel rods.
Registered private construction companies remain very small and work primarily to build private family homes. Individuals also hire workers and architects to build their own houses. In 1991 alone, 85,000 building permits were issued to private households wishing to build dwellings. Between 1989 and 1992, an estimated 300,000 such housing units were built by private individuals.
The most conspicuous development in rural housing during the postindependence years has been the One Thousand Socialist Villages program undertaken in 1972 in conjunction with the agrarian revolution program. Socialist villages represented a pilot plan for improving rural housing. According to the plan, each village would have a population of as many as 1,500 people housed in 200 individual units, together with schools and clinics. Each unit was to have three rooms and would be provided with electricity, heat, and running water. By mid-1979 about 120 such villages had been completed. Although the villages had much to commend them, the program has done little to slow migration to urban areas.
In the mid-1980s, urban housing varied from the most modern apartment buildings and private dwellings of concrete and glass to crowded shantytowns. The cities had grown so rapidly that the small-windowed walls and courtyards of the medinas occupied only a small fraction of the urban area. The most common rural dwellings are called gourbi, some of which are mere huts constructed of mud and branches. Others are more solidly built, having walls of stone or clay and containing several rooms. Tiled or tin roofs are usually flat; but in parts of eastern Algeria subject to heavy rainfall or winter snows, the roofs are steeply slanted.
As a consequence of the heavy urban migration of early postindependence years, entire gourbi settlements appeared in Annaba and other coastal cities. During this period, the Kabylie region was the only part of Algeria to enjoy a housing boom. A large majority of the emigrant laborers in France were Berbers from the Kabylie, and the funds remitted by them to their families at home made the surge of building possible in this generally impoverished region.
Significant changes have occurred in Algeria in the last decade in the sectors of health, education, and welfare. The increase in health care facilities and the general upgrading of health services have met the needs of the very young Algerian population. The education system also has undergone major reforms and has become more responsive to the economic and social needs of Algerian society. However, the housing shortage, which worsened in the 1980s, has become critical in the 1990s. Private sector involvement may alleviate this shortage as it plays a larger role in the economy. Another major problem confronting the nation is that of unemployment, particularly among younger workers. Thus, despite Algeria's achievements in some areas, the country in 1993 was facing a number of difficult societal pressures that, combined with militant religious forces and economic difficulties, posed ongoing challenges to the government.
One of the best and most comprehensive recent studies on Algerian history and society is John Ruedy's Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Of particular importance are Ruedy's descriptions of the structure of the society and how it changed as a result of the political and economic upheavals that shook the country, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Two older studies, John P. Entelis's Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized and the study edited by I. William Zartman, Man, State, and Society in the Contemporary Maghrib, remain of critical importance to an understanding of present-day Algerian society. A number of French writers such as Jean-Claude Vatin, Rémy Leveau, and Jean Leca have written extensively on Algerian society and are essential reading.
World Bank reports contain have the latest information and statistics on major development indicators in Algeria; they have contributed greatly to this chapter. Some excellent articles on Algeria also have appeared in publications such as the Middle East Journal, Third World Quarterly, Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Sciences, and Annuaire de l'Afrique du Nord.
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