Since the first days following the February 6 earthquake, Syrian officials have issued statements saying they would secure alternative housing for people in regime-held areas whose homes had collapsed completely or were at risk of collapse due to cracks. But as more time has passed, officials have begun using a different term: temporary housing for residents of shelter centres.
Alternative housing is a loose term that usually refers to non-free housing implemented by the General Housing Establishment (GHE) as part of the country’s social housing programmes. Residents of informal settlements may apply to receive such housing if their homes are expropriated or demolished or if their neighbourhoods are re-zoned. However, Syrian law does not stipulate any rights to alternative housing for those whose homes have been affected by natural disasters.
While temporary alternative housing or temporary housing, according to official statements, are new terms describing prefabricated housing units that will be transported to earthquake-affected governorates and will apply to people currently staying in shelter centres. A typical unit consists of one or two rooms.
It remains unclear who will pay for setting up and transporting these units, how they will be distributed, and who will benefit from them. Some official statements have said they welcome foreign aid to fund the construction of housing units and the provision of ready-made ones. Some statements have also been vague and contradictory in terms of where the units will be set up, how many there will be and their prices and costs. Also, it is unclear what the eventual fate of these prefabricated housing units will be, who owns them and whether they will be dismantled at some point in the future.
The government’s approach appears to have gradually abandoned talk of alternative housing in its long-term sense (as well as any related rights for residents) in favour of focusing on prefabricated housing units to be used as temporary alternatives to the shelter centres. This concept has gradually developed over the past several weeks and appears to both fall in line with the government’s financial capabilities and lighten popular pressure by securing some housing units for affected residents. But this is a medium-term approach and does not solve the problem.
The Minister of Public Works and Housing told the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper on February 20 that those currently impacted by the earthquake cannot continue to stay in the temporary shelter centres for a long period. The state needs the centres back at some point to use them again for its original services.
How many prefabricated housing units are there?
The idea for prefabricated housing units first emerged on February 15, when the Minister of Public Works and Housing called on ministry-affiliated public construction companies to prepare 100 units, which are now now available. The minister also asked these companies’ managers to immediately procure more of the prefabricated housing units and provide them to the government. The public construction companies affiliated with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing are the General Housing Establishment, the General Company for Building and Construction, the General Company for Water Projects, the General Company for Electrical and Communication Works, and the General Company for Roads and Bridges.
On February 19, the minister told Al-Watan that the above companies, in cooperation with military-affiliated construction companies, had begun manufacturing 300 one- and two-room prefabricated units. However, in other statements, put that number at 350. He added the units would be ready within a month. The military construction companies affiliated with the Ministry of Defence are the Military Housing Establishment and the Military Construction Establishment.
Confusion over the number of units emerged in an exceptional session by the Council of Ministers on March 4. The session aimed to discuss “the special procedures for programmes to implement the national action plan and move to the recovery phase for addressing the impacts of the earthquake”. During this session, ministers stressed quick preparation and installation of some 400 “rooms”. The rooms would be fully equipped and distributed to Lattakia and Aleppo governorates as temporary housing for residents impacted by the earthquake. Notably, the ministerial session referred in its discussion to prefabricated “rooms”, rather than to one- or two-room standalone housing units. This could help to explain the increase in the stated number from 300 units to 400 rooms.
The prefabricated housing units location
The Minister of Public Works and Housing also stated on February 20 that he had been given direct orders to determine sites for constructing buildings in the Aleppo and Lattakia governorates to accommodate 300 apartments in the residential projects implemented by the GHE. Based on the minister’s words, these apartments appear like the prefabricated housing units.
The pro-regime Athr Press news website reported on February 22 that 50 housing units were allocated for Lattakia and would be distributed to three centres: Damserkho and Al-Gharaf in Lattakia city and Al-Naqaa in Jabla. Each centre is between 16 and 20 square metres.
It is unclear where Aleppo’s share of prefabricated housing units will be located.
The prefabricated housing units cost
The deputy head of engineering in Aleppo’s Chamber of Industry told the official Al-Baath newspaper on February 23 that Syrian industrialists had submitted tenders for building the prefabricated housing units. Each unit would cost at most SYP 20 million, equivalent to approximately USD 2,700 (1 USD/SYP 7,400 on the black market).
That same day, Al-Watan quoted an engineering expert who said that relying on local companies is better as it would be easier to transport the finished housing units and install them in their allocated locations. The expert added that there is no major difference in costs between prefabricated and ordinary housing units. For both, the cost per square metre is SYP 700,000-800,000, meaning a 100-square-metre unit would cost about SYP 80 million, or USD 11,000.
By that logic, a one-room, 25-square-metre prefabricated unit would cost SYP 20 million, in line with the numbers reported by Al-Baath.
According to the expert quoted in Al-Watan, such units are desirable because they are quick to set up, safe, and designed to resist earthquakes. He also stressed that the government should consider what to do with these housing units in the long-term – including whether they will be converted into permanent housing, which may lead residents to expand them and add certain modifications such as additional storeys. Such modifications could someday lay the foundations for new informal settlements.