In the home he shared with 11 relatives, Mohammed Abd al-Hamid had no room to start a family. But since he put up a house on a nearby field in 2016, he has paid $4,500 in fines for building on agricultural land.
“There was no alternative,” said Abd al-Hamid, 30, who works for a Cairo security company, standing in front of his pink-painted house in the Nile Delta. “Am I supposed to rent an apartment in Cairo? I can’t afford that.”
Egypt’s population of nearly 100 million is growing rapidly and about 38 million live in unplanned communities.
In the turmoil after the 2011 Arab Spring, the number of unlicensed buildings sky-rocketed. Now authorities are cracking down on residents who build on farmland, but are providing few alternatives for those who need cheap houses.
People who build on agricultural land now face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 5 million Egyptian pounds ($280,000). Before the law was revised in January, the top fine was 50,000 pounds ($2,800) and the prison term wasn’t specified.
Authorities say they want to end unlicensed building on farmland, reduce overcrowding and provide homes for the poor, but analysts say many new government housing projects are too expensive and have poor services.
As a result, large numbers of new homes are unoccupied, while people still build on farmland in areas where housing demand is high.
“This shows you it’s a distorted housing market and price incentives and accessibility have not worked out,â€ said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military has been seeking ways to tighten control over the population, she said.
“And one of these ways seems to be controlling real estate development and channelling people toward the communities the government is building rather than communities that sprout out organically in places where people want to live.”
The military owns 51 percent of a firm that is developing a new capital east of Cairo.