CAIRO — Egyptians tired of overcrowded streets and polluted air are escaping to places like Beverly Hills and Dreamland — compounds in Greater Cairo.
Those are just a few of the properties that have sprouted in Egypt recently, promising a better quality of life with sprawling golf courses, swimming pools, massive malls or luxury villas.
After a slowdown in the real estate market stemming from the three-year-old uprising here, sales of properties such as these are picking up, some say. But despite their glossy appeal, they are also part of a massive development plan criticized for creating flawed communities that lack viable housing solutions for Egypt’s majority.
“They are mostly serving a certain niche or layer of the society — mainly the upper class and people with jobs and people who can afford long, private mortgages while they should instead accommodate and serve a wider range of citizens, especially the classes that constitute the majority of Egypt’s population and housing problem,” said urban development expert Amir Gohar.
The desert enclaves date to the late 1970s with the start of Egypt’s New Towns Program, which sought to disperse a ballooning population — now estimated as high as 20 million in Greater Cairo — from stressed points along the Nile.
Yet the majority of Cairenes are discouraged from moving to the new towns since private housing there is unaffordable and public housing units are lacking infrastructure and are remotely located, said David Sims, author of Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control.
In the new towns, “population growth appears to have remained very anemic,” Sims said.
Sherif Ahmed, who owns a spare car parts store, said he wouldn’t want to leave his home in the central Cairo district of Shubra since his whole family lives nearby.
“So many people think that way,” he said, adding that renting homes in places like New Cairo is expensive. “I started my life in Shubra.”
Today, there are 23 new towns — often known as satellite cities — across Egypt, said Khaled Mahmoud Abbas, assistant minister for technical affairs at the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities, which overseas the government arm responsible for them. Another three will break ground this year and as many as 60 new towns in total could freckle Egypt in the next two to three decades, he said.
“The Egyptian experience in the new cities is unique, because we are changing the desert into life,” said Abbas. “You make the infrastructure for them: water, sewage (systems), electricity, buildings, roads — everything.”
One of the latest developments to rise was Cairo Festival City, home to automotive showrooms, an IKEA and a mall with a Zara, Swarovski and H&M in a controlled lot set to include a gated residential community in New Cairo.
Mohamed El-Mikawi, managing director of Al-Futtaim Group Real Estate, the parent company of Cairo Festival City, said demand for secure residential areas far from the heart of the chaotic capital increased after political changes in 2011 — and that the company is reacting to that trend.
“People want their children to play and walk around freely but they also want them to be in a secure and safe environment,” he said.
Security, privacy and good services drew Dreamland resident Mohamed Said to his home in the private development in 2010. In Egypt “the government doesn’t give you any services or privacy — nothing,” he said. “I have that here in Dreamland.”
About 50% of residences in the new towns around Cairo are luxury or high-end, not including buildings outside gated communities, said Eman Hussein, Middle East and North Africa research manager at Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate firm. After a slow in sales sparked by Egypt’s 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, sales of these properties started to pick up late last year, she said, though improvement in the market has not been universal.
New Cairo in Q2 2014 saw 15% growth in sales year-on-year for residential villas and 20% growth in apartment sales, according to the firm. Real estate giant SODIC claimed a “robust” first half of 2014, nearly selling out its recently launched properties.
However, Gohar says the new towns in their current forms are not being used to their full potential and create a load on the capital. People living there often rely on central Cairo for work, adding to the capital’s stifling traffic, and luxuries like golf courses in the desert use water and subsidized electricity in quantities that strain the environment and Cairo’s infrastructure, he said.
Abbas said the government is working to build 1 million low-income housing units across Egypt over the next five years and that plans are underway for improved transportation to the new towns, which has been the biggest obstacle to drawing residents, he said.
Solutions are needed as gated communities keep rising, creating a sense of “the other,” said Basil Kamel, a professor of architecture and urban theory at the American University in Cairo, which moved its campus from the capital’s heart to a desert plot in 2008.
“What is happening now is a lot of class struggle, people looking with disrespect at each other, from both sides,” he said.