Prospective homebuyers throughout the world usually have similar, universally applicable queries. Is the house facing a park? Is it in the vicinity of an industrial area? Are there are any hot girls in the neighborhood? How many children were burned inside the basement furnace during the black plague?
However, when it comes to Lahore, there are some additional queries that cross the minds of budding homeowners: How far is the house from probable structures in the Lashker-e-Jhangvi’s ‘to-destroy-by-July’ wish list? Is the housing scheme LDA (Lahore Development Authority) approved, TMA approved, Shahbaz Sharif approved? Does it correspond to the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah lest a theocratic military dictator take over tomorrow morning? Is there any pending fatwa against the local community club President and his five-year-old son for holding a Tambola night? How many motorcycle handle–inflicted scratches do I expect if I park my car outside? Will I be considered poor if the house does not have a false ceiling with spotlights (the holy grail of architecture as per Lahori aunties)? How far is the house from the Chinese spa down the street that professes to be a Far East takeout-a-rant? And the most important question of all in this city of land mafia, ‘If I buy this house, will I be it’s owner?’
With security being a fundamental issue, one route many adopt in the search for real estate begins amongst the league of gated communities that have spread throughout the country like a swarm of locust. These communities offer two things critical to security: a promiscuous name and a Delhi Sultanate styled entrance gate (if you are lucky, you may just come across Butt Town, with two lion sculptures on each side of it’s main gate, mouth wide open).
The prosperity of these closed havens is most bluntly displayed in the near vicinity of Islamabad and at the canal bank beyond Thokar Niaz Baig. Interestingly, both of these areas underwent the property boom after the success of the quixotic model set by the real estate kingpin we all love and adore. Yes, the man behind dozens of Dickensian court cases. Stating the name of a real estate mogul in Pakistan is often a double edged sword; the editor of the magazine may either be offered a five-canal house within the housing society – or wake up tomorrow to find out that the only thing left under the magazine’s ownership is the office boy’s cycle. Nevertheless, we may rightfully state that the pioneer behind the first of these gated communities has given dozens of Trump-wannabes a successful and satisfactory business model, so impressive that he just may sue the LDA for rights to the walled city moniker.
A visit to the Lahori version of this Disneyland of housing communities is always an interesting affair. The community is nestled with countless resurrections of world famous tourist attractions, from Trafalgar Square to a miniscule Eiffel Tower currently under construction. And if one is fortunate enough, on a clear day you may just catch a glimpse of a cemetery from the nearby village. Perhaps homage to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery before the yearly funds ran out?
But what separates this housing community from others is that it claims to be a complete city within a city. There are long commercial avenues, skyscrapers-in-the-making and numerous closed-circuit cameras, which throughout the market slump of 2009 seemed to be collecting footage for the Bigg Loss. Today, however, the place is booming. Like it or not, it is one of the most successful commercial ventures in the country and has lived up to it’s promise of providing a comfortable living. On my last visit, I was quick to note that it was one of the few posh suburbs in the country with more security personnel than Army generals.
Quite impressed by the visual subtleties of the various housing schemes on the canal road, I asked a property agent, in one of the 1700 registered real estate offices within the gates of these communities, as to which areas are hot sellers in terms of demand. His answer, with a 12-rupee imported cigarette in hand, was more philosophical than I had anticipated, ‘To be frank, sir, at night, a few of us can sit down and decide how much demand to generate for a certain plot or for a certain block. And a few weeks later, it sells for that much and everyone wants it.’ Death be with Adam Smith, the instant dynamism of the demand-and-supply theory hit me as the ultimate actuality of life.
No where is this more true than the DHA sector, the army administered housing enterprise in which the liberalist tax-evading majority spend their times sitting on their lush living room sofas conspiring against the materialist commercialization of the armed forces. The housing schemes are so popular in Lahore that plot files for a Phase XXVI extension, which should go on floor by 2093, or about two years before the return of Jesus, are more in demand than a low-paid maid in the home of an Indian diplomat.
After the market slump in 2009, the real estate market has once again become the golden ‘get-rich-quick’ route. I asked a much younger friend of mine who had completed his masters in mass communications as to how he planned to go about with his career. Did he plan to work at a newspaper? Or with a creative agency? Perhaps fly abroad for further studies? In reply, he said that he planned to go into real estate – buy plots, make houses and sell them for a profit. Being a firm believer in the importance of a skill-based career, I had shunned him in response. Much to my surprise, with little or no knowledge of how to assemble a DIY cupboard let alone of how a house is constructed, the aforementioned individual had made a profit of five million rupees after a joint investment of nine million with a business partner.
Considering how much fresh graduates are earning in television channels and newspapers, and how sluggish the rise up the pay ladder is (unless they have their contacts on the upper tiers of the ladder), I figured it would have taken him around nine years to earn what he did within nine months in property buying and construction.
The burden of it all falls on the prospective homeowner. He, who only wishes to have a decent place to build a house is left to tackle the otherworldly prices given to him by the speculators, who will take their typically sure-fire profit and bid farewell. Consequently, the homeowner has to spend his whole life savings or a large chunk of it in building that very house which would have cost him much less had it not been for these honey suckers. Islamic? Nope. Unethical? Probably not. Just something which seems wrong when you see it? I’d say yes.
Also, as highlighted from an example above, the importance of education and a proper career is undermined when there is such a large gap in the payoff between hard work and surefire risk-taking. While I have tried my best not to sound like one of the pro-Jacksonian, anti-market lobbyists in one of their many contemporary disguises – if we are assume that young bioengineering scientists working with government agencies are earning five-digit salaries as per government pay grades, we may have to re-think as to how we prioritize and valuate certain things.
The situation is not unique to Islamabad, DHA Lahore, or the gated communities; newspaper articles highlighting the property boom in Baghdad show that it is a common trend amongst the handful of commercial and industrial centers that struggling national economies like Iraq and Pakistan seem to possess.
What then is realistically left for a person who does not already possess sufficient property? Unless you can act and sing like Sinatra, pack your bags and go to a far away village. And pray for a Che.