KABUL -- Ahmad Saqib spends over three hours a day commuting between his rented house in the northern Afghan town of Jabal Saraj and the capital Kabul, where he works as an accountant.
"By the time I get home in the evening, I'm exhausted and have no energy to chat with my family," says the father of five. "I wish I had a place to live in Kabul, but it's beyond my means."
"In very cheap areas of Kabul, in places inaccessible to vehicles, located on hilltops far from city center, the rent prices for an average family house hover between 10,000 and 15,000 afghanis [about $220 to $330]."
Foreigners offer hard currency instead of unstable national currency.
That is well out of Saqib's price range, whose monthly salary of about $200 places him among the city's growing middle class but falls far short of what he would need to rent a home in Kabul, let alone purchase one.
The lack of affordable housing -- driven by a rapidly rising population spurred by rural to urban migration, the wartime destruction of neighborhoods, and an influx of well-heeled foreign contractors occupying choice locations -- has become one of the biggest social problems in Kabul. Critics say not enough is being done by city authorities to address the issue, as ordinary Afghans such as Saqib find themselves being pushed down -- if not off -- the city's property ladder.
Kabul Mayor Muhammad Younus Nawandish highlights the population issue. "Kabul had a population of some 1.5 million in 2001, and now the number of its inhabitants exceeds 5 million," he says, adding that the vast majority are unable to find housing in the capital.
Influx Of Foreigners
The subsequent demand for rental homes and flats has caused rental prices to skyrocket, as have property prices. New homes have cropped up in pockets where land prices are within reach, but they tend to lack formal urban planning, and critics says new housing projects tend to cater to the more wealthy.
"Foreigners offer hard currency instead of unstable national currency," Hafizullah says. "They mainly rent houses in upscale and secure areas with high-quality houses, such as Wazir Akbar Khan or Shirpur neighborhoods, where depending on the size and the quality of the house, rent costs up to $15,000 a month or even more."
Hafizullah says rental properties has become a booming business and a significant source of income for homeowners, who renovate and refurbish their homes in sought-after neighborhoods in order to rent them out for foreigners.
"Homeowners rent out their houses to foreigners, and then they move to other areas themselves," Hafizullah says. "Since they command considerable amounts of money, they drive rent prices high in other, previously cheaper areas, too. It's like a chain reaction."
At the end of the chain are ordinary Afghans, like Ahmad Saqib, who are pushed out to distant neighborhoods and suburbs.
According to Hafizullah, a three-room apartment in an average area of Kabul that rented for about $200 per month five years ago, now costs a minimum of $500.
Middle-class Afghans' incomes, however, have not kept pace. With few exceptions, public-sector workers' wages range between $50 and $250 a month.
Saifuddin Sayhon, professor of economics at the Kabul University, estimates that the cost of living, including food and energy prices in the capital, has risen by 30 to 50 percent in recent years.
Sayhon says the expensive housing projects that city authorities have embarked upon will not solve the housing crisis for middle-income Afghans.
"The authorities could reinstate some policies that existed in the past, such as distribution of residential plots of land at affordable prices for public sector workers," Sayhon suggests. "The authorities should also undertake low-cost building projects to make it available for people with middle or lower incomes."
"In the past, many public sector workers used to get low-cost apartments in high-rise buildings," Sayhon says. "And after paying a reasonably priced monthly payment over a certain period of time, they would gain ownership of the apartments."
Mayor Nawandish argues that house prices and rental costs in Kabul are on a par with those in many Western metropolises, but he concedes that the only solution to the housing shortage is to build new apartment blocks and houses in the capital.
He notes that many Afghans have moved to brand-new apartments in the Shahrak-e Telayee residential neighborhood in eastern Kabul and Aria in the north of the city, an upper middle-class region near the international airport. And he adds that "we have four more construction projects under consideration, but we won't disclose details until they are approved."
The mayor says he will travel to Dubai in coming weeks to take part in a meeting with potential investors to encourage them to undertake construction projects in Kabul. So far, private companies from Turkey and Russia have expressed interest in investing in Kabul housing construction.
"We're trying to explore every avenue to encourage investors by tackling bureaucratic hurdles and the infamous bribery that frightens off many private investors," the mayor says.
"There were problems like too much bureaucracy and corruption in the past, standing in the way of investors. We're eliminating these issues. I've given my direct phone number to private investors so they could contact me directly if they face problems, such as bribery."
Beyond the Reach
Even then, according to Hakim, an architect who like many Afghans goes only by one name, the high cost of construction in Kabul poses an obstacle.
There are two major factors, he says, land prices in Kabul are high, and almost all construction materials have to be imported.
"In areas like Shirpur, Wazir Akbar Khan and Shahr-e Naw one square meter of land costs $1,000. To build an average house, you'd need at least 500 square meters of land. So the land alone would cost you $500,000 in the exclusive areas of Kabul," Hakim says. "Far from the city center, land prices are cheaper. 300 square meters in these areas cost around $30,000 to $40,000."
Hakim goes on to say that many of the residents of new apartment blocks are Afghans who work for foreign companies in Kabul.
"An average three-room apartment in Aria costs about $140,000, which still is beyond the reach of ordinary Afghans," says Hakim. "That's why many people still go for mud-brick houses in remote districts or the outskirts of the city, which cost around $30,000 or $40,000 depending on their size and the area."
That's enough to lead Alim Saqib to give up on even dreaming about having his own place in Kabul. "I know it's never going to happen," he says.