By Tiina-Riitta Lappi

Large urban development projects for housing, infrastructure and construction of commercial buildings are taking place all over Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The whole urban landscape is changing drastically and these changes affect many people’s lives as well. In 2006, a massive development program was launched to provide affordable housing for lower income groups who do not have decent and healthy living conditions.

So far around 170 000 condominium units of the planned 400 000 have been handed over to their new owners but for the poorest getting a condominium remains a distant and almost unimaginable dream. Those who receive a condominium are selected through a lottery which requires registration beforehand. In order to get a condominium, a person has to win a lottery first and then he or she needs to have the down payment, which is often too much money for the poorest to pay. That’s if they ever even win the lottery. I’m told that later, all who have registered will eventually get a condominium, but that may take years.

In March 2015 I visited an unplanned, government-owned kebele neighbourhood situated close to the centre of Addis Ababa where I met Adina, an older woman living in a one-room house with nine other family members. Adina’s house is quite small and there’s barely enough room for everyone to sleep at night even when they have all the open space on the floor covered with mattresses. This family of 10 shares a kitchen and a toilet with four other households living in the same compound.

Kebele houses like Adina’s are usually single-storey mud and wood constructions called chika, constituting approximately 70 per cent of the housing stock in central parts of Addis Ababa. With their very low rents and favourable locations, kebele neighbourhoods are the best (and often also the only) available option for low-income households which comprise the majority of city dwellers. Since rental rights are for life, people rarely move away voluntarily. This has created tight and long-lasting social bonds in these neighbourhoods.

Adina moved to her house 42 years ago and three other families with kebele houses in the same compound have lived there almost as long as Adina. They function like one big family in which each mother has her own role in taking care of the children in the compound collectively. One mother feeds the children, one takes care of washing the laundry, another makes sure the children are doing their schoolwork, and so forth. Tight social relations with neighbours are indispensable safety nets for the poor. Maintaining that social cohesion would not be possible in the condominiums, at least not to the same extent people are used to in their current living environment.

As I was having coffee one afternoon at Adina’s house with her and six other women from the neighbourhood, they discussed the upcoming lottery, which would take place in a few days. All seven women, or at least some of their close relatives, had registered for a condominium so it was an exciting time for them, even if they still did not personally know anyone in the neighbourhood who had been lucky in the lottery. Adina said that she is desperate to get a good place for her husband to rest because he works two jobs and needs some peace and quiet in order to be able to sleep a couple of hours between 1am and 6am. He has to work at two jobs because he has many expenses, including his grandchildren’s school fees.

Many daily activities are carried out in outdoor spaces. © Tiina-Riitta Lappi, 2012.

While drinking coffee, one woman commented on the condominium lottery by saying that people in her neighbourhood don’t know what actually happens in a lottery. “It’s only in the newspaper, the list, so we don’t know if it’s fair or not. Even those condominiums that are given are not finished and you have to finish them yourself”, she continued and gave an example. She told of her relative who received a condominium and worked really hard to make it habitable. By the time he was done and had moved into the condominium, he was so drained both mentally and physically that he got sick and died three months later.

It’s not a unique story, since I have heard others like it, telling about what may happen to people moving into condominiums. Even if everyone dreams of having a better place to live, people believe that getting one may bring bad things, too. During an earlier visit to the same neighbourhood, an older man told me that he would shortly be receiving a condominium but could not afford to live in it. He would rent a room for his family of eight people and rent out the condominium in order to pay back the loan he had received from his relative to make the down payment for the condominium.

The man described the situation in this way: “My luck with the condominium lottery gives me both happiness and sadness, happiness because we have our own house now and sadness because of the financial problems we have. It’s frustrating to borrow money and not be able to start paying it back.”

Later, I asked if any of the women I had been talking to had visited someone living in a condominium, if they had an idea of what it would be like to live in one, or how it would be different from their current life in a kebele house. Just two of them had visited condominiums but very briefly and they could not recall those visits very clearly. To me it sounded as if they were talking about a life that is so different from their own that it was almost impossible to comprehend. Certainly 170 000 condominium units have alleviated the general housing shortage but for the poorest of the poor, they have quite often turned out to be too expensive and in practical terms, out of their reach.

People are desperate to have better homes and decent living conditions but getting there seems almost to be a dream without any connection to their actual lives. As one woman said, getting a condominium would be like “rising from the dead”, something totally beyond one’s imagination.

Kebele housing in Addis Ababa. © Tiina-Riitta Lappi, 2013.


  • Ejigu, Alazar G. 2012. Socio-spatial tensions and interactions: An ethnography of the condominium housing of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In Mélanie Robertson (ed.) Sustainable Cities: Local Solutions in the Global South. Warwickshire: International Development Research Center, 97–112.
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