KIGALI - Here in the capital, and other cities around Rwanda, land prices are rapidly rising, and pushing poor families deeper into poverty. When authorities expropriate properties, and the poor are forced to sell land and homes, families must figure out where to go next. 

The little houses, bars and kiosks so typical of the Kimicanga district in Kigali have almost all vanished. Any minute now, the last houses standing could be demolished. “The bulldozers are coming to destroy the remaining houses,” says one of Kimicanga’s last inhabitants. “We’ve received our expropriation compensation, but we still don’t know where to live, because land is so expensive in the countryside.”

In the past four years, most houses in the extremely poor Kiyovu and Gacuriro districts have been bulldozed. According to city officials, they will soon be replaced with new commercial or residential buildings. But in Kiyovu, only three buildings have already been built or are in construction; and in Gacuriro the bush has claimed back the town. “The high cost of plots has slowed down activity,” explains one city official. In 2009, a square meter in Kiyovu cost $180, but timid sales have knocked the prices drop by half in 2011. Apart from the paved roads, nothing has been built on these large plots.

Urbanizing the countryside

This appetite for buildable land is a not limited to Kigali -- it has spread to the rest of Rwanda, to country towns where land is cheaper than in the capital. Many people are looking for respite from the noise and agitation of the big city, and many cities are building new neighborhoods to accommodate the new arrivals. A few years ago, Ruyenzi in the Kamonyi district of south Rwanda was just a small hill 5 km away from the city center, where people cultivated their land. But they built pretty houses with red corrugated iron roofs and now at night the lights are as bright as the city’s.

“There aren’t any kavukire (locals) left, the rich are buying up all the land, says a farmer who is waiting for prices to rise so he can sell his land and buy somewhere else.

Overnight, land prices have boomed in this area, as they have in many other regions, including Muhanga in the south, Musanze in the north or Nyabihu in the west. “Here, you won’t find a plot to build a house for less than $4000. Two years ago, the same plots were going for less than $1800,” says an agent whose job is to advise buyers in Ruyenzi.

In the cities, the poor are hard pressed to keep up. “You’re between two castles and your house is just a thatched hut stuck in the middle,” describes a Kacyiru resident. “To them, we're an eyesore, so we end up negotiating for them to pay us to leave.” The Kigali city authorities saye there is an urban development plan for lower income neighborhoods, like the Gasabo district built in 2008 for those displaced from Kiyovu.

Building for the poor

Not everyone wants to move from the city to the countryside. This prompted the Rwandan Housing Authority (RHA) to build apartments for residents who don’t want to leave. “We have to build for all categories of people, otherwise Kigali will turn into a ghetto for the rich,” said Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi at the inauguration of 100 houses built by the Rwandan social security office in January. These houses, by the way, are very expensive: up to $100,000.

According to the Kigali city blueprint envisioned for the next 50 years by American architects, the old shops and shantytowns must make way for residential or commercial neighborhoods and infrastructures. Nevertheless, for those who are forced to leave will become victims of the process without better compensation.

Read the article in French in Syfia.

Photo - Syfia