By Jin Lee
Monday, December 10, 2012.
ACCRA, Ghana –
It’s got the food court, furniture, clothing, jewelry stores and the Apple store that always seems to have an influx of people. As if their location in front of the food court and Apple Store, the two busiest places in the mall, was strategic to attract more customers, a real estate agency is promoting its newest gated community. It may seem like the typical American mall, but this takes place in Ghana.
To promote Ubuntu Courts, UT Properties, an independent firm of property managers, property developers and leasing consultants, set up a consulting station inside the Accra Mall in between the entrance of the food court and the Apple store. Flyers and images of the details of the houses are shown across a flat-screen television as potential buyers fill out an interest form.
As people come and pick up a flyer, advisors in white polo uniforms eagerly approach them to see if anyone has questions.
Boosted by cocoa, gold and oil exports, Ghana’s economy is expanding, and the burgeoning middle-class is a testament to the progress in this West African country. Much like the home ownership dream in “The American Dream,” home ownership is quickly becoming a sign of wealth in Ghana as well as a status symbol separating the middle class from the low-income.
Many middle-class Ghanaians are seeking out houses with a particular feature - the ones that are gated, and more real estate agencies are providing solely gated homes. Gated communities in Ghana can mean an entire community enclosed within a single gate, or simply a neighborhood of individual houses that have its own gate and security system.
The Ubuntu Courts in Oyarifa is an example of an enclosed gated community. The neighborhood layout looks similar to what an American suburban gated community would look like with recreational facilities such as a pool and tennis courts inside the gates and a shopping center nearby.
“The middle-class wants to live in gated communities,” Regina Ofih, a UT Properties advisor, said.
“The middle class buying houses indicates that incomes are rising in Ghana,” Nii Ampa-Sowa, 32, Vice President of Databank Group, said. “In the past most people would opt to just renting a place, but this changing trend shows that there is a growing middle-income class in ghana that wants to own a property. It has some cultural reflection as well. We used to be more communal, live with extended family, but the middle class is becoming more nuclear.”
Redrow Developments is a real estate development that caters specifically to the middle to high income segment. Justin Soglo, one of the agents at Redrow, stated that most of their buyers look for a two story house and they don’t have to worry about gates because Redrow’s communities are gated from the start.
The most popular middle-class homes in Labone, Cantonment and East and West Legon have barbed wires and electric fences with a warning sign to keep out intruders.
“My family and I moved to Cantonment two years ago. We chose to buy a house in a gated community mainly because of security,” Frank Gadzekpo, 52, a business owner, said. “It was also to have neighbors who were of like mind. What I mean by that is having neighbors who would take care of their house and gardens as a community. In a non-gated community, people do whatever they wish.”
Where taking out loans to purchase a home is a common practice in America, it hasn’t always been that way in Ghana. Ghanaians typically don’t like debt obligations and have preferred taking time and building their own houses rather than buying it. Ghana Home Loans is the only firm in the country working in a mortgage-only model. They lend mortgage at a rate of about 13.5 percent to 14 percent.
“It used to be that you would build your own house by saving money and building a little bit at a time,” Nana Akua Anyidoho, 39, development expert at University of Ghana, said. “But now, the housing market is commercialized, loans are prevalent, and it’s easier to get access to finance now.”
The competition within the upper and middle class houses are intense, but same cannot be said of the affordable or low costs houses. The competition has made developers concentrate on supplying the needs of the upper and middle classes, now the most profitable end of the market. The middle class houses range from as low as $70,000 to as high as $200,000 and luxury apartments that range from $300,000 to $1 million.
The traditional Ghanaian family life was once centered on agriculture. Having a big family was common and added to more helping hands on the field, but with the expansion of economy and the rise of formal sector, people became compelled to migrate to urban areas to be on their own, according to Isaac Boafo, a sociology professor at University of Ghana. While the traditional Ghanaian family house was communal, the middle-class communities and the kind of unit that real estate agencies are developing are more geared towards a nuclear family.
“It’s a sign that Ghana is progressing and changing at a faster rate,” Boafo said. “Many individuals are buying houses to be independent like the Western practice, and even marriage is becoming more Westernized.”
The middle-class and homeownership indicates two things - it is changing the meaning of family and is a sign of progress for a country that attained Middle Income Country status in 2010. Ghana’s population stands at approximately 24 million, with 4 million in the Greater Accra region.
Although homeownership is a dream for many Ghanaians, not everyone has access and means to owning a home. There is currently a shortfall of around one million units. With the middle-class housing market becoming more lucrative, the lower-income class is driven out of the opportunity. Homeownership isn’t just a dream for middle to high-income Ghanaians, but the rising house prices and a shortfall of approximately one million housing units as of 2012 is making the dream hard to achieve.
“A majority of the population doesn’t have decent housing,” Eric Osei-Assibey, 39, Lecturer of Economics at University of Ghana, said. “The supply hasn’t kept up with the demand and the government hasn’t been successful in that area so far. When incomes increase, the first thing people demand is shelter. More people can afford houses now and are buying from real estate agents because they are sure that the land is secured.”
When Ghana was undergoing re-democratization in 1993, housing developments were left to private companies. Since then, investment laws have changed and credit is easier to obtain, according to Minister of Information Fritz Baffour. Despite gains for the middle-class, over 50 percent of Ghanaians live in densely populated inner city areas and uncompleted homes. The Ghana Real Estate Developers Association is one group that continuously tries to assist the government by providing support in delivery of affordable houses for all Ghanaians.
Purchasing a home has become a form of real physical investment for the middle-class in Ghana and a sign that the average income is rising in the nation.
Jin Lee is a journalism student at New York University.