CASABLANCA, Morocco, (AP) – This seaside city is known as a rich stockpile of art deco architecture, the hub of Morocco’s economic growth and the setting of an all-time classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
But Casablanca is also the capital of a bleaker aspect of modern Morocco — sprawling slums, where huge families are packed into shanties with tin roofs rusted by the ocean winds, and goats and donkeys munch stray garbage.
“It’s as if we’re eating straight from the gutter,” said Mina Abujaman, 48, describing the squalor.
“We spend half our time cleaning up,” said the mother of seven and grandmother of two, pointing at the children playing in the mud while women carry water back from the communal fountain — all amid whiffs of sewage.
Yet the slum of Sidi Moumen, one of dozens around Casablanca where a third of the country’s worst urban housing lies, is expected to disappear soon. In fact, Abujaman’s quarter of breeze-block houses and twisting alleys is one of the last still standing in the area, and dozens more shanties are being pulled down each month.
From the neighborhood’s empty lots, a gray line of new housing projects is visible in the distance, nibbling ever farther into the countryside.
All this is part of Morocco’s “Towns Without Slums” program, one of the most ambitious worldwide to eradicate urban shanties.
Some 1.5 million Moroccans were living in such homes until recently, hidden behind concrete walls as the North African kingdom displayed its brighter sides to tourists and businessmen.
Yet the slum dwellers weren’t ignored by all.
Islamist parties recruited them in droves, as did the terror groups that used the angriest among the tenants as suicide bombers in a killing spree that left 45 people dead in Casablanca in 2003. Most of them lived not far from Abujaman’s house, in a block in Sidi Moumen that has since been leveled.
In 2004, King Mohammed VI told his government to remove all the country’s slums within eight years. Five years later, officials say they are nearly half done.
“Slums are a problem all over the developing world,” said Fatna Chihab, the head of social housing at the Ministry for Habitat and Urban Planning. “Morocco’s originality is that his majesty decided to tackle the issue head-on.”
About 43 percent of the nearly 300,000 families tallied as living in urban shanties have been rehoused, said Chihab, who heads the relocation program.
The $3 billion (euro2.27 billion) project is financed nearly half by the Moroccan state, which is far more cash-strapped than other Arab countries with large oil reserves. Private contractors and contributions from residents of the new projects fund the rest.
It is viewed as one of the king’s key policies, part of his pledge to bring a measure of social equality to a fast-changing country where money has flowed into business and tourism, while the poor living in near-medieval conditions in city slums and downtrodden villages have gotten little.
Authorities also promise to bring electricity, infrastructure and running water to villages to keep rural populations from migrating to cities and creating new slums. Remote villages, and even some of the medinas, or historic town centers, can offer worse living conditions than the slum shanties, Chihab said.
“But the slums are just such a crying image of misery” that the government has made them a priority, she said. She noted, too, that the government was aware that the informal economy and absence of social services in the slums could create a breeding ground for criminals and terrorist groups.
Morocco’s slum clearance is part of the broader Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 by the United Nations, which seeks to “achieve significant improvement” in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers worldwide by 2020. The world had over 1 billion slum dwellers in 2005, the U.N. says.
Morocco has already labeled 30 of its 83 towns “slumless,” including Agadir, an Atlantic beach resort popular with Western tourists. Chihab’s ministry estimates that on average, 4,000 families are rehoused across the country each month.
Though Chihab is “absolutely certain” the overall deadline will be met, she concedes authorities now face “quite a few difficulties that are slowing down the project.” And some critics say the problems mean the estimated 800,000 people still in slums could be much harder to move than the first half already in new houses.
It’s not surprising, of course, that things do not go according to plan in a crowded Arab city where illusion is part of the atmosphere. Tourists’ snapshots of busy alleyways miss the squalor behind the walls, and the famous 1942 movie “Casablanca” was not filmed here at all, but mostly at studios in Burbank, Calif., with the misty farewell of hero and heroine shot nearby at Van Nuys airport.
Among problems for the relocation program, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights says some candidates in this year’s local elections are trying to block the transfer of slum dwellers, either for gerrymandering purposes or because they are pushing the idea of better housing in their own campaigns.
While the government insists it tries to relocate people to nearby areas, there is a problem with where land is available.
For example, Casablanca, with a population estimated at 4 million, is so densely packed that new housing projects often must be built far beyond the suburbs, raising problems with isolation, lack of infrastructure, and people losing jobs because poor transit means they have difficulty getting to work.
Many slum dwellers also resist the program, saying they are too poor to pay the small amount required for their rehousing.
“We’re not against leaving this place, but we want to make sure we get something decent in exchange,” said Abderazzah Mohammedi, a street vendor who, like many of the several thousand remaining residents in Sidi Moumen, is deeply suspicious of the rehousing plan.
He and many others contest the size of construction plots. Families receive 64 to 80 square meters (689 to 861 square feet) of land in exchange for tearing down their shanty. In general, they pay $1,800 (euro1,360) for the land, about a tenth of its real value, and then must fund most of the new building. But critics say more space is needed because a single shanty often houses much more than just one family unit.
“We’re not getting enough space to build on,” said Mohammedi, 29, as he showed the maze of little rooms and sheds haphazardly assembled over the years to house his parents, himself, and four of his married siblings with their children.
Authorities say they give larger plots to bigger families, each of whom is allowed to put up a four-story building. But many of the poorest say this doesn’t help because they can’t remotely afford such homes, which cost at least $13,000 (euro10,000) per floor. They often strike a deal with private contractors, who build their house for free in exchange for half the floor space.
“So in the end we’d be more crammed than here,” said Mimoune Oujdi, 72, a retired factory worker who’s lived in the slums since 1956 and has no plans to move. The new housing projects are just drab concrete blocks despite the nice modern commodities they offer, Oujdi said.
“And they’re crammed like a dog’s kennel,” he said, taking the sun in front of the compound of rusty tin sheeting, old stones and wood he built over the decades for his family of 12.
The slum dwellers’ reluctance is compounded by corruption, and some cases of police brutality when people are coaxed to leave, said Mohammed Abounasr, the Casablanca head of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.
“The sheer scale of the project creates conditions for abuse,” he said.
Authorities say they are aware of these problems. At least 140 construction entrepreneurs and government officials have been arrested around Casablanca in recent months on suspicion of graft in the housing projects. Some 300 buildings also were torn down because they were built illegally.
“It was a vicious circle; we had to hit hard,” said Chihab, who says her minister now leads a task force with his counterparts at the Interior and Justice Ministries to battle corruption and anarchic rebuilding.
Forced departures also have been ruled out, Chihab said. She added that slum dwellers alone must pull down their individual shanties, as a sign they are leaving willingly and are satisfied with the deal.
She noted, too, that a government fund, supported by a tax on cement, helps guarantee loans to low-income slum dwellers, many of whom don’t have regular wages and can’t get construction loans from banks.
Other programs are intended to help the ex-slum dwellers, too, Chihab said, noting they are fast-tracked for microfinance loans to start new businesses and can build ground-floor shops in housing projects. Schools, hospitals and centers for women and youth are also being constructed, she said, in part to give the residents incentives to stay.
The land titles they receive for their housing are usually the first form of legal ownership they’ve ever had. And along with property come the first utility bills, fixed postal addresses and government registration.
“It’s not just about giving houses to people,” Chihab said. “We’re also trying to bring them into the middle-class.”