The government of Equatorial Guinea had billed the rows of state-subsidised housing as never-to-be-missed home-owning opportunities for the poor.
But people familiar with the blocks say the homes are typically occupied by middle-class families and some of the country’s most privileged.
“Just look at the cars around here,” said Leandro Eneme, a 42-year-old trader, pointing to the gleaming SUVs making their way between apartments on well-paved roads. “There’s nothing poor about this place!”
He lives in the Buena Esperanza neighbourhood of the capital Malabo, the product of a state housing programme that emerged after an oil price boom in the 2000s.
Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in power since 1979 and Africa’s longest serving head of state, had promised that developments like this would provide “public housing for everybody”.
In the past decade, authorities have built more than 8,600 state-subsidised homes in the African mainland section of the country and the island of Bioko, according to government figures.
But with a population of 1.2 million, largely impoverished and cut off from the lavish lifestyles of an elite surrounding the president, critics say the scale of the programme is way too small to be effective and vulnerable to corruption.
“You can’t get one of these homes if you earn less than 300,000 CFA francs ($500/450 euros) a month,” said Eneme.
Many statistics on Equatorial Guinea are unavailable but it is estimated that more than two-thirds of the population of this tiny central African state survive on less than $2 (1.8 euros) a day.
– ‘No money to eat’ –
Buena Esperanza was supposedly built to rehouse residents of the nearby shantytown of Nubili, the biggest informal settlement in Malabo.
The name of the new project means “Good Hope” in Spanish — an emotion that many of those living in Nubili may have felt when the scheme was announced.
Thousands of people in Nubili are crammed into tiny shacks erected from rusting corrugated steel or wood, often without safe water, sewage or electricity. Accidental fires are a notorious risk.
But almost a decade since it began, the vast majority of people in Nubili remain stuck.
Elena Oye, a food seller, said that the cost of her dream home turned out to be a nightmare.
“We lost the apartment because we didn’t have enough money. We didn’t even have enough to eat,” she said.
The down payment was the equivalent of $2,500, followed by monthly payments of $120 spread out over a number of years, she said.
Oye said she earns the equivalent of around $200 in a good month, and meeting the needs of her four children is a daily struggle.
“Most housing (in Equatorial Guinea) does not meet minimum standards,” said the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF) in a report.
“Houses are derelict and unsafe, sewage and refuse removal are inadequate, and there is, among other problems, overcrowding and insufficient ventilation.”
A senator, a resident of Buena Esperanza who wished to remain nameless, defended the government’s record.
“Many people who once lived in shanties now have decent homes, like here,” he said.
Information Minister Eugenio Nze Obiang told AFP that the government had taken action.
“When will people stop complaining? There isn’t a country in the world where the government provides free housing,” Obiang said.
“The government has done the best it can by building these homes and cutting prices.”
– ‘Same people profit’ –
The government’s room for manoeuvre has been crimped by the slump in oil prices which began in 2014, badly hitting revenue.
Major construction projects have been cut back and many public housing projects suspended, making homes harder to obtain.
The economic crisis also meant that some people who moved into public housing found themselves on harder times, unable to afford the monthly payments.
In February, the government sought to ease the situation by revising terms of access to the properties and extending credit, thus lowering monthly payments.
“This is really good news for my family,” said Marisol Andeme Esono, a nurse with an upstairs flat in Malabo II, another district of the capital.
Esono said she had been paying the equivalent 300 euros a month, which was roughly equal to her salary, but the rate had been reduced to just over 100 euros.
Rates have also been reduced in Buena Esperanza, although some still complain that the prices are out of reach for many and that the market has been skewed by profiteers.
“Today rich people are buying these lodgings to rent them out,” said Engono Mbo, 40, who gave up his bid for a new home. “It’s always the same people who profit.”
“Social housing is for the middle and upper classes,” said student Estanislao Obiang.