Housing in Ethiopian Secondary Cities: Dilla's Affordable Housing Crisis and Solutions

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Written by Dr Minna Sunikka-Blank (Architecture) & Dr Engida Esayas Dube (Geography, Dilla University)

Access to affordable housing is a significant challenge for low-income households in Ethiopia, as in many rapidly urbanising Eastern African countries. Despite various housing policies, the supply often fails to meet the needs of middle- and low-income populations.

Dilla, a secondary city in South Ethiopia, exemplifies the urgent need for affordable housing. With a population of over 100,000, Dilla serves as a commercial and administrative hub. Such cities so far have been less in the focus of researchers, compared to capital regions. In collaboration with researchers from Dilla University, Dr. Endiga Esayas Dube and Ms. Selamawit Teku, we explored the housing choices of middle- and low-income households in Dilla through three typologies: IHDP condominiums, rent-free ‘guard houses’, and peripheral housing on non-legalized plots.

Our interdisciplinary approach combined architectural and geographical research methods. We conducted fieldwork involving site visits, in-depth interviews, and transect walks. Eighteen households were surveyed, focusing on their economic situation, housing satisfaction, livelihoods and future aspirations.

  1. Typology 1: IHDP Condominiums

Built with modern construction methods, these condominiums have been built under the government’s Integrated Housing Development Programme. However, despite improved comfort and formal access to electricity and water, these units are often seen as temporary solutions. The typology falls short in meeting residents' aspirations for a private compound and ground access.


  2. Typology 2: Rent-Free ‘Guard Houses’

Traditionally built with mud and wood, these houses are usually located on large, privately leased plots and are provided rent-free in exchange for maintenance and guarding the land. They offer large plots and are perceived as a good environment for children. All households living in ‘guard house’ typology housing have an irregular income. The men work on the land-owner’s farm or in the surrounding sites as casual employees while the women stay at home.


  3. Typology 3: Peripheral Housing on Non-Legalized Plots

Peripheral housing is often built on land acquired through informal agreements and these houses lack formal documentation. Despite good physical conditions, they lack official electricity and water connections. Housing in peripheral areas is often associated with urban informalities and social exclusion but in this context Typology 3 is enabling middle-income households to buy a house. Occupant satisfaction was higher than in ‘modern’ IHDP condominiums and the occupiers perceived it as secure.


We found that most households in Dilla have to supplement their income through informal activities. Alarmingly, household expenditures often exceed incomes, forcing families into precarious financial situations. Most households need supplementary income from informal activities even when they are in contractual employment. Some rely on seasonal work (e.g. re-locating for coffee harvesting) and rent-free living arrangements in return for work. Tenure security is seen equally, if not more important, than the physical condition of the housing.

Most middle and low-income households are forced to live out in the urban fringes of the city. The choice for semi-formal housing arrangements in Typologies 2 and 3 can be seen as the citizens’ responses to the policy failure to provide adequate housing.

Our study underlines the necessity of not only acknowledging, repairing and formalizing the existing semi- and informal housing developments but also of proactively planning for peripheral housing developments and future expansion, a strategy with broader applicability to the region and the Global South.

We propose the following policy recommendations:

  • Expand Mortgage and Financing Systems: In the absence of mortgage systems housing has to paid out-of-pocket, and only in few cases an employer or NGO can guarantee a loan. Mortgage banks only exist in larger urban centres. Credit access and tax incentives for private homebuilders should be provided, in collaboration with financial institutions to offer loans.
  • Regulatory Reforms: The results show high level informality of low-income housing modalities, relying on trust and social capital. Tenant rights and transparency in the rental market should be addressed urgently.
  • Government Housing Programs: Public rental housing programs should be prioritised over owner-occupied schemes.
  • Provision of Energy and Water Infrastructure: Access to these basic services for all housing types, particularly in peripheral areas needs to be ensured as part of housing policy.
  • Legalising tenant rights in semi-formal housing developments: The urban expansion into previously rural areas has led to new interests in land use. This requires adaptation of traditional regulations to the new demand. Residents in Typologies 2 and 3 should be guaranteed basic rights to stay on their rented property. This requires legalization of their residence as renters, so they are not dependent on the ‘landlords’ who hold the lease agreement with the government. Instead of demolition, the government should document semi-formal housing developments, acknowledge them, provide service infrastructure and access roads, and anticipate and dictate them in the structural plans.

*This project was funded by the Cambridge Africa ALBORADA Research Fund 2021- 2022

Link to the paper:

Sunikka-Blank, M., Dube, E.E., Teku, S. (2024) Beyond ownership: assessing diverse housing typologies and policy interventions for affordable housing in Dilla, Ethiopia, Review of Regional Research 44(1).